Hosting a lunch party can be full of pressure, but spare a thought for Bethany Finn, who has the likes of Maggie Beer and Cheong Liew to cater for.
A long lunch with Bethany Finn
There are plenty of stories between the guests at Bethany Finn’s dinner party.
The illustrious gathering is a who’s who of the South Australian food industry, many of whom Bethany has worked in kitchens with over her 40-year career as a chef.
She’s been in the industry long enough to make some talented friends and see a wave of trends.
Although she’s very much a South Australian at heart, Bethany was born in the Northern Territory and spent some of her childhood living in Papua New Guinea.
Bethany’s palate has always been a map of memories and travels from throughout her life. She vividly remembers the tastes she experienced the first time she ate a bacon sandwich – on a swing in Papua New Guinea.
“It was a revelation and the best thing I’d ever tasted,” she says.
The thought of chocolate cake takes her back to her grandmother in London and there was something powerful about a masala dosa served in a banana leaf in an Indian market.
Bethany says she learnt to cook by osmosis – her mother and grandmother were beautiful cooks and her philosophies were formed early in life.
“It was always about nutrition and always a balanced diet. There wasn’t any sugar in the house – no lollies or biscuits. It was just about being healthy and sitting at a dinner table and sharing stories.”
Although her parents are English, the cuisines served at Bethany’s dinner table were wonderfully multicultural.
“Mum could cook anything; it was normal to be having braised goat or octopus. My parents loved great food and wine and that really set it up for me,” Bethany says.
“I told my mum I wanted to be a chef – keeping in mind it wasn’t very cool in 1980. She said, ‘It’s a very male-dominated industry and you do realise you’ll be working nights and weekends and you’re standing up and it’s hot and dirty. Are you sure you want to do that?’
“But I loved it and I was prepared to work for it. I truly enjoyed the company and what I was creating.”
All of Bethany’s training was done in SA and she did her apprenticeship at a Spanish restaurant on Unley Road before moving on to the newly-built Windy Point Restaurant.
While she loved the culture here in Adelaide, Bethany soon became fidgety and moved to London.
“I got there and went, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got so much to learn’,” she says.
“It was the proper kitchen brigade and it was a good system to learn because people were specialising in sauces or fish or vegetables or desserts.
“It’s not like here where it was multi-skilled and you have to do everything to survive. It was very specific.”
Bethany packed up all she’d learnt and moved back home, becoming the Hilton Adelaide’s first female executive chef at just 27 years of age. Although she’d just returned from the kitchens of London, she says The Grange restaurant at the hotel may have been the most intimidating place she worked as one of very few females.
“But they had great systems; it was a wonderful place to work and set me up to open my own restaurants, and then bring restaurants and hotels together to open up Mayfair and make it unique.”
When she opened her restaurant, Urban Bistro with husband Spencer Cole, Bethany had an 18-month-old at home and felt the pressure of the statistic that most hospitality venues last just two years and don’t make a lot of money.
But soon the reviews began rolling in, and they were positive and wide-reaching. Bethany would get calls from friends around the world letting her know they’d seen a piece on her restaurant in a magazine in New York or London.
“It was scary and a massive risk, so I think 12 years in my own restaurants is a massive success,” she says.
When the 12 years was up, Bethany embarked on a new project as head chef at the Mayfair. She was on board a year before it even opened, bringing with her several team members from the restaurant.
When the hospitality sector took a hit after COVID struck, Bethany began to re-evaluate.
“I thought, ‘This is going to take a while to get back on track’.”
A friend she’d worked with in London in the ’80s and also at the Hilton for many years, Trevor Cook, opened the door to the kitchen in the aged care industry.
She’s now the executive chef in residence at Life Care, overseeing the kitchen of new boutique assisted living apartments, Gaynes Park Suites in Joslin.
Bethany says there’s nothing quite like hospitality in that pressure-cooker environment, calling it “the real deal”. But she describes herself as making the transition from the real deal into reality.
“You’re not just producing food that you feel good about. It’s reality and it’s very rewarding.
“For a person who’s just loved hospitality, it’s taken me a while to get off that roundabout, but I’m actually really enjoying it.
“And at the end of the day, when you’re preparing a meal for guests in a restaurant or in aged care, you only want them to be happy.
“What has been really interesting is the support network. You share information and work together. In restaurants, you’ve got your secret recipe that makes you more competitive and it’s, ‘I’m not going to tell you how I survive’. But in aged care, you share that knowledge and it makes you stronger as a whole unit.”
For her guests today, Bethany is serving a menu with several dishes that feature at Life Care and it’s clear she is truly setting out to make change in the industry. Her aim is to put out a menu each season that is fresh, hearty and homestyle – a reflection of the menus she’s always done.
While there’s something to be said for fine dining – and Bethany has plated up her fair share of fine food – she’s adamant that homestyle isn’t a step down.
“Jamie Oliver does homestyle cooking and it’s the biggest global marketing machine in the industry,” she says.
“Shepherd’s pie can be a really great thing. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel; I’m just trying to do it really well.
“Food should be incredible. It doesn’t matter which segment of the food market it is – whether it’s a cocktail party, a wedding, aged care, five star or bistro.”
Around Bethany’s table sit legends of the food industry. She met Cheong Liew when they worked hand-in-hand at the Hilton for 11 years, during which time The Grange was named Restaurant of the Year by Gourmet Traveller.
Trevor, who extended the invitation into the industry, is of course invited, along with hospitality consultant and chef Ellis Wilkinson, also in aged care.
Anthony Julianto teaches commercial cookery at Meridian Vocational College and Bethany met him through the Mayfair.
Openly passionate about aged care, Maggie Beer and Bethany have crossed paths many times.
“I think what she’s done is a game-changer,” Maggie says of Bethany’s work.
“Coming into aged care with her credibility and her skill and saying, ‘I’ll come if I can bring other chefs.’ That’s sort of a big step over a mountain.”
Trevor says that when he first started in aged care, the industry was crying out for skilled hospitality workers, but it’s coming along now.
“It needs to be an industry that attracts skilled chefs and it’s slowly doing that. Chefs are seeing there is an avenue for a career in aged care,” Trevor says.
“We should applaud all the good ones, that’s really important, because we need it to be an industry of choice,” Maggie adds.
Everyone around the table has been in the hospitality industry for a long time and several, in their own ways, are helping to change food in aged care. It’s a great chance for Bethany to show them all what she’s doing at Life Care.
On the menu today are starters with fresh, tasty ingredients. There’s white anchovy and gribiche on ciabatta, prawn cocktail rolls, snapper cakes and leek croquettes – made with a fondue filling that Cheong used in a dish at The Grange – barramundi with cuttlefish shavings and the leek fondue.
The beautiful fresh colours of the main dishes hit the table and, as Bethany prefers, the guests are welcome to serve themselves.
Buffalo mozzarella sits perfectly with heritage tomato and radicchio. The Thai chicken salad zings with green mango, mint and toasted peanuts.
From the Life Care menu, the pesto orecchiette with peas, broccoli, broad beans and pine nuts balances hearty and fresh. Topping it off is a slow-cooked lamb shoulder with lima beans.
As much as Bethany loves a healthy menu, there’s always room for a treat and, for dessert, she serves choux buns with burnt fig honeycomb caramel ice cream and fresh figs.
The ice cream, of course, is Maggie Beer’s. She wanders into the kitchen as Bethany is preparing and notes that the product will be perfect for serving in 15 minutes when it softens slightly.
Bethany chats about the community at Life Care, not only with her kitchen staff, but also the residents. She runs cooking classes and the nonnas will sometimes make fresh gnocchi with her.
“Someone said to me the other day, ‘Don’t you miss hospitality?’ I said, ‘I still feel guilty for having weekends for myself’.”
This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of SALIFE magazine.
including free delivery to your door.