Following Foodie Footsteps
She learnt the art of her craft from the master, Adriano Zumbo. He gained a reputation as one of the best in the business, working among the likes of Jamie Oliver, Ben O’Donoghue and Stefano De Pieri. Nicole Fuge enters the kitchen with brother and sister Nathan and Ashleigh Hoeksema to test their talents.
Perfectly piped mini meringues sit atop the radiant red ganache glaze, the finishing touch to Ashleigh Hoeksema’s sweet creation. At the other end of the kitchen, her brother Nathan slices into a turmeric flower, revealing tasty morsels hidden beneath the flesh. Wildly talented and obsessed with food, they are in awe of each other’s ability in the kitchen, both taking a very different approach to cooking – Nathan is a raw and real foodie and Ashleigh conjures up bright and bold desserts.
“When I was little, I remember cooking cakes with Mum and saying to her, ‘I love cooking cakes, this is so much fun’, and she turned to me and said, ‘You know you can do this for a job right? My eyes lit up.”
With her heart set on opening her own business one day, 15-year-old Ashleigh undertook six months of work experience at a patisserie at Alexandra Headland, before embarking on a four-year pastry chef apprenticeship in Coolum Beach.
Possessing a natural talent, her boss encouraged her to enter a few competitions and in her second year, she was named Queensland Apprentice of the Year.
At age 20, Ashleigh moved to Sydney to work for the king of desserts, Adriano Zumbo, who also noticed her sweet skills.
“He put me in charge of macarons, which was pretty amazing because that was what he was famous for,” she says.
“That’s where I learnt to make macarons and we would make crazy amounts – 5000 to 6000 in one day, in batches of 1000. Each batch took an hour to make and then we had to pipe it. We did 12-hour days, but I learnt a lot.
“He has all of these flavours and everything is made from scratch, so if we made a brownie macaron, we would make the brownie, chop it up and fold it all in.”
That’s where I learnt to make macarons and we would make crazy amounts – 5000 to 6000 in one day, in batches of 1000.”
Ashleigh spent a year with Zumbo, an invaluable addition to her resume, which lead to a job as sous-chef at Sokyo in Sydney, creating Japanese-inspired flavours in French-inspired desserts. Still with the drive to open her own cafe, Ashleigh went on to work as assistant manager of a popular Bondi cafe, rounding out her experience with back- and front-of-house operations.
In 2015, she returned home to the Sunshine Coast where she opened her own business, a popular restaurant in the heart of Nambour and a year later opened a patisserie across the road.
Meanwhile, Nathan has become a familiar face at the Noosa and Kawana Farmer’s Markets, serving nutritious and delicious sweet and savoury treats. Now taking a more holistic approach to food, he has come full circle from the moment he knew he wanted to become a chef.
“I remember going into the garden and picking basil to make a quiche in home economics, and I could not believe the flavour that came out of adding basil,” he says. “From there I decided to use lots of herbs and fresh food.”
As a first-year apprentice, Nathan began working at Spirit House in Yandina, where he worked under the stewardship of the head chef.
“We wouldn’t move onto the next thing until I became as good as her and before long she had me running the kitchen. She’d be out ordering the whole lunch and I’d be doing the entrées, the mains and dessert for 30 or 40 people during the week. That was gold for me and she knew that,” he says.
After a sojourn in London and Melbourne, Nathan returned to Noosa to work as head chef at a French/Australian fusion restaurant, where he met his now-wife, Jackie.
The pair relocated to London where they both landed jobs at the renowned River Cafe – Jackie as manager, and Nathan taking over as head chef from Ben O’Donoghue.
In 2001, they returned to Australia and moved to Melbourne, where he toured the wine regions of Mildura before taking on the role of head chef at Stefano’s three-hat flagship restaurant there.
“There were only two three-hat restaurants in Melbourne and we were one of them, out in Mildura and we held that for three years,” he says.
Highly regarded within the industry, Nathan was called on to lead Jamie Oliver’s new Fifteen restaurant in Melbourne, which also came with its own television show.
“I was part of choosing the 15 kids who were going to be the stars of the show. It was about this restaurant that was going to be getting these kids off the streets and helping them cook high-end restaurant food.
“It was a great experience and I got to know him (Jamie) and how he operates. It was really nice to do that. We had a lot of fancy people come to try the restaurant when he first came to town and I was in charge of creating the menu for Jamie, to then come in and make it look like he was doing it, but that was my job. I’ve been behind a lot of noted chefs.”
Now with a young family, Nathan and Jackie moved back to the Sunshine Coast where he immersed himself in permaculture and nutrition.
“It’s a lot of work being a chef, working 15-hour days; I’ve done that for 20 years.
“That’s why the creative part of me has been slowly changing to a different direction. I still enjoy my food and want to keep loving my food, but balancing it with life. I wanted to find a bit more depth in food.”
Tasting each other’s dishes and offering suggestions on plating up channelling their inner Zumbo and Oliver it’s in the exchanges of playful sibling rivalry that they reveal their true selves.
This is where they’re most at home, as Hoeksemas.