The Women of Oz

. November 11, 2014
The Women of Oz

Four of Australia's top chefs are flying in this weekend for SKYCITY's Dining For a Difference event. We seized upon the opportunity to ask Christine Manfield, O Tama Carey, Nicky Riemer and Philippa Sibley about their varied culinary histories...

SKYCITY Dining for a Difference is one of the most spectacular dining events of the year. Chef Peter Gordon came up with the concept as a vehicle for raising money for Leukaemia and Blood Cancer New Zealand, after his sister Tracey fought acute myeloid leukaemia in March 1995, having successfully received bone marrow from Peter.

13 of the world's top chefs each prepare a four course meal for 23 people. A lottery takes place to determine which chef will cook for which table, meaning 13 different dining experiences take place in one room. 

One of the most exciting things about this year's event is the line up of chefs - from local heroes such as Cazador's Dariush Lolaiy, Masu's Nic Watt and Ponsonby Road Bistro's Sarah Conway to Anna Hansen from London restaurant The Modern Pantry, and four top Australian chefs introduced below - it's a who's who of culinary talent. 

We were lucky enough to talk to the Australian contingent - four fabulous chefs from Sydney and Melbourne...

Christine Manfield, Sydney 

One of Australia's most celebrated chefs, Christine's style is hard to define in one sentence. Characterised by a culinary melting pot of evocative flavours and textural nuance, it's no suprise to learn she's a keen traveller. Her passion has been well documented in a series of successful books, which share recipes from across the world. 

With three ground-breaking, award-winning restaurants under her belt - Paramount in Sydney, [email protected] in London and Universal in Sydney - a newly released anthology of dessert recipes from Universal (Dessert Divas) and a range of spice pastes and condiments on sale across Australia, she's an accomplished woman. 

Are you able to pinpoint one pivotal experience that has shaped the way in which you see food today?

No - there are so many varying factors and events that shape what I do and how I got there - and how I approach my work - but expansive travel is probably the greatest factor that influences how I think and my food philosophy. Anything to avoid mediocrity and being myopic.

At what point did you decide to make food your career?

While I was travelling and living in Paris after having quit my career as a teacher in South Australia - I returned to Australia to start cooking. 

What are the most challenging things about the industry where you live? 

Staff shortages, lack of skill set, finding the right staff, loyalty, government over-regulation that inhibits potential business creativity.

What does Dining for a Difference mean to you?

It's a wonderful opportunity to work with Peter Gordon and respected colleagues in the kitchen. The format of only cooking for 23 people each makes it a real joy - we can really showcase our work at its best and it gives greater options for menu planning. The money goes to such a great cause. 

What can diners at your table look forward to on the evening?

Tantalising and refreshing flavours and textural combinations with the iconic Gaytime Goes Nuts for dessert. 


Nicky Riemer, Union Dining, Melbourne 

Nicky Riemer is regarded as one of Australia’s leading chefs and is the proud co-owner and head chef of Union Dining in Richmond, Melbourne. With a hotelier for a father, her passion for hospitality began at a young age. The draw of this experience was so strong, that two years into a chemical engineering degree she left to pursue her passion for food. She has headed prestigious kitchens in Melbourne and overseas, and today is proud to run an award-winning restaurant. 

Are you able to pinpoint one pivotal experience that has shaped the way in which you see food today?

I think it was my very first shift working for Stephanie Alexander at her restaurant, Stephanie’s, way back in 1994. I walked in to the kitchen and Stephanie was there in her chefs whites and asked me to peel warm kipfler potatoes with her. It was the way she worked with simple, wonderful, produce - technique and respect of the product were utmost, and it made me always want to treat produce with such reverence.

At what point did you decide to make food your career?

I was taking time away from studying an engineering degree, working as a waiter, getting in trouble for hanging around the chefs too much…I just loved what they did! I started an apprenticeship at 22 and never looked back!

What are the most challenging things about the industry where you live?

As a small business owner (we only operate one restaurant that has a main dining room, bar, terrace and event space within one building) the biggest challenge is looking after the wellbeing of my staff and balancing that with the needs of operating a restaurant and the costs involved. I love this life!!

What does Dining for a Difference mean to you?

An opportunity to raise funds for wonderful work in the best way I know how, being generous with food!!!

What can diners at your table look forward to on the evening?

I am bringing a little of what I do at Union Dining - provincial style European cooking. Generous and flavoursome! 

What one question do you wish you got asked more often?

When will you cook for me again?


O Tama Carey, Berta, Sydney

Tama is the head chef of Italian bar and restaurant, Berta. Conveived by Andrew Cibej, leader of the Vini Empire, she has been instrumental in the conception and the culture of the restaurant from the very start. A firm believer in working closely with small independent producers and celebrating local nature, in her time she has nurtured bees on the restaurant rooftop, raised her own pigs for salumi and taught classes on everything from pasta to pickling. 

Are you able to pinpoint one pivotal experience that has shaped the way in which you see food today?

When I was growing up I was a very picky eater and went through a long stage of not really eating very much at all, then slowly I think I finally just got hungry. From then there were many specific food memories, tasting certain flavours and a feeling of the conviviality of eating and sharing food. 

At what point did you decide to make food your career?

Cooking in a kitchen was something that happened to me quite by accident but I took to it and enjoyed it straight away. It wasn't until a good few years into though that I realised how much I loved it and realised that it was what I really wanted to do - it was a combination of the produce we were using, the people I was working with and the passion of my boss that did it.

What are the most challenging things about the industry where you live?

I think the challenges that chefs or people running restaurants face is fairly universal; there's the long and relentless hours, the constant battle to find staff, the eternal quest to maintain standards in produce, food and service and the fact that it's a job that generally becomes the focus of your life.

What does Dining for a Difference mean to you?

I feel very lucky to be a capable human in the world doing what I love and enjoying life and it's a great privilege to be able to use the skills I have to help others and give back in some way. 

What can diners at your table look forward to on the evening?

A delicious meal that will hopefully contain flavours and textures to delight them.

What one question do you wish you got asked more often?

What would you like me to feed you?


Philippa Sibley, Prix Fixe, Melbourne

Philippa has earned a reputation in Australia for her impressive desserts, but there's a lot more to her than sweets. With experience in some of the world's best kitchens - from La Gavroche, Est, Quaglino's and Harvey's in London to La Cote Saint Jacques in France - she has consistently put her knowledge and natural flair for flavours sweet and savoury to use in her home country.

Progressing from award-winning restaurant to award-winning restaurant, she's now both owner and chef at Restaurant of the Year nominated Prix Fixe Dining. She has also authored too cookbooks - PS Desserts and New Classics

At what point did you decide to make food your career?

My original inspiration was my upbringing. My mother is, and has always been, a passionate and driven foodie and entertainer. When I was growing up, my parents' dinner parties were epic; the stuff of legend! So began my love of entertaining. Luckily I became obsessed with cooking to match. I devoured cookbooks and magazines and demanded to take over at least half the week of cooking for the family. 

What does dining for a difference mean to you?

Dining with a Difference is obviously a wonderful cause and I am delighted to be involved. It also means my sister (and assistant) gets to visit Auckland (where our Mum grew up) for the first time. I get to catch up with some old pals, first and for-most Chris Manfield. Will meet Peter Gordon and I'm sure many other great fabulous chefs!

What can diners at your table expect?

I'll be cooking with local seasonal ingredients including salmon, mussels and venison, keeping them fresh and clean and a little bit quirky which I've become know for… dessert will be especially fun!

Although Philippa Sibley has earned a reputation as one of Australia’s finest dessert and pastry chefs, and is often hailed as Melbourne’s dessert queen, there’s a lot more to Philippa than just sweets.