Ben Milbourne on life after MasterChef

Ben Milbourne

Experienced campers take an extra pair of socks and a pocketknife when they travel, but for Ben Milbourne and his father, it was always Nestlé Coffee & Milk.

“The first coffee I ever remember having was out of a tube. It was the early 90s and I was just six years old. My dad introduced me to this sweet Vietnamese-like iced coffee with lots of sugar that we warmed over the fire when we were out camping or fishing. For a kid, it was phenomenal. Dad loved it, so I loved it too,” Ben tells BeanScene.

His coffee choices have matured over the years, but Ben says if he’s ever out fishing or camping with his own kids, there’s no hesitation that the tube of Nestlé comes with them.

“It will never change. It doesn’t matter how far advanced I get in the food industry or how much better coffee dad gets his hands on, we still drink tube coffee when we’re together. It just emotes those childhood camping memories,” he says.

Ben is more than happy to enjoy a French Press or percolated coffee with his wife each morning in their Tasmanian home in Devonport, but for a guaranteed café quality experience, he heads to local shop Fundamental Espresso or visits Rhys the barista at Laneway.

“These baristas really know what they’re doing. They have X factor knowledge as a result of being around the [coffee] machine all day. They don’t run the shots too long, and they use quality beans that aren’t over roasted, bitter or burnt,” he says.

“You go down a rabbit hole with the baristas talking about the bean, terroir and flavour notes. I like drinking a coffee when I can taste the flavours the baristas are talking about – something soft, smooth, lightly roasted, and fresh. When it’s made well, I savour it and talk about it the way I do with wine.”

Ben says during the past two years, these local cafés have served the community with more than just good coffee.

“People don’t just get their coffee and go. They stay and have a chat before they head off to work. Sometimes, it’s just a three- or four-minute chat, but you see your local barista nearly every day. I often feel like I know more about what’s happening in Rhys’ business [at Fundamental] then I do in my own brother and sister’s lives,” he says.

It’s for this reason that Ben made a conscience effort to support his local cafés during the pandemic.

“We need to buy local, shop local, and support local. I knew that if I wanted to keep drinking great coffee at my favourite café once the pandemic cleared, I needed to do my part,” he says. “People took on that mantra and there’s been a real shift in focus in making sure our local venues are alive at the end of this. If they are, it’s something everyone can be proud of.”

When Ben’s not in Devonport he enjoys visiting his brother in Melbourne where he says he’s always guaranteed a first-class coffee experience.

“There’s good coffee everywhere in Melbourne but then in certain places there’s phenomenal coffee,” Ben says. “I remember going to Manchester Press about five or six years ago and it was the first time I had a single origin coffee. The barista said the flavour notes were like blueberry and it was exactly like drinking a blueberry smoothie. It was the first time I thought, ‘coffee does have terroir. It does have a flavour profile that’s not just coffee’.”

With Melbourne raising the coffee stakes, Ben says anything outside that standard is disappointing. He puts a trip to Italy in that category after realising its version of cappuccino was not a scratch on Australia’s milk-based coffee quality. Spain, on the other hand, was interesting and familiar, he says, served black with a hint of sweetness.

“As much as coffee is about the drink, it’s also about the ritual. Every morning in Spain we would gather around the fire for a chat, and everyone would have a cup in their hand. It’s that coffee culture that drives culture – be it in Devonport or Spain,” Ben says.

“The best coffee – and I think a lot of Australians say this whether they’ve been overseas or not – is Australian coffee. I’ve been to Portugal, Italy, Spain, the United States, Mexico, and Australian coffee is simply better than anywhere else in the world. I may be a little bias but we’re so lucky to have grown up with this culture of coffee quality.”

When he’s not consuming coffee, Ben enjoys experimenting with it in the kitchen, pairing it with whisky and blueberry syrup over ice cream, as a meat rub, or as the basis of a crème fraiche.

“Coffee is a bit like salt and pepper and other seasonings where it actually intensifies other flavours in a dish, like wine does. A grape can taste like 150 different things and so can coffee. I often think ‘how is that possible?’ I just love the science and culture around it,” Ben says.

It was this love for science that drove Ben to become a science teacher for eight years in Brisbane prior to his culinary calling.

“I didn’t leave teaching because I didn’t enjoy it or didn’t want to do it. I actually loved what I was doing, it just so happened that this opportunity to go on MasterChef came along and, as they say, the rest is history,” says Ben, appearing in season four of the reality cooking show.

“I like to think I’m teaching now, just on another scale through the shows we do [Food Lab and Left off the Map] and the exposure to new things that I try to teach the audience. Education can come from anywhere. You don’t have to be in a classroom environment to learn about the things around you.”

Ben’s exposure to food at a young age was first around ingredients thanks to his dad, whom he says is a fantastic seafood cook, then the process of cooking and creating thanks to his grandma who showed him how enjoyable putting ingredients together could be.

“Being Tasmanian and having access to amazing produce, I liked the experience and process of going fishing, diving, or going into our backyard pulling out radishes, strawberries or raspberries. It was more the gathering process that I loved, the cooking came later,” he says.

It’s that enjoyment that has helped build Ben’s nontraditional culinary career. In the 10 years he’s worked in the industry, Ben has ticked all the boxes: restaurateur, business operator, head chef, and now culinary curator and executive at Peacock and Jones in Hobart.

“The thing I get the most enjoyment from is running the pass on a busy Saturday night when you’re really proud of the food going out and everyone’s having a great time. Nothing beats that feeling. It gets my adrenaline pumping,” Ben says.

“I have no qualifications to do what I’m doing now, but every time there was an opportunity, I took it. Then the next time there was an opportunity, I took that, and I kept going. I’ve just learned from what was around me, tried my best, and have been lucky to end up where I am today.”

For the past six years, Ben has made a name for himself on Australian screens, airing more than 1500 episodes of national cooking adventures. This includes Food Lab, showcasing the science behind food through his own production company Cultivate. Season two saw 65 episodes and a viewing audience of more than 13.5 million on the SBS Food Network, featuring the best of Tasmania’s backyard due to travel restrictions.

His other show Left off the Map has also been successful in advocating for the hidden gems of Tasmania’s culinary industry, with the next season in the works.

“I’ve spoken with hundreds of industry professionals and businesses all throughout Australia and tried to shine a spotlight on their work, and how diverse, creative and passionate the industry is from wine makers through to chefs and produce growers,” Ben says. “We want to show people that this is an amazing industry and it’s tough work, but there’s really creative people behind it who we should absolutely support. If I’ve helped drive business their way through the show, then I’m proud of the work we’ve done.”

Ben is also proud of his own cooking evolution, with his experience in commercial kitchens only renewing his food focus.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been exposed to really great restaurants and tasted great food. I now know there’s more to life than a packet of tacos and that I can be a little more exploratory with the food I eat day in day out. It’s something you have to do three times a day, so why not taste a risk and push the boundaries and try something interesting and new,” he says.

“I think the reason why so many chefs call their cuisine ‘modern Australian’ is because you don’t have to stick to a certain food genre. You can vary the flavour and styles you play with, but put no more than three things on the plate. I know at Peacock and Jones and CharlotteJack where I worked pre-Covid, our produce would come straight from the source at the highest possible quality, and when you get produce like that, you don’t have to do much to it. Menus used to be complicated but now the simpler the better.”

Ben says he could never have imagined the evolution of food and where it’s taken him, but he’s grateful for the journey and the positive impact his work has made along the way.

“The food industry never stands still. It’s constantly evolving and changing. It’s never ending – and that’s why I love it,” he says.

This article appears in the February 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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