Young Chef of the Year 2009 and Young Restaurateur National Finalist 2014 – Matt Dempsey was Executive Chef at Pettavel Winery when he entered the Appetite for Excellence Young Chef program in 2009.
“I entered because the prizes looked really cool,” he says with a laugh. “I thought I’d have a go, just as a chance to learn. And it was awesome, a real highlight of my professional career.”
Matt won the 2009 Young Chef award and as part of the prize, spent two weeks in the UK at Brett Graham’s two Michelin star restaurant, the Ledbury, in London, and Heston Blumenthal’s three Michelin star Fat Duck in Bray.
Cool prizes indeed.
Three years later though, he was rundown and needed a change.
“After I won in 2009, I left my job at Pettavel for another role in Geelong. But within two years, I was burnt out and had lost all motivation. I didn’t want to drive [from Geelong] to Melbourne everyday to work in a two or three hat restaurant as I had young kids. So, I decided the only way to stay motivated was to open my own restaurant,” he says.
Gladioli opened in late 2011. Matt and his wife Kate chose the small regional town of Inverleigh, 20 minutes west of Geelong, as the site of their new venture.
Three years and two hats later Gladioli has carved out its rung on the ladder and marked Inverleigh as a fine dining destination. In 2013, it was awarded Best New Regional Restaurant in the Age Good Food Awards. Gourmet Traveller ranked Gladioli #5 on its 2015 best regional restaurants and #55 in its 2015 Top 100 Australian restaurants.
In 2013, in the midst of success and hard work, Matt and fellow Pettavel chef, Graham Jefferies, opened Tulip Bar and Restaurant in Geelong. Designed as a casual dining experience with an emphasis on its extensive, all Victorian wine list, Tulip won its first hat in 2015. “It’s been an awesome three years,” says Matt. “Far better than I could ever have expected.”
In 2014, Matt went through the Appetite for Excellence program again as a Young Restaurateur Finalist.
“I had such a great time the first time round; the produce tour and the networking opportunities were brilliant, so I knew it could only be a positive experience,“ he says. “If I have staff at the right level, I try to encourage them to enter too.”
Finding and managing staff is just one of the issues Matt now has to contend with as a chef-owner, though he finds it a lot easier working for himself than for other people.
“Between managing and working in two businesses, I can combine all the things I liked about some places I’ve worked in and none of the things I didn’t. But the financial anxiety is something I don’t think you can prepare for, and we’re still learning about how to deal with that.
You train to be a chef but with your own restaurant, you also have to understand admin and marketing and finances and those sorts of things,” he says.
There’s also the unexpected element that can throw out the best-laid plans. For example, “we opened Tulip 2 years ago and it’s actually taken a lot of our primary business,” he says. “We’ve had to put a lot of time into how we deal this.”
He admits that trying to chef in all three restaurants, do the paperwork, and spend time with his three kids is not easy. “Time management is what I have to work on,” he says.
Given the hectic pace of his own life, perhaps this is why Matt advocates patience to industry newcomers. “A lot of young chefs come in expecting to become a superstar in a year and it doesn’t work like that,” he says.
“Listen, learn and expose yourself to as much as you can – embrace it as a way of life. I read books, talk to people, and travel. Everything I do has some sort of food relevance; it’s a passion not a skill, I love it.”