Restaurateur and chef David Pugh’s journey has taken him from Auckland to London and back. Queenslanders are pretty happy it ended at Brisbane’s Restaurant Two
It’s true—I used to cook breakfast for my parents when I was a kid. Using their Sunbeam pan, the bacon would go in first, then the eggs. I’d make sure the toast was on; the kettle boiling. It was a timing thing, and I was good at it.
It was an interesting time, growing up in Auckland.
A lot of English chefs coming out were contracted to the New Zealand government to improve the standard of food within the hotels. The really good ones were tied into the colleges on five-year contracts. We were quite lucky that we had some excellent teachers back then.
My time at the Melbourne Hilton really opened my eyes—it was the hotel in Australia. We were doing some nice food in a big kitchen with a lot of staff. The Australian chefs were considered okay but the Europeans were always the best. I didn’t agree—and still don’t. If we can be better in sport, there’s no reason we can’t be better at cooking.
London was like my second apprenticeship. I was at The Connaught hotel, which had two Michelin stars. It was 1981, a time when there were hardly any Australians over there. Walking out one night, I saw seven Rolls-Royces lined up out front, with the engines running. That was the sort of people we were feeding.
We didn’t want for anything. Executive chef Michel Bourdin brought in the best possible produce from far-flung places—and so much. Food accounted for 50 to 60 per cent of running costs, which is just not sustainable. There was so much wastage, we could’ve run another two restaurants out of it. Eighteen-hour days were pretty much the norm, but we were there for a reason. If I couldn’t learn 10 things every day, I was wasting my time.
But it was a very tribal place—we had our own sections, and there was no working across them. The first thing I instigated back in Australia was that everybody had to be across every section, so we could move if we had to. It also meant we all had respect for what everyone was doing.
The Connaught was the best thing that happened in my life, but it was also one of the worst. Working in a place like that puts you on a pedestal, and there’s only one way to go after that: down. We were spoilt. At Two Small Rooms in Toowong, we couldn’t get the produce we were used to. We just couldn’t get our hands on a lot of the herbs and fruit and vegetables that we wanted.
So we tried to work with what we had. We developed a good camaraderie with some of the seafood suppliers, and would pick things up ourselves. We grew a lot of our own herbs. There wasn’t a lot of Asian veg around at the time, so we had to source areas where they could be grown.
When we opened Restaurant Two in 1999, Brisbane was really coming of age. We had very good clientele at Two Small Rooms, but it’s hard to stretch your wings in a suburban BYO. I’d do six days in the city, and then the seventh, the Sunday, at Two Small Rooms. On a Saturday night, I’d sneak in through the back door and walk through the restaurant so people would still think I cooked there. It was very demanding.
I always say to the guys, the best age to be a chef, physically, is between 18 and 32. You’re at your peak. After that, the brain may be willing, but the body is not. After 12 months of running both, I just decided it was too much. I couldn’t hack it anymore so we sold Two Small Rooms.
I can’t believe Restaurant Two turned 16 years old this July. It’s gone so fast. We’re doing a lot of function work these days, and we geared the decor around that four years ago: black and white with soft pastels, which is very versatile. It’s going well. Between now and November, we only have two free Saturdays.
Longevity doesn’t come easy. We’re seeing a lot of places open, but we’re also seeing a lot of places shut. No-one’s immune. The biggest issue is staffing. Last month, in Brisbane, 40 new places opened up, which means a lot of staff are taken, and customers too.
I wouldn’t say I’ve had a charmed life, but I still enjoy it every day. As you get older, your pivotal role changes. I’m more of a brains trust these days. I often say, ‘I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know’. Hospitality’s just one of those things. We call it the Hotel California factor. It’s like a drug gets into your system and you can’t get rid of it—that unbelievable rush when service is calling and the pressure’s on. The day you get out of bed and don’t enjoy it, it’s time to pack it in.