The award-winning chef of Restaurant Lurleens talks about the importance of quality and the joy of fishing
After my apprenticeship I went overseas for a few months. I knew very little. When I got back I got a job at Faces Restaurant in Paddington, Brisbane. I was way down the line. But within three months everyone had left except me. I ended up running it and it won best new restaurant. I taught myself and learned fast.
I’ve always cared about quality. Even in the 1980s, I was buying prawns, bugs and squid fresh off the trawlers. In those days everyone bought frozen, which was rubbish. One man I used to buy from in 1981, I’m buying from his son now. I have some very long-standing relationships.
After Faces, the maitre d, Michael Conrad, and I set up our own place, Two Small Rooms. We went to Sydney and visited the restaurants there. I remember Damien Pignolet’s Claude’s especially. We used a lot of concepts from those places. Brisbane in those days was Lobster Mornay and Chicken Cacciatore and people used the same menu for 10 years. We changed our menu every week. We were booked out six to eight weeks in advance.
For the first three months we didn’t draw wages. After that we thought we’d write ourselves bonus cheques for $5,000 each. Both cheques bounced! We were turning over thousands of dollars each week and making no profit. I went to my father, who is a doctor and an investor, and he put me onto his accountant. He sorted us out—profit and losses, things like that.
After four years Michael bought me out. Then I went and worked on a trawler. I’d wanted to do that ever since my thirteenth birthday when my next door neighbour, who was a commercial fisherman, took me out on his boat. But I found I didn’t like working on prawn trawlers. So I went back and started About Face, which was very successful.
“I’d be up at 4am to go fishing then be back at three in the arvo and drive the tractor up to the restaurant. By six we’d have a line of people waiting to get in.”
After three years I gave it up again to follow the dream of being a commercial fisherman. This time did my Master Fisherman’s licence, moved to North Stradbroke Island and bought a boat. I fished there for 10 years. There’s no money in it but I owned the freehold on About Face so rent was coming in each month. I also ended up owning a restaurant there—Blue Water Bistro—that did well. I’d be up at 4am to go fishing then be back at three in the arvo and drive the tractor up to the restaurant. By six we’d have a line of people waiting to get in.
I hadn’t worked for anyone since 1986. Then one of my old managers called. She was restaurant manager at Lurleens at Sirromet Winery. I wasn’t really looking for a change but at the time my oldest kid was school age. She asked me to meet with the CEO at the time, Adam Chapman, who was also the chief winemaker. He offered me the job.
The owners Terry and Lurleen Morris let me run the restaurant as if it was my own business. I don’t get asked questions—I’ve got KPIs to meet, but as long as there’s a profit at the end of the year they’re happy. I couldn’t work for anyone else.
Writing for the paper and doing TV doesn’t hurt either. I started doing ‘Saturday Afternoon’ when I was at Stradbroke Island. I was called up by the producer and asked to come in for a chat. I said ‘I’m not really a typical chef ’—I was 140 kg at the time and I had dreadlocks. The look on her face was ‘Oh my god’. But then she said ‘you’re perfect’. We’re still friends now.
Chefs work the equivalent of two week’s hours for a week’s wages. You make a lot of sacrifices to do this. But it’s instant gratification. If the customers are happy or unhappy you know straight away. I’d like to work until I’m 50 then go fishing again. Or maybe when I’m 60. Or 100.
One decision I made consciously 10 or 15 years ago was to use regional produce. I’ve always bought direct from the suppliers. I unload a trawler every week. I send an email to him on Sunday afternoon. Then he’ll go off and catch what I want. He’ll chase things for me. I pay the same rate all year round. It gives him security. Fishermen are like chefs, they’re grumpy, they work in their own environment but because I’ve been one, I understand.