Meyjitte Boughenout has gone from Michelin-starred restaurants, via regional Tasmania, to building a mini empire on the Gold Coast. What makes his brand of fine dining work so well in tough markets?
What makes a restaurant great? Good service, obviously, and food, certainly. But is it also possible that a marker of greatness is being able to rise above your location—to be good enough to have a halo effect on your neighbourhood? That’s one of the challenges Meyjitte Boughenout set himself five years ago when he moved to the Gold Coast from Tasmania—from a regional idyll to somewhere that has generally been associated with unfettered tourism and partying schoolies rather than fine food.
It’s not just the area’s association with sun, surf and schoolies—as fellow restaurateur, Philip Johnson of Brisbane’s e’cco bistro explains; “The Gold Coast is a hard market to get people to embrace what you’re doing. You do have a good core population there, but there’s also a large transient population, so it’s hard to establish yourself. It’s not a market I’d like to tackle.”
Shannon Bennett of Vue de monde agrees: “I think the Gold Coast is a very tough market anyway—and especially so for his style of food. He’s done brilliantly to create a good market up there.”
The fact that Boughenout has succeeded, says Johnson, shows an impressive aspect to his demeanour as a restaurateur: “He’s pretty driven. He’s willing to give everything a go. That’s not to say he throws caution to the wind, but he’s very committed to do what he wants to do once he sets his mind to it.”
Which isn’t just having an award-winning fine dining restaurant, Absynthe, which was named as the region’s top restaurant by Gourmet Traveller this year. He’s also opened the Absynthe Bakery at Circle on Cavill and Absynthe Patisserie at Paradise Point, which turns into Godmother’s Magical Pizzas at Paradise Point after 5pm, and last year opened Bubbles Wine Bar and Cellar at Sanctuary Cove.
“It’s work of passion,” he explains. “Every one of them is different, and really fulfilling my dream in different sections. I never had the intention to build an empire—but Surfers Paradise didn’t have a proper bakery. I remembered the nice bakeries back in France, and I thought it would be nice to have that here. And I had been doing four or five different breads in the restaurant, so thought why not? None of them were really part of a vision—they just happened. But once the idea is there, we calculate the risk. With Bubbles (the wine bar) we didn’t have a great wine bar here, and there’s nowhere to go if you’re over thirty for a nice drink after dinner. There’s great places to go if you’re young, but when you come here to dine at Absynthe there’s nowhere to go afterwards. So we said let’s give it a go in Sanctuary Cove. The developer there wanted a bottle shop, we wanted a wine bar, so we did both.”
But five years ago, he was faced with a choice: he’d already made a name for himself as owner of Franklin Manor in Strahan, Tasmania. Although much awarded, it was also very isolated. He had an opportunity to open a restaurant either in Hobart or the Gold Coast. “The landlord in Hobart was asking way too much, and I had to say my wife wanted to go back to the mainland as well,” he says. “The Gold Coast was a bigger population, and it made the family happy, and Surfers Paradise had a pretty bad name, so I thought we could do something there.
“But I think Hobart would have been good for Absynthe. I believe I could have opened it there, and I’d do as well. Moving from an extremely difficult location to a difficult one, you’ll know how to do well.”
“We’re not fully booked every night at Absynthe,” he explains, “but we’re not relying on numbers, but on the spend.” Meyjitte Boughenout
He’s always been driven. Upon graduating from school he sought out renowned chefs in restaurants with three Michelin Stars—L’Auberge du Pere Bise, Restaurant George Blanc and Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire in Paris (as a young cook he persisted for several years before being given a position with Gagnaire: “I called 11 times in one day to try and talk to him.”). By the time he was 25 he was executive chef at Belgium’s Restaurant Scholteshos and the proud holder of two Michelin Stars. He was also planning a move to Australia, which he did in 1995, assisted in his residency application by Paul Merrony (Merrony’s). Ambition led him to Sydney’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel and a responsible position as executive chef at The Dining Room Restaurant, which was followed by a move to Merrony’s then over to Claudine’s on Sydney’s North Shore.
Then he moved to regional Tasmania, far away from urban Australia, to what he describes as “an eye-opening place”.
Because we were so isolated, we did 100 per cent fresh produce, so I had to narrow down menus. I learnt a lot about food and controlling costs, because I would have to find the nearest suppliers for a lot of things, and you must know exactly what’s available, because if you run out of something you’re not going to get more quickly. Management-wise, I was in partnership in Tasmania, and learnt what to do and not to do. Tasmania really put me on the map.”
But it’s as much his demeanour as his location that has determined Boughenout’s success. Shannon Bennett, who met him at a food festival in Singapore back in 2001, says, “I’ve always been impressed by his creativity, and he’s always had a positive attitude—even when things weren’t going well for him, which I think may have sometimes been the case in Singapore at that time, he maintained that positive attitude.”
Bennett got to know Boughenout when the Frenchman offered his services helping there at the Duxton Hotel, and subsequently sought Bennett’s advice occasionally when they were both back in Australia.
Bennett thinks that positive attitude has been instrumental to the success of the various projects Boughenout has tackled: “His confidence and attitude particularly suit the Australian culinary landscape. He’s not your traditional European chef. French chefs often find it difficult to tackle the nature of Australian customers and Australian kitchens. Kitchens here are a very different culture too, and he’s embraced the discipline of the European kitchen with the humour of the Australian one.”
But it’s really been Absynthe—awarded three stars by the Courier Mail’s Queensland Food and Wine Guide every year for the past five years—that has been the jumping-off point for Boughenout’s startling expansion over the past five years. The restaurant, nestled at the base of Q1 (which proudly boasts the title of world’s tallest residential tower), was nearly the lynchpin of an Absynthe-branded extension—but once again, he was saved by a landlord’s greed.
“In the early days we had an opportunity to do a bar next door to Absynthe,” he recalls, “but we were just a bit young and had just opened the bakery. My dream was to open a really classy bar, but the owner of the space wanted a completely brand new lease, rather than an extension of our existing lease. So it just stopped there, and the shops beside me got sold and now I can’t expand any more.
“Then I realised, I wanted to expand but not under the Absynthe name. So with the wine bar or the pizzeria, we weren’t really starting from scratch, but they’re not a chain. They are all completely different, and have their own different team, run under their own system. I don’t think of them as different until they open. But I’ve trademarked the name now, and I’ve been looking at putting some products on supermarket shelves. We have been talking about finding a buyer for the bakery, and the good thing is, I can sell it now to a baker, but in six months if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t affect the name of the restaurant. The restaurant is my baby.”
He has already spoken of his plans to open a French brasserie in Noumea, New Caledonia, by the end of this year. He isn’t phased by tackling another unfamiliar market, he says, because he has a formula of sorts that he works to: “We’re not fully booked every night at Absynthe,” he explains, “but we’re not relying on numbers. Instead we rely on the spend. That’s our target, getting a good spend per head, and that concept could be taken everywhere. Get 10 diners every day and survive on that and you can’t go wrong.”
And he deals with the rest of the trials of running a wine bar, restaurant, pizzeria and two bakeries, he says, simply because, “I love what I do. And I think we really raised the bar around here.” ⎮