He’s cooked for the Queen, runs a string of hip restaurants around the globe and has cut his culinary teeth in some of the world’s most prestigious restaurants, yet what stands out about Nic Watt is his genuine humility.
Watt is the man behind Madame Hanoi, the French/Vietnamese bistro nestled in the train station on North Terrace in Adelaide.
As he talks, it’s evident the 42-year-old chef has had input into every aspect of the business, from the detailed pieces of greased serving paper (complete with maps of Paris and Hanoi), to the hand-painted pill cups, staff uniforms, choice of Seletti bone china, to working with the architects on the breathtaking redesign of this historic site.
Watt admits one of the keys to his success is what he calls “stepping over your shadow—your ego”.
“If you can do that, then I think you can run a successful business,” he says. “I might create a dish that I think is the best in the world, but if no-one orders it, or you are only selling five a week, that is where you have to step over your shadow and say, ‘I still think it’s the best dish in the world but if no-one is eating it, I’ve got to change it.’ So, it’s being able to know when you’ve got a winner.
“How many times have you been to a restaurant and said, ‘It was better last time I came’? Too often chefs want to change the menu all the time but when you go to a restaurant, you should have signature dishes that stay. You change seasonally around them.”
In the six months since Madame Hanoi opened, Watt says he is exceptionally happy with how business is tracking.
“The understanding of a bistro is getting there. People weren’t quite sure if we were a restaurant or not. We’re not ‘tablecloths and fine dining’,” he says. “We get people coming in for a quick bite, and then come in a week later for a full meal, so the public is really starting to understand the multi-offerings we have here.”
Key to the success of this bistro-style dining is Watt’s philosophy and practice of building communities around Madame Hanoi, whether that be a coffee community, the office worker lunch crowd or the pre-dinner drinkers and diners.
“What we are trying to do is build Madame Hanoi as our family, our people,” explains Watt. “It’s really important that to build that community, we need to keep familiar faces, both from our point of view and for the guest. So, when ‘Jane’ walks through the door for her flat white, Lee is doing the same shift on breakfast. He recognises Jane and says, ‘Hi Jane’, and she becomes our friend—part of our extended family. That is how we build our Madame Hanoi community.
“Familiarity is key because when you walk in somewhere and you are recognised, it makes you feel good.
“Across the day we cater for everybody—a coffee or a croissant, a light lunch with some baos, or come in pre-footy or theatre, and have a drink at the bar or a full dinner.”
Watt is based in Auckland with wife Kelly and children Kiana, aged nine, and Lucas, six. He travels to Adelaide once a month for a week to spend a few shifts in the kitchen and oversee all aspects of the business.
During his recent trip, Watt applied his philosophy of being able to adapt and flex to the market. He was adamant that Madame Hanoi would be for walk-in customers only. “It’s a bistro. You should be able to wander in and grab a table or a seat at the bar until one comes up. However, we are finding that people in Adelaide really want to book. They don’t quite believe in the bistro walk-in concept,” he says.
“As a result, six months into it, we are going to take bookings but only for 60 per cent of the restaurant. That’s an example of understanding the local market place.
“I get it in one aspect. Kelly and I have a young family so if we go out on a Friday night, the babysitter arrives at 6pm and we need our table to be confirmed for 7pm. So, to be successful, you’ve got to be able to flex to the market place. It doesn’t necessarily fit the bistro model but that’s okay. I can get over that.”
A challenge for Watt is finding good staff, and he says staff retention is critical to success. Madame Hanoi has a staff of 52, with around 90 per cent signing on when the restaurant launched in January.
“I’m an absolute believer in treating your staff as individuals, with respect and retaining them and developing them,” he says. “I still remember when I met them. All I said was, ‘My role is to teach you to be better hospitality individuals and for me to give you the environment and the tools to better yourself for your careers,’ and I stand by that.”
Watt is also incredibly glowing when discussing senior staff, including executive chef Darren Johnson, who Watt brought over from his world-famous Roka in London, chef Krish Dutt and Adelaide local Blake Oliver, who is restaurant manager.
And one of the other stars of Madame Hanoi is the woman behind the giant mural that dominates the front of the bistro—South Australian artist Emma Hack. Watt’s idea was a massive artwork that would encompass Madame Hanoi, with the brief being to “bring her to life”.
“It was a real collaboration with Emma. We worked closely with her, even down to the aspect of where Madame Hanoi’s eyes are looking. So, if you’re walking down North Terrace you look up to her and she is looking in so where do you look? You look in, so that whole composition was a real collaboration.
“Emma and I were keen on the whole body painting thing. The first drawings were [cut off] across the shoulder and Emma and I both said, ‘Let’s go down, tastefully and beautifully’, and we worked on the colour tones. Emma was amazing to work with, and because she was so good with the mural, we then commissioned her to curate the whole room. She went to Hanoi and purchased all this art and frame work.”
There are 21 items on the Madame Hanoi menu, including French favourites such as croque-monsieur and croque-madame. There is the marriage of French Vietnamese such as the duck confit with watermelon salad, and then some real Vietnamese aspect such as the pho and a big bar offering with 14 craft beers available. Watt is adamant that all staff should taste all offerings on the food menu.
“I’ve always promised the staff that if there is anything on the menu they haven’t tasted, just to come and ask me and I’ll cook it for them. If you are a wait staff and you’re trying to talk about a dish and you’ve tasted it—it’s on your palate—then you’re going to talk about it with genuine honesty,” he says. “You can tell if someone is offering a special and they’re just rattling it off, but when they’ve tasted it, it is genuine when they explain it.”
Another aspect that is key to the success of the business at Madame Hanoi is the “table talk”—signals on the table that let servers know where each table is up to, such as the boxes of cutlery being removed, so staff know to clear the table and bring dessert menus.
“There is nothing worse than sitting at the table and someone comes up two or three times and says, ‘Would you like some more?’. You say, ‘No, I’ve already told the person over there’, and then someone else comes up,” explains Watt. “So, table talk allows anybody to look at the table and know where they’re up to. It prevents multiple, unnecessary interruptions to the guests.”
Watt, who was born in Sydney but grew up in New Zealand, entered the world of hospitality as a waiter, and thought he could never be a chef, “cleaning up at the end of the day, what a nightmare”. But after some time in the kitchen at hospitality school, he fell in love with cooking.
“I love the creative aspect of food and the energy in the kitchen, the energy of service. I’ve always worked in busy, high-quality restaurants where there’s a passion to get everything perfect on the plate and to know that you’ve got backed-up orders,” he says.
Growing up around the water in Auckland and Sydney gave Watt an affinity with the ocean and a love of seafood. However, he believes the best cultural cuisine of seafood is Japanese.
“So, at 23, I took myself off to Tokyo and studied Japanese food. After that, I discovered South-east Asia—mainly Thailand and Vietnam. My wife and I honeymooned in Vietnam in 2004 and that’s when the love of Vietnamese cuisine came through.”
Watt’s incredible attention to detail combined with his big-picture savvy has seen him reach Michelin-star success. His CV reads like a ‘how-to’ guide to climbing the prestigious food chain. In London he worked in Michelin-starred restaurant Nobu, before moving back to New Zealand in 2001 as executive chef at the prestigious Huku Lodge where he cooked for the Queen and other celebrities.
Then it was back to England where he co-founded the contemporary Japanese sensation, Roka in 2004. However, in 2012 Watt decided it was time to take his family home to New Zealand.
Watt believes Adelaide’s food landscape is going through positive growth, and he cites his favourite restaurant as Peel Street (after Madame Hanoi, of course). “I think it’s an exciting time to be involved with Adelaide and the developments that are coming in—the [Royal Adelaide] hospital, the Casino and the Adelaide Oval. I think the city is on a fantastic trajectory up and it’s a really exciting time to be involved,” he says.