Twenty-four is pretty young to be head chef at one of Hobart’s most popular restaurants.
But then, Josh Retzer isn’t just any chef.
The creative genius behind brunch restaurant Born In Brunswick’s menu, Retzer began working in kitchens at the age of 14.
Starting his apprenticeship at the now-defunct Theodoti Greek taverna in Launceston, he took up roles at the Riverside Hotel, The Metz and Hotel Grand Chancellor before winning the sous chef role at Stillwater.
The opening of Born In Brunswick in November last year marked Retzer’s first taste of head chef responsibilities, and he has since been named as one of nine finalists from across the globe in the 2017 Best Chef Rising Star award.
But he says the one-and-a-bit-year stint under Stillwater’s executive chef Craig Will was where his passion for cooking was born.
“Being around likeminded people was definitely motivational in influencing more passion,” Retzer said.
“For a lot of chefs and cooks, some of them just get by and it’s just a job.
“But it’s very much in kitchens where you can fuel great passion and creativity through what you do, and those (Stillwater) guys were certainly like that.”
A keen student of native plants, Retzer takes a front-line approach to sourcing his ingredients.
So if you can’t find him in the kitchen, he’s probably taken a trip to the bush, the coast or the mountains to forage for ingredients.
“There’s hundreds of different wild species of plants going around, in Tasmania we’ve got hundreds of different berries, bushes and plants.
“Up in Mount Wellington and in the high alpine regions of Tasmania we get snowberries and pepperberries that only grow in Tasmania and New Zealand - nowhere else in the world.
“They've got a super short season but it’s this amazing berry and when you understand it you want to look into it a bit more, try it, and see what you can pair it with.
“Just the fact that you’re trying something as unique as that in life, it’s quite cool, it’s something you'll never ever buy anywhere because no one cultivates them - they’re only picked in the wild.”
Retzer says his fondness for foraging is not necessarily born from any ethical convictions, but rather a desire to give customers a unique eating experience.
“There's a fond connection I feel with the earth and if I see something, I want to try it and give it a taste, and if it works well and there’s a s***load around, I’m going to grab it and throw it on a few dishes.
“It’s down to the individual, some people will simply put it to the side of their plate, but for me it’s kind of a cool way of saying ‘hey this wasn’t in a packet at the supermarket, I didn’t need to pay a dollar for this, it was just something you walk past every day or see every time you go to the beach’.”
A quick scroll through Retzer’s Instagram page is enough to confirm the artistry and attention to detail that goes into his presentation.
But the 24-year-old is just as passionate about discovering new ingredients and creating new flavour combinations.
He describes his career as a continual voyage of learning and building new thought processes.
“Cooking for me is just a great creative outlet really – for every one success there’s fifty mistakes behind it.”
So whether it’s pairing roast pork with fermented strawberries or ice cream with dehydrated ants, Retzer is never afraid to try new things.
“It’s just something where if you’re passionate and you’re looking at so many different things, different ideas come to mind and you kind of know what works and what doesn’t, and if you don’t, you trial those things and get a better idea.
“It’s just looking and who’s using what, and if it’s a really amazing ingredient you move heaven and earth to get your hands on it.
“I get this great gochujang, which is a fermented chilli paste, which is imported from this small importer in Sydney and he gets it from a little family in Korea.
“Craig at Stillwater was using it and it’s the best tasting gochujang I’ve ever had, so I spent over a whole year trying to contact this guy to get it.”
Under the stewardship of 2016 Masterchef contestant Con Vailas, Born In Brunswick has already established itself as one of Hobart’s most popular brunch spots.
Last week the restaurant hosted a University of Queensland alumni dinner, where Retzer worked alongside a handful of the state’s top chefs including celebrity chef Ben Milbourne.
With ten years of experience under his belt and plenty more opportunities to come, Retzer is certain his career will only keep developing.
So what’s his advice for young chefs starting out in the industry?
“Try not to be the same thing as everybody else, go off and do your own thing and dare to be different.
“I believe if you want to succeed and do truly well in this you need passion and creativity to be different and try different things.”
Finding a mentor is also important.
“If you don’t have someone there for support and to help you out, you’ll either find yourself hating it and stopping it, or it’ll only just be a job and you may never form a passion for it.
“It’s a hard line of work but if you’re able to build up a passion and commit yourself to it, you can go far.”