Hugh Allen talks ambition and Australia’s coffee culture

Hugh Allen

Vue de monde Executive Chef Hugh Allen earned his cooking stripes at a young age, but his relationship with coffee would take a little longer to mature. He speaks to BeanScene about ambition, international adventure, and Australian idols.

Hugh Allen has experienced some of the best food destinations in the world and has visited many coffee centric locations, but when it comes to coffee quality, he says there’s no place like home.

“Melbourne has always produced the best coffees,” Hugh says.

“[I love] the abundance of quality cafés [Melbourne has]. The competition constantly pushes cafés to get better and better – knowing that you can walk into almost any café and know you will be satisfied.

Hugh lived in Copenhagen for just over three years. He enjoyed its thriving café scene and “super high quality” coffees, noting the Coffee Collective, Democratic Coffee, and April as favourite café destinations.

He says Melbourne-style cafés have popped up around the world, taking inspiration from the city’s industrial influence, food culture, even its style of ceramic cups, yet it is Australia’s multiculturalism that is unique to the country’s coffee culture.

“Australia is such a culturally diverse country with immigrants bringing their coffee knowledge and skills to Australia over many years. As a result, Australia has become a mixing pot of great ideas and experimentation but at the same time championing old traditions. Coffee is a huge part of many cultures that are represented in Australia, and it has had a direct influence on Australia’s love and need for coffee,” Hugh says.

His fascination for coffee began at an early age when he would join his parents for breakfast each morning. Without fail, they enjoyed French press with butter on toast.

“I first tasted coffee at a café on Hardware Lane in Melbourne when mum offered me a sip. I quickly went back to my bubbacino. My love for coffee would have to wait another decade or so,” he says.

Fast forward, and Hugh has now crossed over as a coffee drinker. Growing up in North Melbourne, Hugh says he was spoilt for choice with “a plethora of world class cafés serving amazing coffee”.

In his childhood neighbourhood, Hugh enjoys his “go-to” oat milk latte from Japanese-inspired 279 and takeaway coffee from Small Batch roastery. Closer to where he works as Executive Chef of Vue de monde restaurant in Collins Street, Hugh gets his coffee from Brother Baba Budan on Bourke Street, or in his new neighbourhood of South Yarra, it’s a quick trek by foot to Market Lane in South Melbourne.

At home, Hugh uses his Moccamaster to make a batch of filter coffee where he experiments with different beans regularly, using beans from Melbourne roasters Market Lane, Small Batch, and Five Senses.

“[I look for] ethically sourced and produced coffee with a focus on sustainability. In terms of flavour, it really depends. I like a heavy, full- bodied roast but also light and fruity filters,” he says.

Hugh has always been fascinated by cooking. Growing up, British TV cooking icon Jamie Oliver, Australian cook Maggie Beer, and the movie Ratatouille ignited his passion for flavour.

“When I was young, I watched his show The Naked Chef and thought [Jamie] was pretty cool,” Hugh says. “When chefs are not working, all they want to cook is a quick and easy meal and Jamie does that so well with simple ingredients that always looks delicious.”

Hugh has met Jamie once and says he is one of the most genuinely loved and respected TV cooks among the chef fraternity.

In the fine-dining world, Hugh idolised Danish chef René Redzepi, British chef Heston Blumenthal, American chef Thomas Keller, and local Australian icon Shannon Bennett.

“When I was younger, Shannon was a big, well-known chef and I looked up to him. I remember getting his first cookbook in 2004. I thought it was super classic and interesting,” Hugh says.

As a young chef working at Vue de monde, Hugh would get excited when he saw Shannon in the kitchen.

“It’s the same as if Gary Ablett came and played footy with a young footy player – it’s pretty exciting,” he says. “It’s a different relationship now. I don’t see Shannon as one of my idols as I did 12, 13 years ago. Now I stay on his couch when I go and visit up in Byron Bay.

“Shannon and I are pretty similar in a lot of ways. We call each other best friends. We’ve always gotten on well and he’s helped me a lot in progressing my career. It’s a great relationship.”

The opportunity arose for Hugh to start his apprenticeship at Rockpool in Melbourne when he was 16 years old. In Hugh’s words, he “got lucky”.

“I sent out an email to many restaurants asking to do my school work experience and Rockpool were the only ones that got back to me. They soon offered me an apprenticeship, and the rest is history. I’ll always have a soft spot for Rockpool. It’s a great restaurant,” Hugh says.

Hugh stayed there for two years, developing his fundamental skills, before joining the Vue de monde kitchen as a stagiaire. At 18, he was awarded the coveted 2015 Gault Millau Young Chef of the Year Award, which took him across the globe and the opportunity to stage at several three Michelin Star restaurants in Paris.

“The quickest way to learn is to put yourself in the thick of it. Different countries and cultures use different techniques and methods for cooking and service. The only way to properly understand them is to get that hands-on experience,” Hugh says.

In 2016, Hugh joined René Redzepi’s three-Michelin Star restaurant Noma, where he worked for almost three years, including at the Noma pop-up in Sydney and Mexico, and was part of the opening team of Noma 2.0.

“My experience at Noma with René Redzepi was a defining moment that influenced my methods to experimenting with ingredients and creating new dishes. But for me, it’s always been about discovering new options and pushing the boundaries further on what’s possible with using the world’s best ingredients,” Hugh says.

He describes his time working at Noma as “incredibly demanding”. He could work for more than 16 hours a day, six days a week, in an extreme high intensity kitchen.

“Looking back, it was the most amazing experience as a chef,” he says.

“[I] got to work alongside the most talented and creative chefs in the industry. There is no doubt without my time at Noma I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have, and my goals ahead.”

Hugh returned to Melbourne in late 2018 as Vue Group Sous Chef. In early 2019 he was promoted to Executive Chef, where Hugh and his team are passionate about championing unique, local, and native ingredients.

“Everything on the menu at Vue de monde is sourced locally in Australia. We have worked hard to develop relationships with the best suppliers in Australia. I am proud of the way myself and the team at Vue de monde have championed native ingredients working closely with indigenous Australians to understand the story of each ingredient, which we then try and reflect in our dishes,” Hugh says noting wattle seeds, finger lime, strawberry gum, and green ants as his favourites.

Despite the accolades, and three- month wait list, Hugh says dinning at Vue de monde “is fun”, and by no means an intimidating dining experience.

“Firstly, the location is amazing you get full panoramic views across the best city in the world. Our service team and chefs are fantastic at ensuring the best dining experience possible. Guests get taken on a journey from the moment they work through the door until we say farewell,” Hugh says.

The cult following of the restaurant means the Vue de monde team are constantly treated to proposals, weddings and last-minute requests, including the Danish team who had travelled to Melbourne for the recent World Barista Championships.

“It happens all the time and the team at Vue de monde love it,” he says.

In Hugh’s short yet accomplished culinary career, he says his career highlight to date is getting offered a job at Noma, and reclaiming Vue de monde’s three Chef Hats as Executive Chef.

“[It] would have to be up there. I certainly won’t take all the credit though, it was a reflection of the hard work the team at Vue de monde put together to over a long time,” Hugh says.

“I want to keep pushing with creativity, working on lots of new dishes and ideas, constantly trying to source new and exciting ingredients.”

To balance the work, Hugh enjoys soaking up Melbourne’s botanical gardens or visiting a local pub, noting his good mate works at the Royal Oak pub in Fitzroy where it’s doing “super delicious food”.

From pubs to food trucks, cafés, and three-hatted experiences, it’s this eclectic mix of Australian hospitality that Hugh appreciates most.

“Australia’s food culture is constantly evolving and getting better and better. There are tonnes of world-class restaurants that call Australia home
that rival the best overseas. There is no reason why this trend won’t continue, and I can confidently see Australia’s food culture being recognised on par with our world-renown wine and coffee cultures,” Hugh says.

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