Housed in a red-brick industrial building, The Golden Pig Food & Wine School blends seamlessly into the backstreets of Newstead. By day, the stylish warehouse space is home to a petite cafe and, after dark and during weekends, it becomes a dynamic training ground for budding chefs, eager home cooks and wine and beer appreciators. Its owners, husband-and-wife team Katrina and Mark Ryan, bring to The Golden Pig their enduring passion for quality food and years of experience working in Australia’s top restaurant kitchens, including for celebrity chefs Neil Perry and Tony Bilson. Not ones to play it safe, Katrina and Mark are big believers in following your dreams and jumping at new opportunities.
Executive chef, cooking instructor, restaurateur and mother of three, Katrina Ryan’s food philosophy is also her life mantra. “The wisdom I live by is that a little bit of something delicious is so much more satisfying than a whole lot of something ordinary,” she shares. A stickler for quality – in both her food and her business endeavours – Katrina recently launched her latest business venture, The Golden Pig Food & Wine School, with her husband Mark, who is an award-winning building designer and former executive chef.
Step inside The Golden Pig, and the quality and attention to detail is instantly palpable. Mark has injected the warehouse with an effortlessly cool restaurant vibe, seamlessly placing vintage Danish furniture in the cafe alongside the industrial-style minimalist kitchen space designed for the cooking classes. Pops of greenery bring the warehouse to life – pot plants hang from the ceiling in place of chandeliers and cling to the building’s walls like living, breathing wallpaper.
Katrina explains that as she and Mark planned their move to Brisbane, they dreamt of opening a cooking school rather than another restaurant. “We had restaurants in Sydney, so we know it’s a really tough model to work with,” Katrina explains of the impetus behind The Golden Pig. “The cooking school model is a good business model and, besides, I’ve discovered I really love teaching. It’s a big change from being a chef. I have much more contact with people and there’s a lovely sharing and educating concept to it all. I love sharing my knowledge.”
Katrina brings great experience as a cooking tutor. Up until last year, she helped run the cooking school at Yandina’s Spirit House over eight years and hosted culinary tours to Asia. During 2009 and 2010, Katrina travelled monthly to the Adelaide Hills to guest teach at the lauded Sticky Rice Cooking School.
Katrina’s aim with The Golden Pig is to provide a training ground for inquisitive foodies and home cooks to learn the pleasures of cooking. The focus is on cooking a high standard of food with fresh produce in an environment that channels the electric energy and vibrance of a restaurant in the midst of service.
Cooking classes at The Golden Pig generally run for four hours and are designed to be fun and informative. The classes of up to 16 people finish with a relaxed shared meal to celebrate the morsels created together. Culinary themes take cooks on a journey around the world from France and Spain, to the Middle East and Asia. Special guest chefs include Katrina and Mark’s foodie friends Matt Moran, Christine Manfield and Kylie Kwong. There are also regular wine and craft beer workshops, as well as corporate gigs and private parties.
Katrina admits that the launch of the new venture is an exhausting pursuit, but her lifelong passion for food helps make the hectic workload feel worthwhile.
At 21, Katrina graduated from university as a physio, but it was cooking, not knee reconstructions, that she dreamt about in her spare time. “All through university I worked as a kitchenhand. I spent all my money eating out at restaurants. I cooked and held dinner parties at home. I read food magazines and bought cookbooks,” she recalls. “Then, after working as a physio for two years, I saw an ad in the paper for an apprentice job with Neil Perry. It was one of those lightbulb moments.”
Restaurant kitchens are notoriously cruel places for apprentices, but Katrina experienced the opposite during her training in Neil’s Blue Water Grill kitchen, which she describes as “egalitarian and fun”. It’s also the place where she met Mark, who had just finished his apprenticeship with Neil and had also trained under Tony Bilson.
Katrina spent five years at Blue Water Grill and a further five years at Neil’s Rockpool. Three of those years were as head chef, which she counts as her greatest career achievement. “Neil moved me up really quickly through the kitchen – partly because people left and there was no-one else there, so he would say, ‘Quickly, jump on the stove!’ It was a fantastic grounding. I wasn’t sure if I’d actually enjoy cooking full time for a living, but I loved it and best of all I didn’t have to wash the dishes,” she laughs.
After Rockpool, she temporarily hung up her apron to become a mum and support Mark in running their two restaurants. When their children were aged four and two, the couple decided to sell everything and roadtrip around Australia for 12 months. “It was absolutely amazing. We spent three months in Margaret River over the summer,” Katrina reminisces of their adventure. “We’d go down to the beach and collect abalone. We did a little bit of work picking grapes, but mostly we just hung out with the kids in this fantastic environment.”
After plenty of soul searching, Katrina and Mark finally decided to move their young family to the Sunshine Coast in 2000. Mark retrained in building design and Katrina joined the team at the Spirit House.
As a naturally positive soul, Katrina can’t pinpoint any major challenges she’s had to overcome during her career. “Things have dropped in my lap really,” she says of her exciting opportunities, which include working as Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise’s private chef when they’d visit Sydney in the nineties. In 2005 and 2006, Katrina filmed a series of cooking segments for the TV program, Escape with ET, and in 2011 became the Noosa Slow Food president. She also recently co-authored the Spirit House’s new book, Hot Plate.
“I’ve been really lucky that different opportunities have arisen and I’ve taken them. Sometimes they felt like a real challenge and I thought, ‘Do I really want to go there?’ For example, I found the TV shoots hard and really stressful. But, ultimately, once you challenge yourself then you realise you can do it and more things happen. With life you can’t sit back and say it looks too hard. You have to jump at every challenge that someone puts to you.”
Now that she is embarking on a new venture with Mark, Katrina feels invigorated about the future. “I’d like The Golden Pig to be recognised around Australia as a really good centre for education and great food, and for people to use for corporate gigs and wine and beer workshops,” she says. “I want it to be a real focus on all things fabulous about food, wine and beer.”
Asked what motivates her and Mark to leap at new ventures, Katrina says, “We just do things – neither of us want to play it safe and be bored. You have to go with your dreams, don’t you?”