Two restaurants, two locations, two cuisines—co-owner and executive chef Adam D’Sylva doesn’t do anything by halves. By Kerryn Ramsey
What’s your background in hospitality?
I started my apprenticeship at Hilton on the Park (now Pullman Melbourne On the Park) in 1996 and stayed there for three years. I then trained at Cosi in South Yarra, followed by 12 months working in northern Italy. On my return, I worked for Geoff Lindsay at Pearl for seven years. I was the first head chef for Longrain Melbourne and opened Coda in 2009. Tonka followed in 2013.
Is it difficult being executive chef and co-owner of Coda and Tonka?
It can be but I have a great team working with me. It would be impossible without our exceptional front-of-house and back-of-house people. I can completely rely on all of my team to maintain our high standards. Conveniently, the restaurants are pretty close to each other. A brisk walk will get me from one to the other in a couple of minutes.
Do Coda and Tonka serve similar cuisines?
No, Coda is modern Australian but heavily influenced by Asia. It also features some European dishes—steak tartare sits alongside duck curry. Tonka is a modern Indian restaurant that features classic favourites while focusing on clean, punchy flavours. It also has two ovens operated by tandoor-trained experts. At last count, we have 44 front-of-house staff and 43 back-of-house staff across both venues.
What do you look for when choosing staff?
I’ve employed a lot of beginners and people with experience. I’ll give anyone an opportunity if they have the right attitude. They should want to work and learn, and be part of the team. I don’t even care if they’re not proficient in English; it’s all about the attitude.
“I’ll give anyone an opportunity if they have the right attitude. They should want to work and learn, and be part of the team.”
Adam D’Sylva, co-owner/executive chef, Coda & Tonka
Do you offer formal training to staff?
No, staff don’t receive any formal training—it’s all done on the job. Someone will work in one section in the kitchen for a week with more experienced staff showing them the ropes. The same system operates for front-of-house and wine training. It’s a very effective way to train while being cost-effective. The best training happens in real-life situations.
Do you have any incentives to retain staff?
We have a pretty good record in retaining staff. Most people stay for two or three years and we have some long-term staff. We try to look after our staff and treat them like family. We interact with them fairly and provide a good working environment. If you’re generous with your staff, they’ll stay.
What’s the biggest challenge in running the restaurants?
The biggest issue these days is costs. The cost of food, wages, rent, everything—it’s going up all the time. Most restaurants struggle with that and prices can only be increased by so much. The other big issue is consistency. It’s essential to maintain consistency with everything from food to service. You need to have a great team that are on the same page, striving to achieve the same goals. It’s also important to maintain good relationships with your suppliers. All the dishes need to be consistently executed.
What advice would you give a chef who’s thinking about opening their own restaurant?
Firstly, have a solid concept. Then do your homework on the area in which you’re planning to operate. Thirdly, look at the available space of the venue and see if the numbers stack up. Take into account rent, number of diners and your budget.
Having a solid set of concepts is essential. Consider the style of food and what level of service you wish to supply. Are you after a fine-dining venue or something more relaxed? Don’t follow whatever is trendy at the moment. At the end of the day, people just want to eat good food, enjoy good service and be in a good environment. Be comfortable and confident with your concept and how you present yourself.
You won Chef of the Year at the 2019 Victoria Savour Australia™ Restaurant & Catering Hostplus Awards for Excellence. Are awards important to you?
Yes, they are. It’s great to have your efforts and achievements recognised. While this award validates what I do, I don’t see it as an individual award. It’s a team award. I simply couldn’t do what I do without my team. I also enjoyed winning Chef of the Year because the last award I won was Young Chef of the Year at the Good Food Guide awards 11 years ago.
Any plans for future expansion?
Not at the moment; hospitality is a hard gig right now. Coda and Tonka are profitable but it’s a constant struggle with all the rising costs. Running two restaurants is more than enough and I have no plans to add a third one. That being said, you never know what opportunities lie in the future.