Degrees of Greatness with Daniel Dobra
Deb Caruso meets a humble, wholesome and hearty chef.
Name Daniel “Dobbers” Dobra
Position Head Chef
Restaurant Market Bistro, Maroochydore
Why did you become a chef?
My heritage is Croatian so I grew up in a household where food was really important. I didn’t realise how lucky I was until I started to have sleepovers and was served overcooked lamb and sausages when I thought it was quite normal to eat things like crayfish on a charcoal grill and have a big feast with a pig on a spit for family gatherings.
From a very early age, that seed was planted without me knowing. My father is an amazing home cook with all the Croatian food and my mother ran a catering company in my hometown of Esperance in the SE Coast of WA. From 8 years old I worked in the kitchen with her, peeling potatoes, washing dishes and when I hit my teenage years, I realised how much I loved it and started a traineeship at a local restaurant. I was a trainee and full-time cook until I moved to Melbourne at 18 years of age. I loved it and lived and worked there until the Covid lockdowns sucked all the soul and beauty out of the Melbourne food scene and what made it great. So we moved to the Sunshine Coast and I was flipping burgers in Mooloolaba when I heard that Harry Lilai was also here and about to open a modern European Bistro, called Market Bistro. I knew of him from Melbourne where he had a great reputation and lots of chefs I knew spoke very highly of him. So I reached out, came in for a chat and was appointed Sous Chef.
At the time that Market Bistro opened, there was nothing here and it was in the middle of a construction zone. I thought they were crazy. My first shift was a Tuesday and I expected it to be slow but we were packed and it hasn’t stopped. About 12 months ago, I was promoted to Head Chef with Harry as Executive Chef and he is also now in charge and part-owner of Bocca Italian; so Market Bistro is my baby.
What has been the most rewarding moment of your career so far? Career Highlights?
There are 2-3 moments that really defined me.
One of them was when I worked for Dan Hunter (Brae) at the Royal Mail Hotel. He made the chef I am today in terms of organisation, cleanliness, technique, the thought processes behind not just what it takes to cook good food but what it takes to cook good food consistently; day-in, day-out. All the methodology, all the systems. That was such a monumental and instrumental place for me and I have a lot to thank him for.
The other one was my first employer in Melbourne, a guy named Joe Vargetto who was co-owner and Head Chef at Oyster Little Bourke. I was a freshly turned 18 apprentice chef and he was the guy who taught me the value of the ‘yes chef, no chef, three bags full’ discipline. He taught me more about what it took to be a chef and the importance of dedication and obedience more than anyone had previously. Off the back of that, he gave me a solid foundation to strive in the industry. This was also where I first worked with Luke Stringer (who runs the front of house at Market Bistro and is another co-owner of Bocca), which is wild to think about.
What do you love about being a chef?
Over the years that has changed and evolved but for me it’s the constant ability to create; to be forever changing and not repeat every day; and to have an outlet where I am completely happy and at peace with my own creation. There is a lot of repetition in this job and this industry but for me, it’s a constant steady stream of creative output which I need to strive and keep a level head.
I’m also a feeder so the enjoyment and pleasure I get from feeding people and seeing people eat my food and the look of happiness or wonder and amazement or contentedness – that keeps me going.
What do you love about local produce? Favourite local producers?
The local produce here is super niche. The dairies are phenomenal; such as Maleny Dairies and the cheeses are absolutely gorgeous. There are a lot of smaller bespoke producers like Dan Tibbett from Mountaintop Mushrooms and his love and care and zest for his own product is infectious. To have produce of that quality so close to the kitchen is phenomenal. The tuna we get from Walker Seafoods is so good it makes me want to cry. I’ve worked in Melbourne, been all over the world and I have never seen tuna the quality we get from Walkers. When you’re closer to those products it makes a world of difference. Freshness and quality is utmost and foremost.
What is your approach to food?
There is a lot behind the scenes that people don’t see. There is a lot of methodologies that aren’t prevalent on the plate so the food seems simple in its construction but it’s bold in flavour. There may be an element that has been touched, changed or prepared in 6 or 7 different ways before it hits the plate but when it gets to the customer, the end result looks simple so that you don’t have to think about what you’re eating to try and process what it is. You just eat it and it tastes amazing and you don’t know why. We’ve put all the effort into it behind the scenes to make it that way.
Who would you love to cook for? (dead or alive)
James Gandolfini – he was a big influence growing up when I was watching The Sopranos. All that food was real – he was like ‘we’re not faking any of it; if we’re eating in the show, it has to be real food and taste great’
I’d love to sit down and share a piece of lasagne with him.
Who is your culinary inspiration?
My father first and foremost. He was a farmer for most of his life and was a humble country man but his approach to food was for nourishment but always with so so much love and care and passion.
There have been a few moments in my life where I have been totally shaken and broken apart by food. One of those moments was in a three-hatted fine dining restaurant. One of the other moments was sitting around my Nonna’s kitchen table eating a Fish Soup that my father had just made. I remember that moment so specifically and it’s so ingrained in my mind. I was about 22 so had been cheffing for a few years and as I watched him prepare that soup for two hours and from a chef’s perspective I was like ‘what are you doing?’ The onions weren’t cut properly, the parsley was put in at the wrong time, raw white wine was added – I was thinking it was going to be a disaster. But then to have that first mouthful and it was perfect on every level – the sweetness, the sourness, the saltiness the texture, taste, flavour – it was 10/10 on every single aspect. For me to eat it and find it faultless was a groundbreaking moment. As a chef, you’re always in search of that perfection. When you find it, it makes you question everything. There are things that he knows that I don’t and there’s always going to be people that know things I don’t. For me, that was a truly life-altering moment, that simple Croatian dish of Fish Soup and the power of love that was put into it.
Do you cook at home? And if so what do you cook?
At home I lean back, I want comfort, nourishment and things that make me feel good. So despite all the years working at bistros, brasseries, fine dining and casual restaurants, I cook Croatian comfort food – goulash, spaghetti, pasta, cabbage rolls. All those homely and hearty meals I grew up eating, they’re the things that I find that I want outside of work.
What is your favourite dish – to eat or cook?
That’s like asking a painter what his favourite colour is! Being a chef you go through phases and have things you are passionate about at different times. Right now, it’s the quail dish we currently have on the menu. We get these stunning birds from Brisbane Valley Quails and I’ve never seen a quail as beautiful and spectacular. When you have a product that is so perfect you don’t have to do much for it to shine and this dish is simple and stunning.
We prepare it as a Madeira glazed roast quail with a carrot puree, roasted carrots and a sherry sauce – that’s it. It gives me a spark of happiness to cook it.
What do you love about the Sunshine Coast?
Everything. I wish I moved here five years ago but I don’t know if I would be as happy if I moved here and this place (Market Bistro) wasn’t here. To live somewhere that has beautiful weather for 70-80% of the year, you realise how much the weather impacts your mood. It’s no wonder the people are so laid back and super friendly.
Any advice for young chefs?
Question everything, say nothing. As a young chef, use your ears more than anything. Listen. Trust in your mentor, your teacher – they know what they are talking about and they are trying to set you on the right track.
You don’t have to believe them or verbally challenge and question them but think about everything you are doing and question it internally. In the hard old days there was a lot of physical, emotional and verbal abuse – it was torturous and you knew if you said anything to anyone senior or above you, you’d get the whip – so that trained obedience, understanding of ‘yes chef no chef’. Today, a lot of young chefs feel they have a voice and know more than you. The truth is, you don’t get to that high position and work 22 years in the industry to have some guy who’s been here for 3 months tell you what they think is best – the truth is they don’t know what’s best.
It’s not wrong for them to question it and question you but without experience you are nothing; experience always wins. Be inquisitive on the inside but don’t challenge externally. Always think and question whether there is an easier way, a better way; a better result and outcome, or a way to cost less money be more productive.
What is your favourite kitchen utensil / tool?
A digital thermometer. It’s a big thing for me and stems right back to my early years. Cooking is the application of heat and it is the control and manipulation of that heat which can define if something is good or bad. Old school chefs before digital thermometers could tell by touch and feel and stab a skewer into the meat and put it on their bottom lip to tell the temperature and if something was ready or not. But a thermometer never lies. If you’ve had two hours’ sleep and you’re cooking on the grill, you can touch the meat and squeeze it and your hands will lie to you every day of the week. A thermometer will never lie. You can stick that in the steak and tell with the exact point degrees if it’s ready or not, under or overcooked.
Having a firm grip over managing the temps is everything. Fish stock will simmer perfectly at 88 degrees celsius. You can see it boiling and see the steam but the only way to know it is at the exact point is to use the thermometer.
What is your favourite ingredient?
Vinegar for me has become a quintessential lifeblood of everything I do In particular, specifically white balsamic vinegar as opposed to dark balsamic vinegar. The applications are so great. White Balsamic Vinegar can be both sweet and savoury and can add a point of difference to a dish. When using it to make something as simple as mayonnaise, using white balsamic vinegar instead of plain white vinegar or apple cider vinegar can add such depth and openness of flavour. It is everything. Vinegar in itself, as an acid going into brine, going into pickles, finishing a reduction sauce to give an extra dimension, is so versatile and underutilised. A simple Croatian dish is green beans with garlic, olive oil and vinegar – those four items prepared in the correct order and correct way are flawless. It is part of my Eastern European heritage as it is so commonly used, similar to how the Greeks use lemon to provide that acid element
How do you and Harry (Executive Chef) work together?
It’s a beautiful working relationship. We have similar ideals of food – his background is more Italian, mine is more French and together we bounce ideas off each other. We have enough respect and understanding to give honest feedback and make suggestions to each other. The menu is probably 60% mine and 40% Harry’s but his mark is all over everything we do. Since working here, I have changed in my approach to how food is constructed. Harry’s been cooking for 37 years, longer than I’ve been alive so I’d be a fool to not use his wealth and knowledge and experience.
Experience always wins. Some dishes are outright his, some are outright mine but most of them are created together. We’re fortunate to also get Tony Kelly’s input (Owner of Market Bistro and ex-chef), particularly when we go through menu changes. He was born here, he’s cheffed here and he knows the local market and what they want.
What can we expect from the winter menu?
Being winter, the food and flavours are bolder and heavier. A lot of dishes require more effort and work behind the scenes and we like to push the envelope. Think rich, bold, hearty, flavoursome fare compared to summer when it’s lighter and fresher. We’ll have a winter special of glazed beef short rib with duchess potatoes and glazed carrots; and the Quail is superb.
The quail is super special to me because it’s been passed down from chef to chef to chef and has this great origin story. It originally was used for pigeons at the famous UK restaurant, The Waterside Inn which was opened by the Roux Brothers; Albert and Michel and was the first restaurant outside France to hold three Michelin stars for 35 years.
It comes from there via great Melbourne chef Jeremy Strode who sadly committed suicide, and was an ambassador for the R U OK? Movement; and then via Dan Hunter to me. It’s a really special dish prepared using an old-school technique.
We make a hot brine with beetroot juice, port, red wine and madeira and spices and bring it to a boil; we then pour the boiling brine over the quails and they sit for 24 hours in the hot liquid. As it cools, it cooks out the skin and the beetroot juice and wine stains it this beautiful mauve pink colour. The quails are then deep-fried at a low temp for six minutes to create a crispy golden skin with succulence still in the breast. We saute off dutch carrots that have been cooked in the same brine with a little bit of brown butter; deglaze with a sherry vinegar made from the grape must (the pressed juice in the first step of winemaking) of the sherry grape so it’s super sweet. It’s like syrup and we use it to deglaze the carrots and add a veal reduction sauce, like a veal jus. Voila – Madeira glazed quail, roast carrots, sherry jus.
Preview Market Bistro’s current menu HERE