How a Frenchman built an enviable reputation at one of Canberra’s finest dining spots. By Chris Sheedy
Fabien Wagnon still recalls the stern look on the face of the interviewer at Belgium’s ITMA hospitality school as she was warning him of the dedication involved in a career in the restaurant arena.
“It was 1981 and the lady doing the interview told me that the one thing I needed to understand was that I would have to work incredibly hard,” Wagnon, now executive chef at Canberra’s Buvette Bistro & Wine Bar, says.
“I would have to work very long hours, as well as on the weekends, she told me. If I did not want to do that for the rest of my life, she said, I should just walk out now. I still remember her telling me that hospitality is a devotion, and it’s true. It is not just a job. You do it because you love it.”
Thirty-five years later, Wagnon has the same passion he had when he was a youngster learning his trade in Belgium. One of the secrets to his success, he says, is the fact that he absolutely expects the same passion and dedication from his own staff. Nobody within his business must ever treat a role at Buvette Bistro & Wine Bar as “just a job”, he says. “The restaurant is doing well because we work hard as a team. If you have a good team of people in back-of-house and a dedicated and professional team looking after front-of-house, then your greatest challenge is over.
“I expect the people I work with to have the same attitude that I do,” Wagnon adds. “You need the right team around you who are willing to give a lot. Most of the people around me do 65 hours, 70 hours or more each week. Not many people are willing to do that in any industry. You have to be fully dedicated.”
If he can’t find the right people locally, Wagnon is happy to sponsor people from elsewhere, but they too must prove their devotion to the role. He will never sign up a staff member full-time until they have proven themselves over several months. “I need to see their potential,” he says.
Wagnon’s family lived in northern France, near Belgium. On weekends his father would take his children to a relative’s farm, where they would collect fresh eggs and some poultry for that week’s meals. Every so often, his parents would buy larger animals and young Fabien would watch and learn as a family friend expertly separated the carcass into its various pieces.
“Being French, my parents were very food and wine oriented. Good food and wine has always been a big thing in my life,” he says. “My grandmother and mother taught me some things about cooking, but my real learning came from hospitality school.”
Rather than simply being taught to cook, the ITMA instead offered its students the full restaurant experience. During a six-year course they learned about cooking as well as front-of-house management, back-of-house management, financial management and more. Once that course was over, the students were encouraged to travel to learn more about their industry. Wagnon chose England, where he worked for the Gatwick Hilton and, having specialised in front-of-house during his course, gained his first industry experience in the kitchen where he worked with two great chefs, Yves Mattagne and Pascal Proyart. In the UK, he also worked within a catering business before heading back to France to complete his compulsory military service.
“I still remember her telling me that hospitality is a devotion, and it’s true. It is not just a job. You do it because you love it.”—Fabien Wagnon, Buvette Bistro & Wine Bar, Canberra
Interestingly, Wagnon never worked in the hospitality industry in France. “I am a French person and I know a lot about French cooking,” he says. “It is very familiar. But French cooking also very much depends on the region you come from. The north of France and Belgium are very similar. The eastern part of France has its own unique methods. And once you go south of Paris, things change again.”
The next stop was Brussels, where he joined the Michelin-starred Radisson hotel restaurant, working again for European celebrity chef Yves Mattagne. “He has two Michelin stars and he is still there, at Brussels Radisson,” Wagnon says. “And Pascal Proyart was the executive sous chef.”
Then came 18 months in Switzerland, followed by another three years in the UK, including 14 months “in the countryside” and 18 months in London where he rejoined Proyart at Sheraton Park Tower.
So how did he eventually end up in Canberra? The answer, as with most things French, is love.
“I met my wife, who is from Canberra, when I was working in England,” he says. “When Sydney Harbour Casino completed its renovation and became Star City, now The Star, they reopened the new casino in 1997 and were looking for staff. Twelve of us were selected and put on a plane and given a four-year contract. We have been here ever since.”
Being from a rural area, Wagnon was always more comfortable in open spaces. “Sydney was good but I had an opportunity to move to Canberra, and once you have a family, Canberra is a bit better,” he says. “I became the chef for the National Gallery of Australia and worked for the Trippas White Group for over five years. Then this came up.”
‘This’, of course, is the role of executive chef for the stunning Hotel Realm, which includes Buvette Bistro & Wine Bar, a finalist at the 2016 National Savour Australia Restaurant & Catering Hostplus Awards for Excellence. Seven years ago, Wagnon took over and he has managed during a period of enormous growth ever since.
The number of hotel rooms in the precinct has risen from 150 to 520, all under the Doma Hotel group. The Hotel Realm, Brassey Hotel with its new gym and spa, Burbury Hotel and Little National Hotel are all within close walking distance.
Buvette Bistro was created to cater to the increasing numbers of room guests and the booming demand for dining options in the precinct.
“Seasonality in Canberra is also quite different to major cities. We get very busy when Parliament is sitting, for instance.”—Fabien Wagnon, Buvette Bistro & Wine Bar, Canberra
“We have 120 seats and we tend to do 35 to 40 covers at lunch and up to 115 for dinner. That is all seated, not including functions,” he says. “We’re doing very well for a hotel restaurant in Canberra, where the biggest challenge is how much people want to spend on food.”
It’s no secret that big-city restaurants can charge more. Once his prices begin to head north of $35, Wagnon begins to encounter some resistance. This represents a big win for diners, who are being offered astounding quality at an excellent price.
“We did wagyu for a few weeks and for what would sell in Sydney for $50 we could only charge $39,” he says. “Seasonality in Canberra is also quite different to major cities. We get very busy when Parliament is sitting, for instance. We’re also busy right now, which probably has something to do with people being attracted to Canberra for the Versailles: Treasures from the Palace exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.”
On Monday to Thursday evenings, Wagnon says, he is sometimes able to experiment with higher value dishes.
“The average spend is higher from Monday to Thursday because you get people from Sydney or Melbourne staying in the hotels,” he says. “They are people from bigger companies that have more money to spend. They are used to spending these amounts in major cities so when they come here it is no different, but there is a fine line and you cannot overprice a restaurant.”
Diners appreciate Wagnon’s obsession with quality and simplicity. He’s not a big user of creams and prefers light, easily digestible meals over heavy encounters.
“A popular dish and one of my favourites is fish and chips done the old-fashioned way,” he says. “We buy sand whiting or King George whiting and we backbone it, filleting it from the back so the fish stays whole. We crumb it then pan fry it and serve it with a salad and maybe a ring of herb butter on top or a beurre noisette.”
The joy of the food he serves is equivalent to the happiness Wagnon felt as a young adult in Belgium and France when, on weekends, he and his friends would watch the regular bicycle races. During and after the races people would go to a ‘buvette’, a drinking hole, bar or pop-up bar where people would gather to catch up and relax. That is what Wagnon has created at Hotel Realm, a luxurious buvette for the capital.