An interview with restaurateur John Kilroy

restaurateur John Kilroy

Photography: Richard Whitfield

Restaurateur John Kilroy is flat out running a raft of Brisbane establishments, but still can’t resist an escape to his venue in the tropical north—Char Restaurant Admiralty House in Darwin, writes Kerryn Ramsey.

When John Kilroy pops in at his Darwin restaurant, it’s his funny anecdotes and instant likability that appeals to both staff and customers. His stories are full of world travel, mixing with Formula One drivers, dealing with Las Vegas developers, swimming in crocodile-infested waters in the Top End, sailing on the Great Barrier Reef, and many other colourful tales.

For those not familiar with his stellar career, people would think of him as a real dinky-di Aussie adventurer. However, they might not realise that his strength is his business prowess—as well as his attitude of always looking for the next adventure.

Kilroy points out that the wealth of a restaurateur is not in the money you have, it’s about the people you meet. “If you give people half an hour of your time, it’s amazing what you get back,” says the 64-year old restaurateur.

The son of a grazier, Kilroy is happy to have a beer and talk about his days on the land and formative years. His dad ran beef, cattle and wheat at a property in Central West Queensland and was keen to have his eldest son of five well educated. “My father wanted me to be a doctor or a vet but I don’t read,” Kilroy says with a grin. “But I do have a mathematical brain and I’m good with logistics.”

Twelve years spent at the De La Salle boarding schools in Victoria and Downlands College in Toowoomba, Queensland inspired him in an unexpected way. “I did join the swim team just because I would get the big, juicy steak after a training every day,” explains Kilroy, laughing.

Another influence was when his parents picked him up at the end of the school term. “We used to go to a restaurant in the city before our drive home. It was certainly better than our usual damper, bread and corn beef.”

While Kilroy undertook a cadetship in surveying in the mid-’70s, he realised he could combine his business skills, logistics and passion for food to run a cash-flow business. He bought the only pub in the small outback town of Yelarbon in south-central Queensland and, even back then, knew this was just the beginning.

He expanded his business empire over the decades and is now at the helm of Boutique Venues in Brisbane, running a raft of pubs, restaurants and function venues. He has a fondness for his first establishment in Brisbane—Giardinetto in Fortitude Valley. “It was a very exciting time—it was like the Sydney Mardi Gras and Kings Cross every night,” he recalls. With Kilroy’s management skills and food philosophy, Giardinetto took out People’s Choice at the inaugural Restaurant & Catering Awards for Queensland back in 1979.

“We began putting the producer’s name and telephone number, animal description and whether it was grass or grain fed on our menu. Our suppliers ensured we were serving their best produce.”

He now runs three restaurants in Brisbane—Cha Cha Char, Il Centro and Jellyfish—and Char Restaurant Admiralty House in Darwin. He’s also expanding, opening six new establishments. Despite the massive expansion at Boutiques Venues, Kilroy finds serenity when he visits his Darwin venue, Char Restaurant. The heritage-listed house on the Esplanade appeals to different clientele—locals, corporates, conference delegates, politicians and international travellers.

“Before I opened the restaurant, I used to set up game lodges for Abercombie & Kent,” recalls Kilroy. “It was a hard project as we often needed helicopters to get from one area to another. But I got to meet many famous and fascinating people when I spent time in Darwin. I soon realised there was something missing here—there was no top-end restaurant so we knew it would be worth giving it a go.”

After renovating Admiralty House—a 1936 building that had seen better days—Kilroy opened the restaurant in 2006. It also offers upstairs function rooms and an outdoor area.

Initially, the restaurant was managed by Chris Higgins, a long-time member of Boutique Venues. After building the business for six years, he recently returned to Brisbane and now runs Boutique Venues’ properties division.

Since Cha Cha Char in Brisbane specialises in meat, and Jellyfish seafood, Kilroy could see how a Darwin restaurant could integrate both concepts. This is one of the reasons why Char won the 2017 R&CA Savour Australia Hostplus Awards for Excellence Consumer Vote Award for Queensland and the Northern Territory, as well as the award for best People, Produce, Place, Tourism Restaurant—a very apt award in the tropical capital.

The NT mining industry was the backbone of the economy in Darwin for many years; now the new boom is hospitality. However, as Kilroy points out, finding and retaining skilled staff isn’t easy. “There’s a high turnover rate, partly due to the dry and wet seasons, and the number of backpacker employees.”

He was also concerned when the backpacker tax was introduced last January, affecting all working holiday visa holders. The tax rate for those on working holidays is 15 per cent on earnings up to $37,000, and the tax on working holiday makers’ superannuation when they leave Australia will be fixed at 65 per cent.

“The tax hasn’t kept away any backpackers,” adds Kilroy. “There’s always plenty of potential staff during the dry season [from May until October]. We recently hired 15 new staff members—French and Spanish backpackers—who will probably stay until the wet season.”

When it comes to choosing staff, Kilroy often travels overseas so he can select qualified staff for Boutique Venues projects. “It’s worth hiring staff from European countries as wait staff are trained for five years, supervisors do accounting and psychology at universities, and managers complete an economics degree,” he explains. “When people like this enter the hospitality industry, it adds real professionalism and financial know-how.”

restaurateur John KilroyBoutique Venues has executive chef Angelo Velante overseeing all of the venue’s kitchens. He has worked internationally setting up restaurants for the likes of Gordon Ramsey. Velante has also worked in many award-winning restaurants internationally and won awards in one- and two-star Michelin restaurants.

In all of Kilroy’s venues, meat and produce are key. “We only sell fresh fish. It means that only certain fish are available at certain times. Fortunately, it’s quite cheap flying it in, whether it’s for our Darwin or Brisbane restaurants. Also, you can make a dish out of any fish as long as you have a talented chef.”

Kilroy has understood the importance of a qualified chef from the outset. Back in the 1980s at Giardinetto, he hired a French head chef from the famous Parisian bistro, Maxim’s. The chef spent a year teaching Kilroy how to develop a palate and the staff about cooking and sourcing products. Kilroy still inspects all fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and produce and often returns sub-standard product. “We have the best produce in the world,” he says, “and we need to offer this to ourcustomers.”

When it comes to meat, Kilroy is obsessed with quality. Back in 2009, he told Restaurant & Catering magazine: “The reason I decided to specialise in beef and steak at Cha Cha Char was because beef was just a commodity once it left the front gate; people didn’t care about it. Most complaints came back about the steak. So I also thought if I did that well I’d make a lot of dollars.”

One of the reasons why his restaurants have a consistent quality of meat is because Kilroy is a nationally-recognised beef judge. Regularly showcasing beef to the hospitality industry, he can cover the breed of cattle, feed type and age of the carcass. He uses the term “world’s best wagyu” to describe grain-fed beef from Jack’s Creek in Tamworth, NSW.

“We began putting the producer’s name and telephone number, animal description and whether it was grass or grain fed on our menu,” he explains. “Our suppliers ensured we were serving their best produce.” From these practices came Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) standardisation.

To improve the business, Kilroy has recently designed an effective software program, providing greater accountability and transparency in operations. “I put together this program after the 2011 flood where we lost three pubs. It collates all types of information that can then be stored and checked. Our business is about keeping everyone accountable including suppliers, producers, contractors and staff.”

Kilroy has his future sights set on building a five-star hotel in Darwin to allow international guests to enjoy the Northern Territory. This would showcase of the highlights of the state, allowing them to see incredibly unique sights that would usually require travelling to five different continents. And there’s no doubting the food would be exceptional, too.

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