Down-to-earth chef knew a good gig when he saw one

clayton wells

There’s no romanticised “cooking with nonna” backstory for down-to-earth Sydney chef Clayton Wells. The 34-year-old head chef of Automata, in inner Sydney’s Chippendale, announced today as The Weekend Australian Magazine Hottest Chef of 2016, simply knew he’d found his passion during work experience. “I just loved it straight away,” he said. Since then, Wells’s growing resume reads like a collection of the world’s top food spots. First Quay, Peter Gilmore’s fine dining restaurant in Circular Quay, in 2006. Then Tetsuya’s, the Sydney institution run by world-renowned chef Tetsuya Wakuda, until 2009. Then a stint at Noma, the two-Michelin-starred Danish restaurant run by Rene Redzepi in Copenhagen. “That opened my eyes about what was around in the world other than Sydney,” Wells said. After dabbling in opening his own restaurants, including Viajante in East London with chef Nuno Mendes in 2010 (which earned a Michelin star in its first year) and the first Momofuku outside of New York with Ben Greeno in 2011, Wells reconnected with an old acquaintance — Singaporebased businessman Loh Lik Peng — who was keen to join forces to build a new modern dining venue in Sydney. “I’d had a chat with Peng and we kept the door open,” he said. “It was fairly organic — next thing you know he said, ‘I’m building a hotel’. And there you go.” Automata is housed in the ground floor of the Old Clare Hotel site, and has Wells’s fingerprints all over it. “I wasn’t just a chef coming into a restaurant with a kitchen already made. The design, the look of building, those little decisions were mine,” he said. “You can dream it up for as long as you like, but it always comes to opening the door and seeing whether people like it … “It’s a very nice feeling knowing everything you’ve been thinking of for many years, people actually enjoy.”