“I went from cooking in some of the best restaurants in the world to parmigianas and fish’n chips.”
I am an Executive Chef at Austin’s in Prahran, and also a part-owner of The Window Corner Cafe in Reservoir.
I didn’t have a concrete plan to go into hospitality. After school, I got heavily involved with the marketing and promotion side of nightclubs, which wasn’t the healthiest job as you can imagine – late nights, drinking and all else that comes with it! And after a little while of that lifestyle, my mum, in her wisdom said: “Son, you better go and get a job where you can get a feed.” I was pretty skinny at the time.
So I went to my cricket club and asked if they had a kitchen hand position for me. They did and I found myself working with John Walsh, who was big news, big time in Darwin – he used to work at the Lodge for Malcolm Fraser as his personal chef. John was my introduction to a hard-working, strict kitchen environment.
I did my apprenticeship with John at his Cornucopia restaurant in the Darwin Museum, and was quickly promoted to the head chef position after the second year. I ran it for a further 3 years, after which I did a short stint at Novotel in Darwin, in order to gain some hotel experience.
From the beginning, I took every additional opportunity to do special projects outside of work, to network and gain knowledge.
I won awards such as Apprentice of the Year, and was nominated for Young Australian Tradesperson three times in a row. I worked with Australian Food Promotions, travelling overseas to China, Hong Kong, introducing native ingredients to huge hotel chains there, or doing food promotions in New York at the UN Regal Plaza.
My profile and experience grew and almost every hotel I worked at offered me a position, but I declined. I dreamt of achieving recognition through a restaurant of my own.
I left Darwin to pursue bigger opportunities in Melbourne.
Docklands had just come into being and held a lot of promise as the new entertainment destination. I was asked to join the newly opened Liquid restaurant as head chef. The first year was massively successful, and Liquid became one of Docklands’ most popular restaurants.
There is no typical day in the life of a head chef. Wednesdays tend to be my busiest days, that’s when all the organization and planning is done for the week ahead. In the mornings I check all the orders are in, do the invoicing. There are meetings with management, HR and accounts to sort out issues, discuss strategy.
My day in the kitchen starts with butchery and seafood – cleaning, de-boning, filleting and portioning – getting everything ready for cooking later. I meet with my chefs to discuss the plan for the coming night, resolve any operational issues or introduce new menu items.
Mid-week I will often trial a new dish.
If the seasons are changing, it’s an exciting time as we get in new produce, so we try new recipes during the day. Evening service is busy and intense – the daily preparation is vital to make sure all goes smoothly. After service, I do my orders and then around 1am it’s home time.
My favourite part of the job is the instant gratification from the customers. They are really grateful when they’ve had a fantastic experience and you get that straight away, immediate feedback. In a lot of other industries you have to wait for it, but here its instant. They will tell you on the spot if they like or not, so the rush is in getting it perfect every time to get that exuberant feedback.
After a year at Liquid, an opportunity presented itself to open and run VicHarbour, a large family-style bistro on the same strip. Based on the success of Liquid, I thought it was a no-brainer; a potential gold mine.
With my partner Rebecca, we invested into renting and fitting out the restaurant from scratch and waited for the money to roll in. Then, in 2008, the GFC hit. Everyone in hospitality was dealt a blow, however at the time it seemed that Docklands specifically took the brunt of the crisis. The waterfront emptied, and all the newly opened restaurants stood empty, maitre d’s hopefully jumping up every time a few stragglers ran past the open doors, huddled against the piercing cold wind that plagued the promenade.
We lasted seven years, the last four of which was a constant, desperate struggle for survival. When you own a business, and it’s not doing well, you go into survival mode, you’re in your own bubble and you think that the world revolves around you and your problems. I was caught up in the everyday drama of it, and lacked the forethought to step back and look at the bigger picture. Had I done that, I perhaps would have left the business a lot sooner and not lost so much money and time.
Lost time was the huge one. Seven years of not cooking properly – I went from cooking in some of the best restaurants in the world to parmigianas and fish’n chips.
Looking back, my main mistake was that I didn’t do my numbers correctly and my approach to business was too optimistic. I was always thinking about the positives and how it couldn’t fail, rather than how it could. That lesson for me was invaluable. Now I am more pragmatic and considered about my approach, and more risk averse.
The demise of VicHarbour brought me close to bankruptcy; I was in default with the banks, ATO, creditors. I walked away with massive debt, which I am still paying off, as well as being emotionally drained from trying to save the business and my relationship – and failing on both counts. I found myself a single father, with a failed business, scary amounts of debt and no job.
I spent the next few years ‘steadying the ship’, getting back into proper cooking, working for some great Melbourne restaurants. I did a year at Orange in Chapel Street, which was a great way to get back into the more refined cuisine and dining atmosphere.
Then, when Movida Next Door was looking for a head chef, I was recommended to the owner, Frank Camorra, by a mutual friend who also used to work there. I ended up working there for four years.
Movida Next Door was opened following the overwhelming success of the original Movida, which, you guessed it, is right next door up Hosier Lane. The idea was to take the ‘overflow’ of customers who weren’t able to get into Movida itself. It was designed as a more casual, fun and fast restaurant.
My main challenge at MND was improving on something that was already very good. Sometimes that’s harder than starting from scratch! You have to keep in mind and respect the brand and the reputation, and look for ways to add value within the existing traditions.
When I started the job, I found the culture at MND somewhat resistant to my leadership, due to the fact that I was the first head chef in Movida history hired externally, rather than working my way up through the ranks. However, over the next few years, I focused on building a really tight, loyal team, and improving the culture and the atmosphere in the kitchen – though that hasn’t been without its challenges.
I have to say, my least favourite part of this job is being let down by people who work for me. Reliability is a big issue in hospitality and getting and keeping great staff is hard.
I have had to change my management style somewhat over the years. If you’re too aggressive, you lose your staff. The popular stereotype of the Gordon Ramsey – style chef that screams at staff can be effective, but you really have to be Gordon Ramsey to have people want to work for you under those conditions.
In reality, you can no longer behave like that. Yes, there are occasions for hard discipline, you have to pick the right time to put on a show; but if you got angry and aggressive every time you felt frustration, you wouldn’t have any staff – nor, sometimes, a job.
With the food, I put acute emphasis on the daily special board: it allowed me to utilize the freshest, the most in-season produce to pull people away from ordering the smaller tapas and towards the larger racionés. It was a win-win situation: while the clients got constant variety, freshness and excitement on their plates, the restaurant kept its costs down and profits flew up.
I learnt some great lessons at Movida about running a successful business, maintaining a brand and a reputation.
And after enjoying some of my own personal successes within the group, both financially and creatively, I knew I was ready to start a new project, to build a new brand that was my own.
The Window Corner Cafe in Reservoir is was my first venture, an exercise in setting up a top quality, successful business with limited budget and time. A friend of mine who is a builder had some past experience with cafes. We decided to go into business together. He would provide the space and the fit-out, and I would turn it into a business. Down the track, a third partner joined us who could oversee the day-to-day running of the business.
It is early days yet, however in the past couple of months, the Window has found popularity with the locals, had some great reviews and is on track to becoming a viable business.
The challenges, as usual, are finding reliable staff and ensuring our service and turnover are consistent and predictably high!
Having this smaller-scale success, I was set for the bigger project of creating a new contemporary fine dining restaurant that will make its mark on the Melbourne food scene. I had my ear to the ground for a while, looking out for suitable opportunities. I knew I had the knowledge and the experience, but needed someone with funding.
I have known the owners of Mt Erica for a long time, from my days in Docklands.
When they asked me if I knew of anyone who would take charge of their efforts to turn the old bar and bistro into a successful fine dining restaurant, I knew it was meant to be.
I gave notice at MND and started the planning process for the new restaurant in late October.
Currently, we are half way through renovation and restructuring of the restaurant. My task is to oversee the redesign of the kitchen and the interior, to bring in a new team and to build a new culture that is both professional and conductive to creativity and fun.
Mt Erica will be split into three brand new venues under the Mt Erica umbrella. My focus is the restaurant: we have called it Austin’s, after my son. This is my opportunity to create an original signature menu that will put Austin’s on the fine dining map of Melbourne.
The plan is to launch before Christmas, and have all our creases ironed out and operating at full capacity by January next year. It’s a big task, and right now I am literally working day and night to make it happen. When I am not at the restaurant, I am at home on the computer working on budgets, rosters and menus. It feels fantastic to be in charge again, to be running my own ship.
It is stressful, and tiring, however I am enjoying it. I am impatient to launch and can’t wait to see the results. At the same time, I am excited to see the progress of the cafe, and there are more concepts and ideas brewing in the back of my mind.
I have changed my focus from having the one big-name restaurant, this be-all end-all brand.
I envision a more business-oriented structure where I set up a number of different, smaller outlets such as cafes, gourmet shops, or a full service restaurant. I want to spread my risk across the right portfolio and run it really well, with the right people and staff, focusing on quality and sustained growth.
The food is always the passion. I get excited about a fresh mango; but executing and serving it in a professional, creative manner and building a successful business from that is why we do it, otherwise we would all just be home cooks.
Well done Sunny ! we hope that Austins is a huge success for you as you have worked very hard and deserve this. Your mother would be so proud to have read this story. Deb n Trevor Webb
Congratulations on the opening of Austins Sunny that is wonerful I wish you lots of success. Your Mum would be so proud. With your posituve attitude and hard work you have already suceeded! Julie Mende Darwin NT
What took you so long Gilbo? Mate, 24 odd years later I’m still very proud to call you a close friend. We’ve always worked so hard that few understand the sacrifices that accompany the drive to succeed and support our families. You deserve every success. Passion and Perfectionism are key elements…I can’t wait to critique your new restaurant. See you in a few weeks.
What a great read Sunny, where Austins opens let us know and I will alert my friends many of whom enjoy fine dining. A long way from Cornucopia
Well done Sunny, sounds like you have done the yards to earn some respect, good luck with it all and next time im in melb ill book a seat 😆
Comments are closed.