Chef Louis Tikaram on why Australian’s café service is key to its international status

Louis Tikaram

Chef Louis Tikaram on why Australian’s café service is key to its international status, and why the hospitality industry is more than just food, flavours, and ingredients.

Louis Tikaram vividly remembers the day that ignited his senses and sent him on a voyage of coffee discovery. It was 2003 and he was 18 years of age. Louis had just moved to Sydney from the Byron Shire of Mullumbimby to pursue work as a first-year apprentice chef at renowned restaurant Longrain. He was living with fellow apprentice Luke Powell on Commonwealth Street, and one morning the smell of roasting coffee woke him.

“I was fixated on this aroma. In Byron, we had coffee [farms] but we didn’t have any roasters,” Louis says. “Luke and I went down Reservoir Street, and there was the original Single Origin (now Single O) roastery. It was a tiny hole-in-the wall. We went in, and there was a guy standing there with this massive drum roaster, roasting coffee in the middle of everyone sitting on milk crates. I thought, ‘this is heaven’.”

Louis recalls ordering a coffee and getting the jitters. It was his ‘aha moment’, akin to visiting Japan and tasting ramen for the first time.

“We went back every day and would talk to the roaster. He was old school. He would roast without thermometers or gauges, only working by smell, touch, and feel,” Louis says. “He was the real deal. From that day on, I was really interested [in coffee]. I gained big respect for it. I knew coffee wasn’t just a drink. It was an artisan craft.”

That interest has stayed with Louis throughout his culinary career. He lived in America for six years, running the kitchen at E.P. & L.P. in West Hollywood, where he gained an appreciation for drip coffee. He rejoiced the day that Paramount Coffee Project LA opened at the end of his street. The Melbourne-based brand quickly became Louis’ regular hang-out, and a friendship formed with the Aussie owners Mark Dundon of Seven Seeds and Russell Beard of Reuben Hills.

“At the time, so many brands were following Starbucks’ self-service model, but when Paramount Coffee Project opened, it changed the game. It was a business model that encouraged table service and made the experiencing relaxing and easy to enjoy. If you were asked by the waiter if you wanted another coffee, you’d say ‘yes’,” Louis recalls. “I enjoyed taking my American friends there to show them that’s how we do service in Australia.”

That level of service combined with quality coffee and passion for produce is why Louis believes Australia’s café scene is world-class.

“It’s a tough business, but I think we do it really well. Customers really respect and support the coffee culture, which is what keeps it so vibrant and allows you to push things to the next level,” Louis says. “This stems to the food and service in Australian cafés where people compare it to a restaurant experience.”

Back home in Brisbane, Louis enjoys his own coffee routine, using French Press and Bodum brewing devices when he’s not busy working as Head Chef of Stanley on Brisbane River.

“There are different styles of coffee to suit different moods or times in the day,” Louis says. “I like interesting coffee: spiced or fruit notes, or a deeper, rich flavour. The more aromatic and spicier the better. It’s funny because I hate full-flavoured beer. I like a very light beer that tastes like nothing.”

Growing up on a 110-acre farm in Mullumbimby, Louis was surrounded by coffee farms in the neighbouring area of Ballina and Byron Bay. In Fiji, Louis’ grandmother even grew coffee trees in her backyard, and would enjoy eating the “beautiful, sweet flesh” cherry straight from the tree branch. However, Louis had never experienced a coffee harvest until he recently spent a day at Howe Farming Group in northern Queensland with the second-generation family-owned farm while filming for Farm to Fork.

“I enjoy going to farms, meeting the farmers, having a laugh, and understanding what they do. I love learning and being a sponge to information about seasonality, soil, altitude, and the complete lifecycle of food,” Louis says. “To fly around Australia and visit farms [as show co-host], is my ultimate job. I would do that every day of my life if I had the opportunity.”

Louis’ regional upbringing makes him well suited to a TV show devoted to the origins of produce, and how they are grown. He went to school with the kids of dairy, avocado, and banana farmers, and respected their work ethic from a young age.

“When we would sit down at assembly in primary school, the farming kids had already been up four hours helping on the farm,” Louis says. “When you see milk on the supermarket shelves readily available, you don’t really appreciate that it comes from a family farm. I’m passionate about imparting that connection into young chefs, and having them respect all produce, from fish to meat, veggies, fruit, and dairy.”

Louis had the “perfect culinary combination” to lead him on a career path in food. With a Fijian father, a talented cook of a mother, a Fijian/Chinese grandmother and Fijian/Indian grandfather, Louis was heavily influenced by his family’s passion for food. He would watch his grandmother cook Indian-inspired roti, curries, and dahl, in addition to Fijian influences with freshly squeezed coconut cream, seafood, and seaweed.

“That combination of food was a really amazing part of my journey. In Fiji (where Louis lived pre-teenage years), we didn’t have television until 1996. You would go home after school and instead of zoning out in front of the TV, you would sit around the table, eat, and talk,” he says.

When he wasn’t doing that, Louis would wash dishes at a local restaurant. One day, a staff member failed to turn up for their shift, and Louis stepped in to help prepare for service. His understanding of spices was quickly unveiled. The chef invited Louis to spend more time at the restaurant, and before long, he was helping skewer satays, and making curry puffs.

“That was it. I fell in love with Thai flavours as I found them similar to what my grandma would cook with,” he says.

Continuing his run of luck, when Louis was in his final year of school, he met a chef in Bryon Bay who had just finished working at a restaurant called Finns. He questioned Louis about his love for Thai food, who proudly replied, “I work at the Gecko Thai in Ocean Shores”. The chef encouraged Louis to move to Sydney and work at the highly respected Southeast Asian-inspired restaurant Longrain, so he did.

The decision proved a fateful one under the mentorship of chef Martin Boetz. It helped kickstart Louis’ 19-year culinary career in which he’s worked a Sydney restaurants Bentley Restaurant + Bar and Tetsuya’s, and venues in Vancouver, Barcelona, and Los Angeles.

“I love cooking. I love balancing and creating dishes, but I probably fell in love with camaraderie and friendships the most as a chef. When I first moved to Sydney, Luke Powell (now Chef/Owner of LP’s Quality Meats and Bella Brutta Pizza in Sydney) was one of the only guys that would talk to me in the kitchen. Fast forward 15 years, and he was one of the groomsmen in my wedding. We’ve been friends ever since, like brothers,” Louis says.

“[Chefs] Dan Hong, Phil Wood, Daniel Puskas, and Mitch Orr all came up through the industry together. They inspired me a lot. We kept pushing each other and striving for success as young kids in the industry.”

Now it’s Louis’ turn to inspire the next generation of chefs. In between his many collaboration projects, which include curating Caper Byron Bay’s 10-day gastronomy festival celebrating Byron Bay and Northern Rivers region’s food culture, and running his own kitchen, mentoring the next tier of talent is Louis’ main objective.

“If you fall in love with [the chef profession] and take a step back, it’s a pretty amazing [career]. I want to show young chefs that it’s not just a job: it can be a career that can change your life and lead you to any goal you’ve ever wanted. You can really reach it.”

This article appears in the April 2024 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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