Philip Johnson

Philip Johnson: ‘‘Customers do expect recognition. Even now I try to be around the business a few nights a week, even if I’m not in the kitchen.”

Philip Johnson: ‘‘Customers do expect recognition. Even now I try to be around the business a few nights a week, even if I’m not in the kitchen.”

The owner of e’cco Bistro in Brisbane has chalked up a huge amount of kudos during an illustrious career studded with awards and punctuated by hard work and consistency.

“In the early days being a chef was more just a job I quite liked. It wasn’t until I went to England to work at Ménage à Trois and spent the first day sorting out 20 different kinds of lettuce and 15 different types of mushrooms that it became a passion.

“When I came back to Australia it took me three years’ work to save enough money to open my own restaurant. A lot of people don’t have the guts to put it all on the line. Many look for a backer, saying, ‘If I lose, they lose’. But you have to need to succeed.

“In our first restaurant, Le Bronx, I got out with a good reputation, but not much else. But we never wavered on quality. If we said we’d open, we opened, even if there were only two people in the restaurant, and we never discounted. To me, even today, that’s the key. People don’t understand inconsistency. From day one at e’cco, the waiters have worn aprons, and we only opened five days a week. The staff still wear the same uniform. We still only open five days a week.

“When we had the first restaurant we did a lot more detail. We went out to be the best, to get the awards, the three hats. That makes so much work. We washed up a lot ourselves. When we got out, my wife Shirley and I were dead on our feet.  We said that the next restaurant must make money. We would have a restaurant where preparation and production wouldn’t be as backbreaking. It would be flavourful without having to make 10 different sauces.

“The second time round with e’cco I wanted a restaurant that would be busy and full, so it was lovely to win the 1997 Remy Martin Cognac/Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year award, but at the end of the day you want a full restaurant.

“The first River Café book was a big influence. I rang Rose Gray and went to work for them for a few weeks, simply to gain experience, which I took back to e’cco. I’ve done that a couple of times.

“We don’t really do advertising except in the Yellow Pages, so the cookbooks, which started with one diary, were really about promotion. Then they sold well. We’re working on our fifth cookbook now. But each time I’ve pleaded my case to the publishers. That’s much more satisfying than someone walking in and saying, ‘Do you want to do a book?’

“People often ask, ‘Do you mind if you see things from the books in other restaurants?’ It’s never bothered me. One of the recipes is mushrooms on toast: sourdough, topped with olive tapenade, good-quality mushrooms, parmesan, truffle oil and balsamic. I was at a pub and it was on the menu. So we had it. It was an unsatisfactory piece of toast, rubbish mushrooms, cheap balsamic. That relaxed me. If someone copies us they have to do it better, or it backfires and people will say, ‘We can get better at e’cco.’

“I’m always thinking, ‘What’s next’?’ If you stand still you get run over. I’m a consultant chef for Domain Resorts, consult with a drinks group and I write a weekly column for The Courier-Mail. It all adds value to the business and creates an income stream that allows us to staff at a higher level.

“If your restaurant is heavily associated with your name you might sell it for bugger all. You must have other avenues for your future. Invest a small amount, spread your portfolio and spread your risk.

“The key is it’s all about staff. You have to hang on to them. We’ve had some for eight years. Ask yourself if you would want to be employed in your environment. You can create a hostile environment, or you can make a nice environment. If you make good-quality food people will  come and work for you.

“Customers do expect recognition. Even now I try to be around the business a few nights a week, even if I’m not in the kitchen.”

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