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Chef of the Year: Time Out Food Awards 2016

Taking Sydney to new culinary heights

Photograph: Anna Kucera

Winner: Clayton Wells, Automata

It's a rare thing that a chef succeeds in both pleasing and challenging their diner with every dish they put out. But fear doesn't seem to faze Time Out's Chef of the Year, Clayton Wells. His intelligently conceived, thoughtful and deceptively complex plates of food amaze, educate and inspire us every time we go into his inaugural restaurant, Automata. He understands flavour in such a unique way that it's hard to compare him to any other head chef working in Sydney right now.

Wells has worked at some of the world's best restaurants – Quay, Tetsuya's and Viajante in London, not to mention a three-year stint as sous chef at Momofuku Seiōbo. He popped up at ACME and LuMi last year, but it was only when he opened Automata that we saw what Wells was really made of.

His opening menu broke all the rules, with the most memorable dish boasting what appeared to be just a plateful of dark green seaweed. It looked fascinating, but not appetising – Instagram be damned. Forking through it, though, we found tender steamed white hapuka fish, creamy cured roe emulsion (like a taramasalata) and little pops of native sea blight – umami, cream, crunch. It was one of the best dishes of this past year. Mid-year, we tried traditional Italian stracciatella di bufala dressed, deliciously, but very non-traditionally, in shellfish oil, and his latest menu sees raw scallop paired with its own cured roe that tastes like a seaweed-strewn beach – challenging, yes, but deeply evocative. On the same menu, a potentially polarising dish of celeriac and raw and fermented mushrooms feels so complete in its satisfying, savoury intensity that even the hardiest carnivore surely couldn't mourn the meat.

We love Wells' values when it comes to his menu – at dinner it's five courses, one price. Rumours have been circulating that fine diners are dead, but we don't agree. They've just changed. Wells knew how to adapt when he opened Automata: keep the quality of produce up, keep the number of courses down, don't give menu options aside from dietary ones (there's less wastage that way), and charge less. Just $88 for a five-course dego is a steal in a city where you can pay upwards of $200 elsewhere, and the $60 matched beverage option is incredible value when the drinks are this diverse and well-considered.

Wells cooks in the style of a 16-year-old testing his limits, but with the skill of a chef twice his age. He's changed, and continues to change, Sydney dining for the better. And in an industry as brutal and competitive as this one, that's no mean feat.

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