Judy McMahon

RB1234-0018Co-owner of the iconic Catalina restaurant in Sydney’s Rose Bay on lifestyle choices, balance and the importance of great customer service

Every step I’ve taken in my career, both intentionally and not, has led me to where I am today. At 21, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in German, English literature and history, I left New Zealand for Australia to visit my brother. I was supposed to stay for a few weeks, but it went on for months, and I had run out of money, so I got a job waitressing at what was then Evans Wines in Sydney. I absolutely loved it. It had a fantastic cellar, as well as restaurants upstairs, and was the preserve of men enjoying long lunches and great wines served by pretty waitresses.

It was a real eye-opener for a young girl from New Zealand, and it taught me about fine wines. I also met my husband, Michael, who worked in the wine cellar. He was 24 years old and he landed a job where he got to know about fantastic wines. A year later, he was given a job at Berowra Waters Inn by the Hawkesbury River. At the time it was the best restaurant in Australia. They were short of waitresses so Michael recommended me.

In a week I had to learn silver service, what’s called ‘decoupage’, where you fillet trout, for example, at a table full of customers. I loved it; it was proper French service. All the staff slept there and I look back fondly at those years from 1979 to 1982. I only left because Michael moved to Simpsons in Sydney, a restaurant where he was buying high-end wines. It had Chesterfield sofas and dark panelling. We were there for a year before moving to Barrenjoey House in Palm Beach. Again, I loved the work waitressing and enjoyed meeting new people. For me, it’s all about service but it was seasonal. We relied on local trade and struggled in the winter.

Good people worked for me and kept coming back over the five years we were there. The now famous chef Neil Perry was head chef for us. However, in the ’80s, I was a wife and mother of two young children, James and Kate. So when Michael moved to Bilson’s in Circular Quay as general manager when it opened in 1988, it was a lifestyle choice to go with him and leave Palm Beach.

We’ve been married 34 years this year; we live together, work together and spend our leisure time together. The reason our businesses are a success is because we’re different but love the same things; when hunting, one goes for the throat and one goes for the tail, but between us we’ve got it covered. He’s a details man who looks after the food and wine, and I’m more sympathetic with staff. We have the same vision but different ways of getting to it. For me it’s all about service.

Bilson’s was sophisticated—very different to Palm Beach where it was very hands on. We had to design our own menu, train staff, scrub the loos … we did everything. One day Michael told me he had bought the lease to Catalina in Rose Bay. It was time to create something for ourselves. It had been there since 1957 and had a succession of owners. We had the experience to do it, and in 1994 we took it over and completely gutted it over six months.

We kept the concrete floor, kept some of the walls and redesigned the entire thing. I wanted it light and airy, and to host functions as well as being a restaurant. An architect called Leigh Prentice clicked with us and created our vision. It was brave; people told us it had never worked and we should not touch it, but we’ve been here for 20 years now. It was a gamble, but it was the best thing we ever did. We’re busier than we’ve ever been and have clients who return time and time again over the years, ordering the same favourite dish.

Now our children, Kate and James, work in the restaurant, so it’s a real family affair. She does an administrative role and James is a floor manager. Catalina’s was a brave decision, but the best one we ever took.

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