While everyone else is branching out into fusion dining and molecular gastronomy, Primo Caon is keeping it simple.
I’m a fully qualified butcher. I don’t regret it. In the restaurant business, it’s valuable to know what cuts you are ordering.
I first went into the business 45 years ago with my brother Giocondo and opened a coffee lounge. As time went on, we saw the demand change from simple food—toasted sandwiches—to more sophisticated food. So we opened up, not just for lunch, but also dinner, and hired chefs rather than cooks. It progressed with dishes like Chateaubriand, schnitzel and minestrone soup.
From when we first opened our first cafe, La Cantina, it was our intent to stay in business. At that time in Adelaide, it was the time of coffee lounges and 6pm closing licences, but, if you were a restaurant, you could stay open until 9 pm.
We got involved with having sophisticated food. We had theatre people coming in, Joan Sutherland, Dame Margot Fontaine, Don Bradman before he was a Sir, Helpman. There were only three or four restaurants available at that time of night. So what we served was good enough for them. But it was 11-11.30pm when they came in, with a 3am finish. After a while, the late-night closing wasn’t good for the family. So I broke away.
I opened a retail bottle shop—that’s still open for business—then a wine concern at Adelaide airport, which is also still open. Then we obtained Charlie Brown’s Wine Bar. That’s when the food and wine came together with the Italian scene.
Then I got involved with wine distribution. I had distribution of Bollinger, Taylors, Petaluma. I worked at that for 17 years. I was an associate of Tucker Seabrook. Then I could see the writing on the wall. These companies wanted to get much bigger. So, while I distributed 5000 cases of Rosemount in South Australia, in the next step, they distributed 35,000.
I got to fulfill a long-held dream when Chesser Cellars became available. It only had an old-fashioned cold buffet when I bought it 18 years ago. I added new things, fresh oysters to have with champagne, added à la carte and dinner. Now I also have hot food on the menu. But we’re in the middle of the city, and busy businessmen still like the quick buffet.
For food, we’re moving the old familiar standards, like pie and silverside—dishes from yesteryear. While the food business has gone East meets West, I’ve stayed in Britain. I get a lot of people who want a pie, a 450g rib. But we also have risotto, we have whiting.
We’ve kept tradition going but also moved with the times. I got that from the Peninsula in Hong Kong. They keep doing what they’re known for, which is afternoon teas. They keep the old standards.
Then I opened the cafe next door, where we had the bottle shop. That was a good move. Cafes have taken off in Adelaide in the last decade.
I’ve been front-of-house the whole time. You notice all that is happening. When you go to a restaurant, you like to be greeted. The person doing it has to be experienced. You want to get a drink as soon as you can. Seating as soon as you can. The front-of-house person needs to know what customers are wanting within five minutes of meeting.
This business is very demanding. It’s tough. The hours are huge. If you don’t have the stamina, don’t get in.
The biggest problem is how to keep your finger on the pulse. The restaurant here holds 50 people, the cafe holds 70, you get walk-ins. You can lose money easily if you don’t have enough staff to look after them. Or you have too many.
The change today is everywhere. You’re getting all these new flavours all the time. I enjoy Turkish Food. It’s exciting. But I keep the old, with just a bit of new, and try to maintain the high standards. You must know your own clientele.