By Aimee Knight
“My family are either accountants, doctors or nurses,” Dennis Leslie says. “I was interested in doing a trade but there were other expectations from my parents.”
Once a student of International Commerce at the University of Adelaide, how did Dennis become one of Adelaide’s most revered executive chefs? First stop: the kitchen sink.
“I was washing dishes at the Hilton, and the exec chef asked if I could help out on the line. It was quite interesting work. I liked the atmosphere and the way people interacted with each other – and having a love for food helped,” Dennis laughs.
Ten years on, Dennis indulges his culinary inclinations almost every day. After commanding the kitchens at Hilton Adelaide and the Botanic Gardens Restaurant, he is now the executive chef at Adelaide Oval’s Hill of Grace Restaurant.
Dennis learned the restaurateur ropes in high-pressure kitchens in the UK. “The hierarchy is the law and you respect the people above you. I learned a lot there,” Dennis says of his time at Dublin’s Seasons Restaurant. “Working with Antonio Carluccio and Raymond Blanc was a standout moment for me. It was kind of like playing basketball with Michael Jordan,” he laughs. Dennis favours a kitchen that smells like team spirit.
“I like people to have a say. There’s more of a mentoring and teaching atmosphere. I’m definitely not running the kitchen old-school style with a lot of shouting. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen. When the pressure’s on, it does come out, but I like to be a bit more hands-on. I get in side-by-side with the younger guys and teach them a few things, run them through the ingredients – how to use it, why we’re using it.”
a mentoring and teaching atmosphere. I’m definitely not running the kitchen old-school style with a lot of shouting. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen. When the pressure’s on, it does come out, but I like to be a bit more hands-on. I get in side-by-side with the younger guys and teach them a few things, run them through the ingredients – how to use it, why we’re using it.”
Dennis also nurtures close, cooperative relationships with his suppliers, praising the produce from Coorong Wild Seafood, Richard Gunner’s Fine Meats, seafood suppler Ferguson Australia, fruit and vegetable wholesaler AMJ Produce Co, bush food supplier Outback Pride and fine food purveyor Scoop, among others.
“I could go on and on!” he says. “We don’t just grab these ingredients. We actually go out there. Last year we went to see Denise at Hindmarsh Valley Dairy several times. We go out at 3 or 4 in the morning to visit AMJ and see all the produce at the crack of dawn. Same with [meat wholesaler] Holco – we’ve done a few trips out there to see where things come from and how it’s packaged to get to us.
“I think it’s important, not just for myself, but for our younger guys to understand where these foods come from and have respect when they’re dealing with the stuff.
“It’s nice to have the ability to do that, and that’s what I love about South Australia. The ease to make a decision and just go. I know that living in London or Ireland, it’s not that easy to hop in a car and go see where your lettuce comes from. On my days off, my wife and I will go visit one of our producers or growers, or a winery.”
Hill of Grace Restaurant is named in honour of Henschke’s exalted shiraz, and Dennis naturally has a healthy list of cellar door recommendations.
“We always go to Alpha Box & Dice, that’s one of our favourites. Samuel’s Gorge is also high on the list. We like Bird in Hand, we’ve been up there a few times. We’re massive, massive fans of Rockford and Henschke down in the Barossa. They’re the mainstays for us, we’ve got a few of them in the rack at home.
“We take visitors from out of town to those places when we get a chance. You can wake up and decide to drive to the Barossa, or McLaren Vale, or the Adelaide Hills. Even going to have breakfast with your mates around the corner. Having lived in the bigger cities, it’s a lot easier to do those things here in Adelaide.
“I still think that we’ve got some of the best coffee too. One of my favourites is De Groot, down Victor Harbor way. Ian Callahan at Bar 9 always does a good brew. They’re two of my favourites, but there are many.”
Dennis’s esteem for his home state is not bound to its food and beverages. “Outside of cooking, I played sports for South Australia, so there’s that pride of being South Aussie, playing against the other states.”
Dennis represented SA on the state lacrosse team and trained with the national squad for a year, all while playing tennis and cricket too. He sacrificed his love of sports to pursue his passion for hospitality, but as fate would have it, his “office” these days at Hill of Grace Restaurant overlooks Adelaide’s foremost sporting venue.
“Unfortunately you don’t get the aerobic fitness levels,” he jokes. “I used to watch the first day of every Test, but I haven’t seen one ball played since I’ve been here!”
For now, he’s content to be hitting sixes with his dishes, and fostering Adelaide’s food culture.
“The dining scene in South Australia is evolving so rapidly, it’s unbelievable. It’s nice to see cafés, bars and restaurants that really hit the mark.
“The city itself is expanding every day. Something new is always popping up. A lot of new ideas are coming into Adelaide, and it’s really, really cool to be part of those.”
Virgin Australia flies to Adelaide from all major Australian cities. Most major hire car companies are at Adelaide Airport.