“You ask yourself what sort of restaurant do you want? What kind of food will we do? Who will be our customers?”
I am a chef-owner of Lûmé restaurant in South Melbourne.
I wanted to cook from an early age, despite not having any role models who were adept in the kitchen amongst my family. I’m not sure why, cooking was just something I was drawn to.
High school was a necessary evil, I didn’t get much out of it. I’ve always been quite self-sufficient, and if there’s something I want to learn, I will take it upon myself to do so – I won’t wait to be taught. I find researching and learning something on my own a lot more satisfying.
One of my first jobs was working at McDonalds in Toowoomba where I grew up, while I was still in school. It was a good introduction to hospitality, kitchen systems and basic food prep and cleaning principles – some of which I still use today.
After high school I gave music a go, playing in a few bands. It was fun, but eventually I realized that a career as a musician wasn’t sustainable.
I did the first six months of my apprenticeship in a gourmet fish & chip shop, and then transferred to Toowoomba’s fanciest restaurant called Encores, which was owned by the same chef.
The work at the fish & chip shop was boring, but I still got a lot out of it – we’d get rammed on weekends, there’d be dockets upon dockets, so it taught me how to time manage and keep my cool under pressure.
I finished my apprenticeship in less than three years instead of the usual four, as I was keen to get signed off and start working.
Newly qualified, I applied and talked my way into an Executive Chef role at the 5-star Bourke and Wills Hotel in Toowoomba.
There, I had to learn very quickly things like people management, food costs and profit margins, how to manage a budget, as well as wage laws and permits: all the aspects that are as important to a chef as being able to cook, but that don’t get taught during your apprenticeship.
I made a huge amount of mistakes along the way, but it was a good learning experience for me.
I was there around two years. I found myself frustrated because, whilst I was closely following top restaurant and food trends and trying to put these on the menu, it wasn’t well received in the conservative Toowoomba. I knew I had to get out.
I applied to all the Melbourne and Sydney restaurants, sending off letters every week. A few people wrote back and I spent around a month flying between the two cities, doing kitchen trials.
I ended up working as a chef de partie for Peter Gilmore at Quay in Sydney, a 3-hat restaurant. It was quite a culture shock. I was in charge of the hot and cold entrees section, working with 17 other chefs on a shift.
Going from being in charge as an Exec Chef to working in a subordinate role was difficult, but necessary. I said to myself, ‘You have to do this and learn from others’.
I’ve never done well with authority figures, so working in kitchens with someone barking orders at me is always a bit fraught…
Still, Quay was a great experience; I was introduced to a lot of amazing produce and chef Peter was very supportive. I stayed there for a year and a half before I felt like I was ready to move on and learn somewhere new.
Next I moved to Melbourne to work at Courthouse, which was a 2-hat French restaurant at the time. Again, I worked as a chef de partie, but this time we were in a typical hot little kitchen, crammed on top of each other – the kind of place where tempers get frayed quickly.
Given our Irish chef had a pretty hot temper, it could get quite challenging.
Most of the kitchens I’ve worked at in the early days were quite intense environments. There was a fair bit of that stereotypical aggression flying around, and as a young chef, I also subscribed to the unwritten law that the chef is allowed to be a dick. I was pretty fiery back then. These days, I realize it’s not necessary and I’ve learned to control my temper.
Work at the Courthouse wasn’t too interesting, so after a few months I applied to work with Dan Hunter, who had just accepted a job at the then-unknown Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, four hours drive from Melbourne. I heard of Dan from his work at Mugaritz in Spain, and I knew I could learn a lot from him.
I started at Royal Mail a month after Dan, while it was still a typical old country hotel. Along with six other chefs, we spent months changing it over – putting systems in place, training, inventing a new menu that was linked to the kitchen garden.
This was my introduction to working with a kitchen garden, and for me, it was a huge revelation.
Majority of people get their food from supermarkets. They’re eating factory-farmed meats and produce that’s not grown to be delicious, but to look good on shelves. The supermarkets buy these foods in bulk, screwing over the farmers to bring prices down. Unfortunately, people get used to this. Then, when they go to a market or a restaurant that uses produce direct from the farm and tastes infinitely better, people don’t understand why it costs more. Growing food is labour-intensive, and growing good food even more so. I think the culture in Australia is slowly changing to embrace this, but we’re not quite there yet.
At the Royal Mail, we grew as much as we could in our garden, plus used all the local produce from surrounding regions. Within two years, and after a lot of hard work – we were all doing hundred hours plus a week – it all paid off, and it got huge recognition and success.
The two years I spent at Royal Mail felt more like ten. It was intense, very draining – but very satisfying. I loved it.
I learnt a massive amount there and it was hugely influential on my cooking: a real turning point.
After leaving Dunkeld and taking some time off, I moved to Brisbane to work as an executive pastry chef at the newly re-opened restaurant called Urbane. Even though I didn’t have a lot of pastry experience, once again, I managed to talk my way into it.
That was the first position since Toowoomba where I had full creative control over the menu. I oversaw the dessert and the cheese menu, as well as the bakery.
As a young chef, I was keen to experiment, and to show off everything I’ve learnt over the years – so there was a lot of techniques, a lot of ingredients involved.
One dish that got a fair bit of attention was the Bird’s Nest. It was made from tempeh chocolate formed into a nest, with lots of different types of jellies and gels, and 2 realistic-looking eggs. One was made from a type of sugar and filled with ice-cream, and the other was a chocolate aniseed doughnut with a soft centre and encased in a sugar shell. It was a nightmare to make, but well received.
Working at Urbane, I started to develop my own profile and for the first time started getting media attention. It’s easy to let that sort of thing go to your head, and get distracted doing appearances and interviews. It can become a full-time job. But I had no interest in going down that path, so I tried to keep it at an arm’s length.
Still, it was a beneficial to get my name out there, and the upside was that I never had to apply for a job again – it was all word of mouth.
After two years, I came back to Melbourne and helped a chef friend of mine set up the No35 restaurant at Sofitel. I was only there a few months, but it was interesting to see how a massive hotel operates, the infrastructure and the logistics behind the scenes. With an operation that size, there is a lot bureaucracy and red tape, hoops to jump through to get what you need to cook with. Everything needs to be accounted and planned for – understandably – but it makes it hard to be creative and spontaneous in the kitchen. It wasn’t something I wanted to do.
At the same time, the Executive Chef at No35, James Viles, was planning to open a new restaurant in his home town of Bowral in NSW, and he asked me to be the head chef there.
I moved to Bowral six months before we opened Biota. Like Royal Mail, there was a lot of hard work needed to set up the restaurant, thousands of things that needed to happen to open the doors. I was working hundred and twenty-hour weeks, doing everything from writing the menu and setting up the kitchen to painting the lines in the carpark.
We also had a huge kitchen garden, and it was my job to build it, making the garden beds out of railway sleepers.
We had a pretty high-profile opening, lots of media. I was under a lot of pressure to make it work, and the first year was stressful – getting everything into place, achieving consistency and building a good culture. All the work paid off though, and the restaurant became successful and known for its ambitious food.
After about two years, I was exhausted, and returned to Melbourne for a rest. I did some part-time work for friends while I decided what to do next.
My end goal was always to have my own business.
I knew I needed to put in the time and get enough experience working for others, to learn how run a successful business myself.
The common thread with all the places that I’ve worked at, is that it’s always been something new for me – I never tried to drum up big-name credentials. Royal Mail, Urbane, Biota – they were all new restaurants where I saw opportunities to learn and get new experiences that would eventually help me to do something myself.
At that stage, I felt like I was ready and I started looking into opening an ice-cream business.
I came up with a concept, drew up a business plan – it was ready to go. I didn’t have a lot of money, and as it was an expensive business to get off the ground – you need a lot of specialized equipment to make ice-cream in bulk – I got a business partner who was going to invest in it.
Unfortunately, once it got to crunch time, things got a bit messy.
Our negotiations broke down as he tried to change the original terms, and I wasn’t happy with his revised expectations. I realized our partnership wouldn’t last long term, and backed out of the deal.
In the aftermath of that, I did a short stint at a hugely hyped steakhouse restaurant, working for a celebrity chef from the states. Despite the hype, the restaurant didn’t do that well, but through the people I met there I got involved in a dining precinct in the Docklands. I got hired as an executive pastry chef for the four restaurants operating in Collins Square, developing all their menus as well as a catering kitchen doing wholesale pastries.
It wasn’t an overly exciting job, but it paid well and working fifty hours a week felt like a holiday.
It gave me a chance to save up some money and time to plan my next step. By the time I left, I was ready to open my own restaurant.
Starting from scratch can be a daunting process. You ask yourself what sort of restaurant do you want? What kind of food will we do? Who will be our customers? A million other questions.
I wanted my restaurant to be a culmination of everywhere that I’ve worked, the places I’ve eaten at, travelled to and the people I’ve met.
All these experiences rolled around in my head, got processed and the result was a unique experience that I wanted to offer people.
Again, I started off with another business partner. I should’ve already learnt my lesson. Opening a restaurant is a huge risk, and having a partner is an even bigger one. Anything I do in the future, I will never have a business partner again.
It was someone who I’d worked with. But as soon as you start to introduce business and money into a relationship, it gets tricky. We did find a great investor, who is fantastic – that relationship turned out really well, and he is a pleasure to work with to this day.
But my business partner turned out to be wrong for this place.
My vision for Lûmé was what you see here today, whilst he was pulling in different directions that didn’t sit right with me. Without going into it too much, there were too many creative and business differences, and in the end, I had to ask him to leave the business.
It was stressful, as well as being fairly highly publicized, but in hindsight it was the best thing that could’ve happened, allowing me to bring into being everything I wanted for the restaurant.
Knowing what I wanted Lûmé to be, the main thing was getting that across to the staff, setting standards, building the right culture – and not wavering from the vision.
I think that’s the key to a successful business.
Now we have a great team, a lot of people have been with me from the start. Considering how transient hospitality industry is, it’s a great achievement. We look after our people. We also ask a lot from them, there’s a lot of information they need to retain, people work long hours and it’s an intense workplace. We try to ensure everyone’s happy, and feel like they are being creatively challenged and contributing.
There is a hierarchy, of course, but it’s not strictly enforced – everyone is encouraged to contribute ideas.
We do a lot of training, for both front and back of house staff, let people try new things. I want people who walk away from here feel the same way I did when I left Royal Mail – like they’ve worked here for 10 years, absorbed all this information information and really developed their knowledge and experience.
The food we do is my take on the produce available in Australia, it’s very different to what everyone else cooks. But it’s not just the food – the process of serving it, the interactions with guests, the whole restaurant experience – we’ve looked for ways to do everything differently, to improve on the status quo.
For example, our reservations system is quite unique.
Everyone who comes to the restaurant goes through the booking system, and it sets up a guest profile. When they return, we know what they ate and drunk last time, what they did and didn’t like, dietary requirements – it really personalizes their experience.
When booking, every guest also fully pre-pays for their meal. We don’t do a la carte, so it’s a set price for the tasting menus. The reason we got onto pre-payment was to combat a common problem in the restaurant industry – the no-shows.
Obviously, sometimes people book and then have a legitimate excuse for not coming – accidents, illness. But majority of excuses are not legitimate – I’m a bit tired, it’s too hot out.
And you can’t blame the public, I guess, because they don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, particularly in a place like this.
To serve you a 15-course menu, a huge team works all day to prepare it.
When you cancel at the last minute, all the money spent to buy the produce for your meal and to pay the people preparing it, it’s is all wasted.
In a fifty-seat restaurant like ours, if you have a table of four not show up for the night, you would’ve been better off not opening that day, because that was your profit margin. At the start, we were losing three, four grand a week on no-shows.
And everyone in the industry has the same problem. But no one does anything about it, except complain.
We questioned this and found a solution that works for us.
Likewise, we’ve questioned every aspect of the restaurant experience – from accepted food and wine pairings, to cooking techniques, to staff uniforms, to how we interact with guests.
My partner Veronica, who is a co-owner with me, is a psychologist and an economist. Two very different fields, but very relevant to us.
Veronica has been very influential in the language we use.
She’s involved in training and getting people on board, she teaches our staff NLP principles and techniques that inform how we talk with our guests, how we present ourselves in the media, on social media.
When you go to a high-end restaurant, you’re paying for the experience, not just a plate of food.
For us, it’s important that guests have fun when they come here. I think normally, fun and fine dining don’t go together. People go to high calibre restaurants and it tends to be quite a formal, sombre experience. To me, that’s an outdated concept.
When guests arrive, I want them to relax, to leave a bad day at the door and to really enjoy themselves. That’s what our front of house staff are trained to do, right from the moment they open the door for someone. With our booking system, we know who’s coming, so the simplest thing like greeting people by name when they arrive helps us set the right mood.
The guest experience is the most important thing to me.
I think that’s where some restaurants go wrong – instead of focusing on the guests, they’re focusing on the industry, what their chef friends think, the hype. To me, focusing on the daily bustle is key – who’s coming in today, how do we make it special today? It might be just another Thursday for us, but our guests have been waiting to eat here, it’s a one-off thing for them, so it’s got to be special.
I don’t cook during service as much anymore, as running the business takes up majority of my time. But cooking is still hugely enjoyable and satisfying for me. I try to find a few hours each day to work on recipes. We’re closed on Mondays, so that’s the day I come in and tinker in the kitchen with no one to distract me.
As a chef, it’s also very satisfying cooking for other chefs, people you’ve got a lot of respect for.
Last year, when they had the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards here in Melbourne, there were all these world-famous chefs here. You know, people I’ve looked up to and wanted to emulate as a young chef, and now you look up and there they are sitting at table 12 in your restaurant. That was cool… if a bit stressful!
If there’s anything I don’t love, it’ budgeting. The food culture in Australia is very young, it’s not ingrained into everyday life like it is in European countries, where food is at the centre of life, where dishes become cultural icons. But in Australia, people don’t expect to pay as much for good food in a restaurant as what it’s actually worth, once you include all the costs and the overheads – the profit margins in the restaurant industry are abysmally low. And with operational costs always going up, budgeting is a nightmare – I still find it challenging. But to be honest, there isn’t really anything I don’t enjoy in what I do.
More than two years on, this is the longest I’ve worked anywhere – most of my previous jobs were around two years.
So that’s an interesting situation for me. And yes, there are moments when I think, ‘god, I’d love to do something else…’ – but they’re short lived. This is different, because it’s mine. I’ve gone through the process of opening this business and it’s very personal. Literally everything in this building has come from me, everyone who works here was hired by me, and I’m fully committed to it.
Having said that, we have a great team in place, and are at a point where the restaurant can function without so much supervision from me, allowing me to look at doing additional projects.
This year we’re opening another venue in Los Angeles.
Different name, but similar style, maybe a little more casual. Produce there is amazing and with the current tourism and restaurant boom, not to mention the 2020 Olympics, it’s a huge opportunity for success.
We’ve been over there a few times in past months, researching the food and business cultures.
In one aspect, US are in stark contrast to Australia. When I opened Lûmé, I did a few interviews where I talked about my aspirations. I wasn’t necessary comparing myself to the top restaurants, but I was saying this is where I aim to get to.
I copped a lot of shit for it, people saying ‘who does he think he is’ – they wanted me to be humbler.
I think it’s deeply ingrained in our culture to love the underdog, the ‘Aussie battler’. In the States, it’s the opposite – they are not afraid to praise themselves. I was born here, I love Australia. But I really dislike that tall poppy syndrome. This tendency to shoot down people is why there isn’t enough innovation in Australia, why we tend to follow rather than lead, in my opinion.
In a way, though we have the formula from Lûmé, opening in LA is like starting from scratch –different country, with a different culture and people. I’ll need to learn new rules and laws, use new types of produce. It’s going to be an exciting year.