Consistency of food and service is the mantra of Simon Bowen, chef and co-owner of Pipers of Penola in South Australia. Interviewed by Frank Leggett
“As soon as I finished high school, I started an apprenticeship with Stephanie Alexander at her restaurant in Hawthorn. It was a real eye-opener. I didn’t know that there was that level of dining or food. I didn’t know there could be an environment like that in a kitchen.
“From the word go, I thrived. It was the first time I was introduced to a kitchen with a standard and a philosophy and a goal. They were a real team and I just loved it.
“After Stephanie’s restaurant closed, I worked in America and Europe. It was there that I met Erika, my future wife and business partner. I brought Erika, who is from California, back to Australia and after we sorted her visa, we both got jobs at Lake House in Daylesford [in Victoria].
“We were just second-tier employees, with her out the front and me out the back. We were in our twenties and the skills we acquired were perfect for running a small 25-to-30-seat restaurant.
“One day we came back to Penola in South Australia and approached a local restaurateur. We told him that if ever he felt like selling, we would love to talk with him. Erika and I had both reached the point where we didn’t want to work for someone else. No sooner had we returned to Daylesford than he contacted us and agreed to sell.
“We’ve been at Pipers of Penola now for 11 years. The building was originally a Methodist church and the restaurant is named after the pipe band that used to practise there.
“The most important thing when running a restaurant is consistency. No matter what you do, make sure you can do it again and again. There’s no point in getting a gold medal once and coming last the next time.”—Simon Bowen
“It was great to come home to Penola. My parents own the nearby Bowen Estate winery and it was soon the talk of the town that we were taking over the restaurant. One piece of advice I would give prospective restaurant owners is to take over an existing business—don’t try and build a new restaurant. As soon as you sign the papers, you have to start paying yourself, your staff, your bank loan and your suppliers.
“We completely changed the menu and introduced European-style service. We spent money on quality glassware, linen and tableware. However, we didn’t want the experience to be too confronting or in the realm of fine dining. Our intention is that the client can sit back, relax and enjoy a bit of luxury that they wouldn’t get at home or at another dining establishment.
“Pipers only seats 35 people so it’s important that everything runs smoothly. It’s just Erika plus one out the front and myself plus one out the back. It’s easy to control because we’re not relying on a manger or being an overseer. We are hands-on in everything.
“I love everything about what I do. I love thinking about food and trying to figure out new dishes. I like the artistic side of it—everything from a simple plate up to putting different foods together. I also love the logistical side of things. It’s a challenge to set up a workflow and decide how a kitchen will fundamentally run. I like managing staff, making sure they’re okay and seeing them get enjoyment out of their job.
“Living and working in a small town is very satisfying. We are part of the community and see our clients all the time. Other people are proud of what we’ve achieved and they recommend our restaurant to their friends. When they bring friends in, I feel they are putting their trust in us and I try to do better.
“The most important thing when running a restaurant is consistency. No matter what you do, make sure you can do it again and again. There’s no point in getting a gold medal once and coming last the next time. You’re judged on food and service every single time.
“We exist because people are willing to pay good money for a good experience. If you know in your heart that what you’ve delivered isn’t good enough then you shouldn’t have served it. If you make a mistake in the kitchen or on the floor, that’s fine. But if you serve it and don’t acknowledge it, that’s a sin. You need to be proud and happy with what you’ve created. Be true to yourself and everything will be A-OK.”