Even as MasterChef made him a celebrity, Gary Mehigan has spent the recent years contemplating the hard lessons from the past. With his restaurant Fenix now open again, he shares the tale of bringing it back to life
It is something of an understatement to say that Gary Mehigan has had a busy few years. As TV’s MasterChef juggernaut rolled out over the past two years, Mehigan has become one of the best-known chefs in the land.
That experience has seen him take a front row seat on the success roller coaster, including two ratings-busting seasons of MasterChef. It is also a journey that appears a long way from winding down.
In conversation with Mehigan, he regularly calls himself a lucky man. There have been, he says, far too many highlights in the recent years to mention.
But there is one particular day only three years ago that Mehigan has been spending a lot of time thinking about lately. It was the day in December 2007 that he and business partner Steve Bogdani closed their Melbourne restaurant, Fenix.
Fenix the restaurant closed to become Fenix the full-time function centre, and rode out the worst of the GFC by hosting weddings and corporate events.
It was only a few months ago on July 12 that Fenix the restaurant did, as its mythical (but misspelt) name promises, rise from the ashes to open its doors once more.
Rather than turn their backs on the pain of the past, Mehigan and Bogdani have instead been focusing intensely on that period in 2007, looking for answers to where they had gone wrong.
And from those answers, they were determined not to make the same mistakes as Fenix came to life again.
“Our worst night was one dinner when we had 13 people in the restaurant and 13 in the kitchen,” Mehigan says. “It was the night I remember thinking, ‘We have this completely wrong’. It was an impossible scenario to work with.
“That was the moment; we had all these highly-trained chefs and staff just sitting as we served an equal number of customers. You can get it wrong, but this was so totally wrong in every way.”
The other turning point was a day when some cyclists stopped by Fenix and ordered a coffee to go, only to be told by staff the establishment did not serve takeaway coffee.
“That is contrary to everything I believe and how I have trained my staff, but somehow, that happened,” he recalls. “That is just not me. At that point, I said I wanted to stop and needed some breathing space to work out the best way to get it back on track. Basically, we then turned it over to functions, where for every dollar we were making in functions we were losing an equal dollar in the restaurant.
“And the day we closed the restaurant, we began making money again.”
Mehigan and Bogdani had designed a business plan for Fenix when they opened the business in 2000. That plan had served them well for years, but in 2007, they changed direction.
One change was the style of food, in the hope to appeal to a higher-end market. The other was to seek industry recognition.
The move backfired on both fronts within a matter of months. “We had been a One Chef’s Hat restaurant for many years and that worked well,” Mehigan says. “Then we made the effort to drive the food quality upwards, but what I think we did was lose the essence of the business we started out with. The market that was there was different to the market we were pitching to.
“We went from being a profitable and diverse restaurant-café into a limited fine-dining environment which was restricted. Going from being constantly busy to being selectively busy was a difficult lesson to learn.
“We were also pushing to get two Hats, and in hindsight, it turned out to be the worst possible motivation. We had created a monster and then fell out of love with it. As a chef, that is the worst thing that can happen.”
After closing the doors of the restaurant, attention turned to positioning Fenix as a competitive function centre. Mehigan’s other businesses, the Maribyrnong Boathouse, also came in for closer scrutiny.
Just over 12 months later in early 2009, Mehigan was chosen as one of the three industry experts to guide contestants through the debut season of MasterChef. He has also appeared on the LifeStyle Channel’s Boy’s Weekend and Good Chef Bad Chef. It seems the experience of working with the passion of eager and talented amateurs chefs as they were put through their cooking paces was just the tonic that Mehigan needed after the failure of Fenix. It also reminded him of his early days working as a young chef in London at such establishments as The Connaught and Le Soufflé before moving to Melbourne in 1991.
“That was the moment; we had 13 highly-trained chefs and staff just sitting as we served 13 customers. You can get it wrong, but this was so totally wrong in every way.” Gary Mehigan
Any fear that he had lost the passion he once had for his craft was dispelled as he witnessed the talents of the rookie chefs he was mentoring on the show.
“Talking to the amateurs, the people who just love what they do, just made me feel like putting up my hand and saying, ‘Yes, yes, I am like that too!’” he laughs.
“Being on the show opened my mind to all sorts of different foods and styles, and it has re-inspired my love for all sorts of food. As chefs, we can get caught up in the technique and production, and yet we are not thinking so much from our hearts about what is really the best dish.”
Currently in the midst of production for Junior MasterChef, Mehigan admits he has taken pictures of some of the young contestant’s best efforts and sent them through to his team at Fenix with the comment, ‘Look at this—it is from an 11-year-old!’ Almost like a proud father, he exclaims: “The talent we are seeing is absolutely stunning. When you stand by and watch other people’s burning desire in food, it can not help but rub off.”
Somehow, in the midst of the relentless filming schedules, the operations of the Maribyrnong Boathouse and the functions at Fenix, the idea to reopen the restaurant side of Fenix came up for consideration with Bogdani.
When the prospect was finally raised, Mehigan admitted that it was something he had been desperate to do for a long time—for both emotional and practical reasons. “In the time since we had closed the restaurant, every time I walked into that building, even though it was very successful with functions, it was missing its heart,” he says.
“But it was also the opportunity cost. For every square metre we were paying rent on, and every minute it was sitting there vacant, was costing us money in lost opportunity. That was when we realised it was very stupid not to be using it.”
Once a new business plan was in place and the team, including executive chef Tracy Robertson was assembled, the doors opened. The result, Mehigan admits proudly, has been robust days at Fenix ever since.
“We did 152 for dinner the other Saturday, and while I still want the lunches to pick up, we are doing well,” he says.
“But there was a mountain of challenges to overcome, and lessons to be learnt from the last time. My mantra is this restaurant has to be a true reflection of me and the staff, and what I believe in. It has to be given with honesty and generosity.
“I can not afford to have any mean-spiritedness in anyway. I can not afford to have people saying, ‘oh, prams and babies again!’ There is no room for that.”
Paying closer attention to the customer experience and their subsequent feedback is also high on the new agenda.
Mehigan calls customers’ whims and wants the ‘benchmarks’ he now operates by. As he watched in despair as Fenix’s customer numbers drained away three years ago, he states, again, this has been a lesson hard learned.
“I have to listen to customers, and take on everything good and bad, and use that as the benchmarks to drive the business forward.
“And that does not mean going with every whim, but it is a case of having your ears open and listening to exactly what is going on. I want to know what the customer is saying and,
importantly, if they had a good time, I want to know what could be even better.”
Another mantra Mehigan has adopted for the reopening seems to be, ‘expect the best but prepare for the worst.’
It was something he admits took him by surprise in the first incarnation of Fenix. And he has no desire to repeat the mistake.
“A lot of people underestimate the worse-case scenario and don’t plan for that—and I am as guilty of that as anybody. You might think 10 covers at a lunch is as bad as it gets, but the real answer is having no diners at all.
“When setting up, you really have to visualise it packed—and nothing but. You then have to ensure every area of your business is working towards making that happen.
“That is my goal now—Fenix has to be full to have a life, and not just for atmosphere as a restaurant but also for the bottom line of surviving as a business.”