Balwyn Canteen Part II: Didier Richard and the Value of a Chef

25 May, 2020

This is part two of a two part feature on Whitehorse Road's overachiever, Balwyn Canteen. Balwyn Canteen Part I: a Modern Take on an Old-School Vibe can be read here. 

Didier Richard answers to ‘DJ’, and with his wife Adela, he owns and operates Balwyn Canteen. In just over 18 months Balwyn Canteen has carved a reputation as the Eastern-Suburbs cheat-meal Mecca; a known destination for those seeking calorie-density and decadence. However, equating food of indulgence with food of questionable quality is assumptive and erroneous. At Balwyn Canteen, everything is made fresh and in-house, carefully formulated and prepared with a suitable balance of experience and flare.

make or break, I wanted to showcase what I could do

“I come from a family of pastry chefs, so I believe the skill was ingrained in me”. After graduating from high school DJ apportioned his time between kitchen-handing and acquiring the formal qualifications of his trade, the precursor for an exhaustive 12-year stint working “in many Melbourne restaurants and cafes for long hours and little pay”, but the value existed in the experience acquired, not only in the preparation of food but the hard and soft skills necessary to successful business operations.

DJ sighted the opening of 'Heroes Burger Diner' in Hampton Park in 2015 as a self-proving ground, a test to determine that he had the nous to satisfy the demands and rigours of hospitality business ownership, “make or break, I wanted to showcase what I could do”. 'Heroes' was a success, but more importantly for DJ, it was the catalyst for a shift in mentality, a coming of age crowned with a matured realisation of self-worth and the value of his capabilities, experience and ardour. “Many of my previous bosses did not understand the value of a chef. The small percentage of talented ones are not replaceable. They are the ones that usually own their own businesses, they rarely work for others.”

our style is a modern take on old-school vibes

DJ and Adela cut the tape and opened the doors to Balwyn Canteen in October 2018, and with it was presented another opportunity for DJ to “flex my culinary talents.” By this time, the Melbourne Burger craze had passed its peak, leaving a “saturated burger scene”.  The state of the market, in combination with an hereditary inclination for the art of baking served to shape the form and direction of Balwyn Canteen; “we wanted to do a smaller takeaway business. The last concept (Heroes) was mostly burgers but we wanted to create a donut brand.” DJ has drawn on a multitude of influences, in turn giving Balwyn Canteen a rare individuality, “our style is a modern take on old-school vibes. We take parts of American diner, and feed it into a milk-bar concept. Donuts, burgers, milkshakes and sweets, essentially, all of our favourite childhood memories.”

The route determined for Balwyn Canteen referenced DJs passion as the compass. “I love cooking and baking and this kind of food allows me to do both.” Balwyn’s donuts have earned acclaim amongst the fried dough connoisseurs of Melbourne, but the artistry of the process should not be downplayed, “Baking is extremely difficult. A good baker knows what adjustments to make depending on the weather outside or humidity of the room. Different equipment requires different mixing times, and you need the knowledge to make the necessary small tweaks and adjustments.” However, DJ is but another generation in a lineage of skilled bakers “I worked alongside my father for one year to hone the skill. The Brioche recipe we used is 50 years old, and was passed down to me by him.

the market was becoming saturated and the skill was lost

Melbourne’s hospitality industry is congested and ruthlessly competitive. Fit-out expenditures have trended toward the exorbitant, and are representative of a growing superficiality. The currency of experience and passion have devalued against the ability to craft a brand and image with marketable charisma and pull. However, DJ believes the instability brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has served to restore a more honest balance, and uncover the value of the chef and seasoned operator. “Covid has stopped pretenders thinking about coming into the hospitality space in the near future. The problem was that the market was becoming saturated and the skill was lost. Too many offerings with no value. Many people wanted to open up shops for the glam and not the passion. They got caught out. The talented operators always find ways to keep their businesses going, if they haven’t done so already. As there is so much negativity about it, I believe it will carve the path to a brighter future for our industry.”

All photos are courtesy of Balwyn Canteen

Balwyn Canteen

WED TO SUN : 11AM - 9PM

262 Whitehorse Road, Balwyn

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