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Monday, April 12, 2021

Young Ainslie chef named Australian School-based Apprentice of the Year

Sebastian Connor prepping for the Friday night dinner crowd. Image: Kerrie Brewer

Walking into Pilot. Restaurant + Bar first thing in the morning, it already smells good.

At the door, Australian School-based Apprentice of the Year, Sebastian Connor, explains the inviting aromas.

“There’s stock in the oven and some pork cooking on the back shelf as well,” Connor says.

“And we have black garlic – do you know how to make black garlic?

“In an old rice cooker, you just leave it on ‘keep warm’ for six weeks, with just the garlic.

“It’s quite the black garlic production back there.”

Not many Year 12 students would sign up to work late nights every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but the former Canberra Healthy Teen Chef award winner says he skips a lot of college house parties to pursue his passion for cooking.  

In fact, Connor was working his regular shift at Pilot. Restaurant + Bar during the virtual ceremony for the Australian Training Awards on Friday 20 November.

It was only when his parents appeared at the pass where he stood busily prepping desserts that he heard the good news.

The Dickson College and Canberra Institute of Technology student says he started his culinary apprenticeship at another restaurant until he decided it was time to go further and push himself.

Pilot. Bar + Restaurant. Image: Kerrie Brewer

Just down the road from his house, Pilot. is led by a trio with a combined wealth of experience to invest in Canberra’s food community, and to teach Connor.

Co-owners, Dash Rumble and Ross McQuinn, and head chef Malcolm Hanslow, have each worked at standout dining spots in Sydney, including Momofuku Seiobo, Automata, Fish Butchery, Oscillate Wildly and Ester.

“I came here for dinner one day, and I thought it was amazing,” Connor says.

“The stuff the chefs do is really cool and innovative and probably, I would say, one of the best restaurants in Canberra to be at.”

Pilot. agreed to let Connor come on board temporarily to complete a stagiaire, a French term for unpaid work experience where a chef or trainee works briefly for free, to learn and be exposed to new techniques and cuisines.

“And it was really handy, that week that I was there the pot washer quit his job, so I got to be the pot washer.”

Connor worked at the sink for a few months, which was a busy role given a sitting of 60 people for a 10-course degustation equated to more than 600 dishes.

“And then eventually I asked them to take me on as an apprentice, and they did, so I was really lucky.”

Connor has worked as apprentice since February and says everything at Pilot. is challenging in a good way.

“There’s always new stuff to learn and there’s an extremely high standard to work to, which I really enjoy.”

When Canberra went into lockdown, the restaurant temporarily switched to a takeaway model which was a good opportunity for Connor.

“Doing takeaway, we did food that was a little bit less intense, a little bit less elevated, but it meant I got a chance to really cook.

“I know absolutely nothing compared to these guys – I’ve been cooking at this level for five or six months and they’ve been cooking for 10, 13 years.

“Everything’s hard and intense so that we can learn, and we can get better, so we can be the best we can be.

“And so that we can produce great food.”

The tools of the trade. Image: Kerrie Brewer

Dickson College principal Craig Edwards says Connor is a great example of a student who has been able to explore multiple pathways while at college, by studying vocational and tertiary streams simultaneously.

“Sometimes we think in dichotomies – that VET students don’t go off to university,”

“Our ACT system is really quite flexible, there’s a lot of choice in terms of curriculum and pathways.

“He explored all those and kept all his options open.”

Connor received an early, unconditional offer from the Australian National University to study a Bachelor of Environmental Science.

His current plan is to defer and work full-time at Pilot. for a year here, and then see what happens.

“I’ll still have the offer if I want to go to ANU, but I’m pretty sure I want to work here and pursue becoming a chef.”

“That’s the dream.”

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