food for thought

article courtesy Voyeur, Virgin Australia

Growing up in a middle-class family of seven boys in regional Melbourne, I hated school but had a real passion for cooking — it was really all I wanted to do. I convinced my parents to let me leave school and at 15 I completed two weeks’ work experience at two Faces, a South Yarra restaurant, under owner Hermann Schneider. I moved to London and persuaded Michel Roux to take me on at his three-Michelin-starred The Waterside Inn, where I completed my training.

I won’t lie: the first years were tough and initially I hated the long hours and the hot kitchens. It almost broke me. Almost.

In 1999, I opened my first restaurant, Salt, in Sydney’s Darlinghurst. It was just before the Olympics, which proved to be great timing because of the promotion tourism in Australia was enjoying. Salt had a turnover of $5.9 million in its first year. That was a fantastic period and really helped me get established. From there the ‘empire’ expanded.

In those early days I neglected the more mundane aspects of a business until it began to affect cash flow. I didn’t get much advice from my accountant — I thought I was doing fine because my first restaurant was really successful, so I opened a second and a third. Initially, there were a lot of things I didn’t understand — you can have great turnover but not a great profit. Our first laundry bill at Salt was $5000 for the month: we just didn’t think of things like that.

But it’s all a learning experience. Being successful in any business is about working hard, striving for continual improvement and taking calculated risks.

These days I think the key to being a successful restaurateur is to invest in key staff members, from the senior staff through to the apprentices, and make them part of the business so they have some ownership. A restaurant is not just about the chefs preparing the meals, it’s also about your front-of-house staff and your waiters — it’s the whole package.

In 2005, we opened Glass Brasserie inside Sydney’s Hilton hotel. In our first year, we had a turnover of $10 million and we have stayed pretty consistent since then. At Glass, we seat up to 240 people and have more than 80 employees — so training is vital. Your front-of-house and waiters need to communicate with the chefs and vice versa to create synergy. This means educating them on produce, wines and overall customer service.

Your customers are also one of the most important factors; you want to create an experience for every person that comes through your restaurant. They need to feel special — because that’s why we’re in the hospitality industry.

Today we have 12 restaurants in Australia and Asia, Salt Grills on board three P&O cruise liners and we oversee the business-class menus on Virgin Australia. With a turnover of about $70 million and some 600 staff, I think the key to any successful restaurant, or any business for that matter, is the passion and commitment of those behind it.

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