Lee Cecchin photographed by Robin Sellick
As she leads us around the kitchen at TAFE Western’s Broken Hill College, Lee shares the little-known fact that the height of a chef’s hat signifies their authority, and by extension, their expertise. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Lee’s hat is the tallest hat we have ever seen.
Lee Cecchin is nothing short of a culinary genius. While Lee is a multi-award winning chef and member of the international chefs’ club Les Toques Blanches, and has worked in some of the finest restaurants all over the world, she now clearly relishes her role as mentor and trainer for her students at TAFE Western’s Broken Hill College.
“This is a good stepping stone for the kids here in Broken Hill and part of my job in – both in teaching them, running my own business and going out and doing crazy things, is showing them you don't have to have all the bells and whistles to make it work.”
Almost unwittingly, Lee has not only summed up her own manifesto, she has also revealed the link between her life as a chef and Broken Hill itself.
“Living in Broken Hill, you have to be resourceful, you have to think on your feet. I sometimes say to people ‘never look at what you can't do, always look at what you can do with what you have’. That's probably the biggest thing that being a chef is all about. You have to learn how to roll with the punches - things happen and you've got to be able to think ‘how can I turn that negative into a positive?’”
While that Zen-like quality no doubt inspires those around her, Lee is quick to point out that we shouldn’t be fooled by her calm exterior.
“People will tell me that I look very calm and I’ll say ‘you should see inside. It's like a washing machine going crazy!’ It's all about theatre - the show is going on out the front with the waiters and everything else but out the back can be chaotic. You have to put on a front, because if you look stressed and you're running around crazy, everybody will start to panic. ‘Are we going to get any food?’ or, ‘Is it going to be all right?’”
Despite having accomplished so much in her career, Lee shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. Her most recent venture is her own line of gourmet food products, titled Pandora’s Palate. Sourced primarily from local ingredients found in Broken Hill and the surrounding area, the line includes such mouth-watering delights as Balsamic Peppered Fig, a Sweet Dukkah made from Pistachio Nut, Cranberry and Coconut and a to-die-for Salted Butterscotch Sauce.
“I incorporate our native foods into the products. We grow fig and quandong here so we married them together into a fig and quandong panna cotta. If we don't grow it, we don't make it.”
With recipes such as these it’s clear to see why the impression of Broken Hill as a gourmet food destination is gathering pace and naturally, Lee couldn’t be happier.
“We've always had a lot of tourists coming to Broken Hill but we’re all starting to realise that people are now eating a lot more when they come here. They are more aware of what they're ordering from the menu.”
The exciting result of this culinary shift is that trainees now have more options to work and to grow their trade in the town after graduation and they are spreading the word.
“People are now taking a lot more pride. And with all the networking they do, we now have chefs that are coming into Broken Hill.”
It’s the never-say-die attitude that makes Lee Cecchin such a quintessential Broken Hill character.
“I've always had that attitude when someone says, ‘You can't do that’, I think ‘Bullshit!’ - I'll dig my heels in and I will not give up.”
My husband says, ‘That's the best thing about you - you never give up’.
We used to do a lot of martial arts together - one of us would be on the ground, he'd say, ‘give up!’ and I’d say, ‘No! I'm not giving up!’ It’s just one of those things.”