Meet industry veteran Philip Johnson, whose award-winning—and now new-look—e’cco bistro has been a bright light on Brisbane’s dining scene for more than 30 years. By Sally Wilson
He might have spent nearly 40 years in the business but Brisbane chef and restaurateur Philip Johnson is not hanging up his apron just yet. In fact, he’s doing the complete opposite, having moved and reopened his legendary e’cco bistro in an inner-city Newstead location in March.
“Myself and a lot of other people, are just career cooks or restaurateurs, who wouldn’t know what else to do,” Johnson says, laughing. “The young ones might not want me around because they think, ‘He’s too old. He’s too slow.’ But I reckon I can still do it, that’s all that matters. You’ve got to believe in yourself!”
Building on the reputation of his 23-year-old bistro, Johnson has big plans for e’cco’s reincarnation. Over the summer, Johnson oversaw the new fit-out with architects Twohill and James — “It’s going to be a stunning restaurant,” he says — that incorporates several different spaces: a main dining room, a kitchen counter with full view of the pass, a private dining room that seats 35, and a covered outdoor space with room for about 60 people.
Johnson has been working with head chef Simon Palmer to steer e’cco’s menu in a new direction. “We’ve put in a big Brazilian chargrill called a parilla,” explains Johnson. “So the focus will be on a lot of things coming off the wooden charcoal. Inside will be serious, but slightly simpler [than the old e’cco]. Outside there’ll be a bar, plus some bar-food from the chargrill.”
Rethinking the menu
The e’cco bistro menu will also move away from the traditional breakdown of entrees, mains and desserts. “The menu is going to be a bit more open: there’ll be a vegetable section, a fish section, a meat section, some sides and desserts,” he says. “It’ll be dictated by choice. So, obviously if you see something that’s $16 to $22, you probably assume that’s an entree size. And then, in the same bracket, there’ll be some things for $38—that’s going to be a main. People can choose.”
Johnson says the new e’cco menu will focus more on seafood and vegetables. “Eating vegetables done properly is a great way to eat. Often, you can’t be bothered at home because it takes a lot of effort to do a quick vegetable dish. But if you’re eating out, it’s a nice way to eat, and it’s a lot lighter.”
Despite the changes, Johnson says e’cco’s food will stay true to its roots. “We’ve pretty much stuck to what we’ve always done. It’s just honest food, with a heap of flavour. But more than food and service, we’re about actually buying into an experience.” It’s a simple formula that has seen e’cco last the distance over three decades in a rapidly changing Brisbane dining scene.
After arriving in Brisbane from his native New Zealand in 1980, where he completed an apprenticeship in Christchurch, Johnson went on to work in Sydney and Tasmania before moving to England to work for Antony Worrall Thompson at Menage à Trois.
It was these experiences that opened Johnson’s mind to new possibilities. “At that time in Australia, we had a button mushroom or a field mushroom. There was an iceberg lettuce and a cos lettuce. On my first day, there were 15 lettuces, a dozen different types of mushrooms, probably 20 cheeses, virtually all unpasteurised. That was really what fired my imagination,” he recalls.
On his return to Brisbane, Johnson opened his first restaurant, Le Bronx, in New Farm and stayed for six years. “It was so hard. It was a labor of love,” he says. “We got out with our reputation and not much else. But when we did e’cco, we had a ready-made clientele because we’d proven that we could do good food and that we were serious about what we did.”
After Le Bronx, Johnson returned to London for a second stint with Worrall Thompson, this time at Dell’Ugo. It was there that he learnt how to make Mediterranean bistro-style food in large amounts. Johnson had found his calling and returned to Brisbane to open e’cco in 1995, building on all his previous experience—good and bad. “I learnt from my first restaurant that we wouldn’t do tablecloths,” he says. “I think e’cco was probably one of the first restaurants that didn’t have tablecloths where the food was deadly serious.
“We wanted to offer food that people could eat more than once a week, so that whether someone came in and had a salad and a bowl of soup, they were treated the same as someone who came and had a three-course meal.”
“Whether you’re in the bar or in the kitchen, you have to be confident in your own ability. And if you employ someone who is as good, if not better, than you, it just makes you look good.”
Johnson says that another defining moment came 18 months after opening, when he read The River Cafe Cookbook. “I was taken with what I saw. It was different, it was fresh, it was produce-driven food.
“Within 10 days of reading that book, I got on a plane and did a two-week stage at the River Cafe, just because I wanted to know more about that simplicity that Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers stood for.”
Within six months of his return, e’cco bistro won one of Australia’s most prestigious awards—the Remy Martin Cognac Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year award in 1997. “At the time, no Queensland restaurant had won that, and no Queensland restaurant has won it since,” says Johnson.
Winning the award almost doubled e’cco’s business, boosting the five-day restaurant from 400 weekly covers to 700 overnight. “Luckily, we had good people in place because that can break you. When you get that busy, it’s really easy to muck it up because it’s nearly double what you were doing,” he says.
With greater media exposure also came other opportunities, and Johnson went on to author six cookbooks, write a weekly column for The Courier-Mail, consult to Air New Zealand among other companies, and start a catering business. While there was no masterplan, Johnson says he believes diversification is key for today’s restaurateurs. “You need a few strings to your bow these days: having a private function space is vital. I think catering is a good add-on to a restaurant. You can’t just wait for people to walk in through the door.”
Not every aspect of e’cco has been a success, though. Johnson opened a bar under the restaurant in 2010 and tried for three years to make it work. “We thought it would get the overflow from the restaurant,” he says. “But, because it was sort of separate from the restaurant, it never really got any traction.”
Whether it’s the bigger setbacks or daily challenges, Johnson takes a pragmatic approach. “Every day, there’s an issue but you deal with it. Some things are just out of your control,” he says.
He considers team building one of the most important parts of running a restaurant. “You have to create a business that people want to work in. Because if you don’t want to come to work, then how do you expect anyone else to?”
Keeping staff motivated
He also believes in hiring and nurturing excellent staff, even if one day they might surpass you. “Whether you’re in the bar or in the kitchen, you have to be confident in your own ability. And if you employ someone who is as good, if not better, than you, it just makes you look good.
“We’ve had people who came to work at e’cco in the early days, and I thought, ‘They’re not up to the speed.’ And what happens is human nature. No-one wants to be last in the pack, so someone who you think was going to fall off the back of the truck, basically ups their game to the point where they reach the others.”
Being able to mentor young chefs has been particularly rewarding for Johnson. In recent years, chefs such as Ben Shewry (Attica, Victoria) and Josh Niland (Saint Peter, NSW) have told him how the e’cco cookbooks inspired them when they were starting out. “That was really humbling, coming from two of the most gifted chefs in Australia,” he says.
After 23 years in the e’cco bistro kitchen, Johnson is most proud of creating an environment that promotes professional growth. “It comes from giving them the right produce to use, no abuse in the kitchen, being firm but fair. Then you get this person who comes out of their shell. And in the end, they leave, and they thank you for it. That’s very satisfying.”