David Pugh & Michael Conrad

Queensland’s David Pugh (left) and Michael Conrad.

Queensland’s David Pugh (left) and Michael Conrad.

The co-owners of Brisbane’s Restaurant2 and Three Bistro say managing a successful dining room is all about sticking to what you know and remaining hands-on in the business.

MICHAEL: I was 14 when I decided that restaurants were where I wanted to head. As a precocious 17-year-old I told my bosses I was going to have the best restaurant in Queensland one day.

Under the old-school style of training, you couldn’t turn up to work in anything other than checked chef’s jacket, scarf and hat. I spent the next 20 years adapting that to what I’d call a modern Australian service.

DAVID: A lot of my college tutors were from the Savoy in London. They were offered lucrative contracts by the New Zealand government to teach at the colleges. They were driven by quality and worked to a top standard.

MICHAEL: My time at the Sheraton came to an unfortunate end when I got promoted to the ‘Sidewalk Café’ to run a buffet restaurant. They saw it as a promotion—I saw it as people eating out of a trough. It gave me the push to go on and do something more.

The attitude towards staff has changed dramatically. Kids coming here on work experience have a knife in their hand on their first day. At 17 they’re trimming up truffles and working with beautiful breasts of squab pigeons or New Zealand venison.

DAVID: Service is vitally important. Food is only 30 per cent of the picture. Being consistent is the big thing. It’s not hard to get to the top if you do your homework—the hard part is staying there.

MICHAEL: Wine matters.When I was about 19 years old, The Brisbane Club and Milano had the two best cellars in the city and I learnt about wine. Gino Merlo [of Milano] would say, ‘Do you want money or wine?’ I soon learnt I’d get a better deal with the wine.

Three Bistro came about when we weren’t looking. It seemed right at the time, even though I’d been swearing for the past seven years that I’d never run two restaurants at the same time ever again.

DAVID: The only reason we could open Three was because we made our manager into a partner. You need to have like-minded people you can trust on board.

We all have our areas of expertise. Now and then we’ll contribute to another area, except with financials. And we don’t do any advertising because we don’t have to.

MICHAEL: Take the best piece of produce and make it shine. That’s the simple truth. When you’re looking at great wine, it needs to compliment the food. There always needs to be a logical progression—you can’t just put stuff out because you feel like it.

DAVID: I’ve seen product from all over the world. Whatever was the best at the time, we had it. We’d get asparagus from Mexico or Australia—all Australia’s best product went to the UK. That’s when I saw fresh Queensland asparagus—in The Connaught’s kitchen in London.

About 45 minutes every day is spent talking to the producers. A guy from Byron Bay just dropped off ruby chard. And next week it’s going to be organic pumpkins and freshly dug potatoes.

MICHAEL: I’ve learnt I can’t do everything myself. You need to have real faith in the other people around you. In a half-hour job interview here, we’ll spend maybe five minutes talking about work and the rest getting to know them. It’s easier to teach someone to carry a plate than to make them a nice person.

DAVID: Restaurant2 works because of our honesty. We’re careful to be transparent in everything we do. We actually work in the business, cleaning up rabbits or the kitchen. When I’m here I’m hands-on.  ≤

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