Flavour Driven - Damian Heads – A Profile

By Franz Scheurer


Damian was born in Brisbane in 1976 and his earliest memories of food are his mum’s tuna spaghetti and his grandma’s orange tart. His involvement with commercial cooking started earlier than most when he started grilling sausages and steaks at the roadhouse at Ban Ban Springs at the tender age of twelve. His next-door neighbour owned a café and Damien helped out regularly on weekends. When the neighbour sold the café and bought a restaurant it was a natural progression for Damian, now fifteen, to man the bar or wait on tables. At sixteen he managed to get a job at the Tivoli Theatre Restaurant and this was his first experience of silver service. Someone suggested he should make a career out of hospitality and someone knew someone else at the Hilton and at sixteen Damian started as busboy at the Brisbane Hilton, looking after the buffet, liaising between front of house and the kitchen.


Damian quickly formed a bond with the rough and tumble kitchen team and, loving the atmosphere, he decided the kitchen was the place he wanted to be. Head-chef at that time was Herbert Franceschini, (in Damian’s words ‘a hard-arsed Bavarian’) who offered him an apprenticeship. Four years under a knowledgeable disciplinarian, at a time when hotel kitchens still had a pastry kitchen and a butchery, no doubt shaped Damian’s in-depth knowledge, work attitude and probably made him just as exacting and just as much of a stickler for attention to detail as his first mentor.


With the recklessness of youth Damian left Brisbane for London without any real plans two days after he successfully finished his apprenticeship, but with a natural unstoppable thirst to learn.


His first encounter with a European kitchen was at the restaurant ‘Bank’ in Aldwych where seven hundred covers a day were the norm for a kitchen with fourteen chefs on the pass and a brigade of fifty behind them under the watchful eyes of head-chef Tim Hughes (now with Marco Pierre White).


Damian then worked for a short time at the Marriott County Hall then managed to get a job with Gordon Ramsay. He lasted three days and several thousand four-letter expletives until making the fatal mistake of not knowing that ‘Coquilles St. Jacques’ were the same as scallops. He ended up at the Dalmahoy Resort in Edinburgh where he learnt all about fresh Scottish produce and was introduced to foraging for wild ingredients like mushrooms, berries etc. He met Nick Nairn and many other Scottish chefs and by the expression on his face when he relives this time he must have had a ball. He then embarked on a culinary study trip, ended up backpacking around the continent and, due to lack of finances, testing the street and market food far more than the fine dining establishments. A week at the River Café at the very end of his European journey set the scene for his return to Australia. His main reason for returning was the Olympics. Damian simply knew that he wanted to be here for the experience. Working for Xavier Mouche at the Bennelong he certainly was in the midst of it all. His next job, with Hugh Whitehouse at Milson’s, although a little quieter was where he learnt a lot - working in the cold larder and in pastry. It was here that Damian developed his quest for flavour, the one entity that drives him today. According to Damian, flavour is everything. Developing, nurturing and pushing flavour to the utmost, without adulterating or masking, is his goal. It’s what makes him tick and where his passion lies. When the owner of Milson’s asked him to be Head-chef at the new Garfish he first said no, then eventually reluctantly agreed. Little did he know that this would be the job that would get his name out into the public. A favourable review, another write up including him as one of ten chefs to watch, then crowning it all by winning the Josephine Pignolet Award made the restaurant so popular that he worked ninety hours a week, every week until July 2003 when he left for his well-earned study trip.


By now Damian realised that it was not recipes he was after but the secret of the whole package. He spent his award money visiting restaurants where the whole package was obviously the key to their success. He visited Zuma, the place where he encountered the best flavours of his life, enjoyed the fusion at Provedore, the molecular gastronomy at the Fat Duck, the modern French food of St. Pierre’s and went to the Hotel Maurice in Paris to immerse himself in the old-world ambience of a venerable old establishment unlike anything found in the New World.


When he returned to Sydney in January 2004 it was Damien Pignolet who took him under his wings and offered invaluable culinary and business advice and eventually recommended him to Greg Duncan for the position of Head-chef at Fuel, which he now holds.


Damien ate his most memorable meal, so far, at his 21st birthday party at the ‘Manoir Aux Quatre Saisons’, his first real encounter with fine dining of that level. His favourite food is prepared at Zuma where the food is flavour-focused like nowhere else he’s been and the Fat Duck is his favourite for novelty value. 


In the future Damian sees a restaurant of his own, preferably in his native Brisbane, using the Garfish concept, which he thinks is perfect for Australia, its people and climate. In the meantime he’s transformed the menu at Fuel into a, you guessed it, flavour-driven list of dishes that appeal and allure. His love of what appears to be simple fare is lifted from good to exquisite by the flavour-focus, true to his belief in what the dishes should taste like.

Damian I salute you!