Matt Merrin’s award-winning JAM restaurant in Townsville celebrates the flavours and produce of North Queensland. Accountancy’s loss is our gain. Interviewed by Frank Leggett
“As a child living on a property in Western Australia, I spent a lot of time hanging out at strawberry farms and collecting eggs at chicken farms. At the end of year 12, there were two career options that interested me—accountancy and hospitality. Thankfully, I landed a job in hospitality working with a family friend. I’ve never looked back.
“I was employed in Coco’s, South Perth—an institution in WA—and did my apprenticeship there. I worked my way up to sous chef before I left for Melbourne.
“There, I worked under chef Mark Diels for many years and that was very inspirational. He not only taught me about food and produce, but he also gave me an understanding of kitchen management. This is an essential part of what we do as chefs and restaurant owners.
“Melbourne was certainly a foodie hub in 1998 and I worked for a number of great operations including Donovans down in St Kilda. Robert Castellani was a passionate Italian exec chef who helped create a real institution. His enthusiasm for seasonal menus, evolving the restaurant and a balanced wine list enabled me to experience a whole new level of the industry.
“I met my partner, Paul, in Melbourne and both of us grew up in warmer climates. We both wanted to move to a place with great weather and an easygoing lifestyle. When I was offered the opportunity to set up and run a new restaurant called Watermark in Townsville, I jumped at the chance. We moved to North Queensland, I helped them set up prior to opening and Watermark went gangbusters from day one.
“I always had aspirations to open my own restaurant and after five years at Watermark, it was time to move on. Paul and I ended up buying an old, run-down restaurant called Momo’s. The site had been home to eight or nine restaurants in its time and we were warned that it was cursed. However, it was such a great two-storey building that we went ahead. After a massive renovation we had a beautiful restaurant with a private dining room and the facility for function rooms upstairs. JAM is a multipurpose venue that overlooks Ross Creek, Victoria Bridge and the CBD.
“JAM is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner—and our breakfast is renowned in Townsville. You sit down in a modern, contemporary dining room with full table service, quality coffee and quality food. There’s the hustle and bustle of the busy establishment but you’re greeted by genuine staff and surrounded by fresh decor.
“We’ve won quite a number of awards over the years including Contemporary Australian Restaurant—Informal at the 2017 QLD & NT Savour Australia Restaurant & Catering Hostplus Awards for Excellence.
“When we started in Townsville 10 years ago, staffing was a problem. There wasn’t a big skill set of chefs or front-of-house managers. One of our strengths today is that we helped develop individuals who have grown with the business. Our head chef who works alongside me started as a kitchen hand. My operations manager started with us when we were at Momo’s. Developing the next generation has been one of the key elements that helped us succeed.
“If someone is planning to open a restaurant, the first thing to do is to find a good team. Just as important is to have more money set aside than you think you need. There are a lot of hidden costs and there will be times when a sufficient cashflow won’t be coming in.
“Also ensure that you have a good five or 10 years’ experience in a couple of venues so that you know what does—and does not—work.
“I love food and wine, and I’m passionate about entertaining people so bringing that all together really makes it an exciting career. Young people with a passion for the business should forget all the bad publicity, get stuck in and work hard. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing—when you’re career-focused, you can make your mark and achieve great things.
“At present, my head chef is about to become a business partner in a new restaurant we are setting up, Bridgewater. We’re hoping to reset dining in Townsville and offer something brand new and fresh for people to enjoy. It’s an exciting time.”