Long before he’d ever heard of homard or herbes de Provence, a teenage Shannon Kellam would rise before the crack of dawn to work as a strapper at the Deagon racecourse before school.
The young Strathpine resident had already decided not to follow in the footsteps of his father and two older brothers and become a mechanic. Horse training, he reckoned, might be more his thing.
So how then, did he end up a culinary Olympian, one of the nation’s most awarded French-cuisine chefs?
He admits never giving French cuisine a single thought during his childhood.
He had, however, baked a few cakes with his grandmother, enjoyed the precision required, and this was enough to lure him into a pre-vocational cooking course after he finished high school.
Which had him at bonjour.
Suddenly a world cracked open that he hadn’t known existed.
“I started reading and reading and reading,” he says.
“I made a point of knowing classical terms and even where the word had come from.
“In school I never studied French and but now I was reading all I could … Escoffier, Larousse, Careme … “
Kellam’s rise from mechanic’s son to gold-medallist chef really took off with an apprenticeship at Sandgate restaurant Raphael’s. Launched by French chef Rick Stephen in the early ’80s, the restaurant in the old 1889 Masonic Hall overlooking the ocean helped put the sleepy bayside suburb on the map.
Kellam’s stamina was tested from the start with six long days in the kitchen and study on his day off.
“We didn’t even have a washing machine in those days at Raphael’s – my last job every day was to boil all the tea towels and hang them on the line in the alley way ready for the next day.”
It was Stephen who encouraged Kellam to enter his first competition – at the Queensland cooking championships at the RNA showgrounds for which he won gold and silver. He loved the way a competition brought sharp focus and discipline to his cooking.
It was to be the start of a memorable competitive cooking career spangled with awards, starting with National Apprentice of the Year while at Dennisons at the Sheraton (now Sofitel) in the 1990s.
In 2005, Kellam was named in the Australian team to prepare for the 2008 Culinary Olympics in Germany, the oldest such event in the world. The team put in three years’ preparation, with regular training sessions in Melbourne. Unlike many other competing nations, Australian chefs do not receive government support so fundraising was also fit in around their working lives.
At that 2008 event, the young chef was among more than 3000 from 72 nations preparing dishes over several days.
There were some mind-boggling logistics involved.
“We had to get live marron all the way from WA to Frankfurt, for 110 people and it had to arrive the day before and it had to be perfect,” Kellam says.
“We had to get their government to talk to our government to approve it.”
“Nothing quite prepares you for it,” Kellam says.
Nor could anything have prepared the team for winning gold in the main event, the Restaurant of Nations, either. Stephen was the team manager, as he was when Australia had last won the event in 1992.
Kellam would go on to compete again in the Culinary Olympics in 2012 and also twice (2013 and 2015) in the famed Bocuse d’Or, a prestigious biennial competition started in 1987 by acclaimed French chef Paul Bocuse.
Kellam cites spending a day with Bocuse at his famous Lyon restaurant as a career highlight, among several months-long training stints spent in the kitchens of other revered French chefs.
The connections made and techniques honed during those years pushed him to new heights at his day job at the Brisbane Club, where he would frequently be running the kitchen as executive chef from abroad.
In 2014, he finished fourth at Global Chef in Norway. The following year’s Bocuse d’Or would be his last competition, but it had been a brave decision to even get there.
Selected by formidable French chef Thierry Galichet to take over his loved Paddington bistro Montrachet, Kellam recalls breaking the news to Galichet in 2013 that he couldn’t take over right away, preparing as he would be for the 2015 Bocuse d’Or.
“I was just back from France,” Kellam says. “I’d already told (partner) Clare I was doing the Bocuse again, now I had to face Thierry. He walked out of the kitchen with his tongs and I told him I was doing the Bocuse d’Or again and I’ll never forget it – customers either side of me … and he threw his tongs on the bench and said ‘WHAT? BULLSHIT!'”
“He was upset but I said Thierry I’ve got to do it again and I’d really like it if you could wait.”
Kellam kept his word, hanging up his competitive apron in 2015, finishing with 92 medals in 22 years of competing.
When he and his partner eventually did take over Montrachet in April 2015, they wanted a gentle transition for the loyal clientele. Kellam retained the classics while floating out his own list of beautiful French produce-driven dishes.
“I just wanted people to talk amongst themselves and slowly the dining room got busy again,” he says.
The Friday night Supper Club – with a different set menu every week – has a devoted following and the restaurant’s reputation has climbed in Sydney and Melbourne with a quarter of all Montrachet’s diners visitors now from interstate.
The couple continue to push into new terrain, such as the Montrachet Experience on Stradbroke Day (June 10) in the historic Tote Room at Eagle Farm Race Course. And there’ll be a “Montrachet pop-up” at three Saturdays of this year’s Winter Racing Carnival.
So the horse-loving lad from Strathpine has found a way back to the track, albeit via France and plenty of other adventures along the way.
Such as in 2013 when, having been invited by the royal family of Dubai to compete in the Culinary World Cup, he found out he’d won the event.
“I don’t drink very often but that night I did,” Kellam recalls.
“We were in this resort, two hours out of Dubai, and this was the big closing ceremony, hundreds of people, a feast laid out on carpets on the sand and all this entertainment going on.
“I’d just been handed an envelope with the prizemoney, tens of thousands, by a Sheik – it was all surreal.”
Guided horse and camel rides were being offered to the guests and Kellam asked if he might take one out on his own.
“Can you ride?”
“Yes I can.”
And the next minute he was bolting through the gates, in his suit, towards a thousand moon-lit dunes, coming to a halt at the edge of the desert.
“At that moment, I thought it really was a long way away from where I’d come from.”