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It still gives me goosebumps: Luke Southwood on the power of food

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Working in a luxury rehab centre and with troubled young people in restaurant kitchens has convinced Bistro Dom head chef Luke Southwood of the power of food and cooking to help transform lives.

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Southwood, who took over the reins in the kitchen at the Waymouth Street restaurant in May this year, was born in Papua New Guinea, began his cooking career in kitchens in Barcelona, and has previously worked at places such as Dish Restaurant and Raw Bar in Byron Bay, Public CBD in Adelaide and d’Arry’s Verandah in McLaren Vale.

However, as he tells Adelaide podcast Rooster Radio (listen below), it was his time as a private chef and then catering manager at luxury therapeutic retreat and rehabilitation centre The Sanctuary in Byron Bay that opened his eyes to the psychology of food.

Southwood says he was working at Dish when he first met The Sanctuary’s director, Michael Goldberg, who regularly brought the centre’s clients – “a lot of very wealthy and influential people … none of whom I can mention” – to the restaurant

“We would get a phone call beforehand saying they were bringing in a client.

“We’d have to strip all the wine glasses off the table, we’d have to make sure there was no alcohol anywhere near, all of the wait staff had to be briefed on not triggering the client. We also had to be briefed on what we were utilising in the food.

“I was fascinated by this.”

When he left Dish, Southwood became a personal chef at The Sanctuary. He was later promoted to catering manager, leading a team of nine personal chefs working with up to 12 clients battling issues ranging from drug addition and alcoholism, to eating disorders and psychiatric problems.

He would be one of the first people to see the clients, many of whom were used to having everything at their beck and call and now found themselves stripped of all the trappings of their wealth and power.

“The very, very first thing that was up to me to do was to prepare them a meal that would tap into that fundamental childhood reward centre, because that never really goes away…

“That was what The Sanctuary was all about … tapping into that fundamental reward system that still exists and giving people that pleasure and that amazing memory of what life was like before things got really messed up for them.”

The chefs were part of a large team of professionals – including doctors, naturopaths, personal trainers, psychiatrists and others – who worked together to offer a holistic approach to treatment. Clients were given individually tailored diets and menus, as well as cooking classes.

Southwood was clearly moved by the transformation he saw in people who had arrived “absolutely rock bottom and completely broken”.

“It still gives me goosebumps, it really does – it was such an incredible experience.”

His passion for helping others extends to restaurant kitchens, where long hours and high pressure can take its toll on young chefs. Southwood says he has found himself counselling “a lot of messed-up young staff with drug problems” during his career, but adds that the kitchen environment also offers a level playing field where anyone will be accepted as long as they can do the job.

He tells the story of one youth with “massive anger management problems” who he sought to help by giving him increasing responsibility in the kitchen, eventually getting him to create the special of the day.

“He was white knuckling the pass – holding on for dear life as waitress came and picked up the plate and took it literally two steps to the table; he didn’t stop staring at the woman who ordered it, watched her take her first mouthful, put it in her mouth and she looked up and said thank you to him and he burst into tears.

“The guy turned into a blubbering mess. No one had ever said thank you to him for anything in his life; no one had ever told him he was good at anything …

“That made me realise how powerful food can be and how powerful a kitchen environment can be.”

Speaking with Andrew Montesi in the Rooster Radio podcast, Southwood also talks about his early years in Papua New Guinea, his first kitchen job in Barcelona – where he landed a head chef role at just 16 – the influence of his mother on his adventurous cooking style, and the food he’s currently serving up at Bistro Dom.

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