Multi-award-winning restaurant, Eschalot, sits pretty as a picture in NSW’s Southern Highlands. Owner/chef Richard Kemp is as passionate about his cuisine as he is about maintaining a balanced lifestyle. By Frank Leggett
“My first job was working as an apprentice in a little French restaurant in Parramatta called Froggy’s. The place was pumping with ’80s celebrities. Even Tony Packard, the Liberal politician and used-car salesman, was a regular.
“Once I finished my apprenticeship, I went to Canada for 10 years. I met the owner of a hotel on Prince Edward Island and he put me on as head chef. I was 22 years old. I made the hotel a lot of money and the owner sponsored me for five summers.
“I spent some time working in the Okanagan Valley, a beautiful wine region in British Columbia, and then returned to Vancouver where I was employed by a big restaurant chain called the Cactus Club. For years I had dismissed chain restaurants as ‘hokey’ but now I was doing product development for one of them. The kitchens were staffed by young, glorified cooks but they pushed out sales of $60k per week. I ended up eating a bit of humble pie. These large restaurant chains have amazing systems in place and innovative ways to develop young staff.
“I returned to Sydney for the Olympics and took off 18 months to work in film production. Then, in 2003, one of my mates was living in Bowral [in NSW] and he stumbled across a little hotel that was looking to open a restaurant. Eschalot was born.
“After three years in that location, we were forced to relocate. With two weeks to find another venue, the building in Berrima became available and this became Eschalot’s home. A year after that, I bought out my business partner. Until then, I had always been in the kitchen but I couldn’t run the restaurant from back of house so I started taking on head chefs.
“Eschalot is quite small—we only have about 50 seats. It’s very much like a classic European restaurant in an old cottage. When people eat here, they invariably say, ‘This is how restaurants used to be.’
“The most important thing about running a restaurant is to be clear on the concept you want to establish. Think about whether you’re in it for the long- or short-term.”
“Right across the road, I’ve also opened E2 Events for functions and weddings. I didn’t want to expand too quickly but when it came up three years ago, I jumped at the opportunity.
“The most important thing about running a restaurant is to be clear on the concept you want to establish. Think about whether you’re in it for the long- or short-term. If you just want to open up, trade for a couple of years and then sell; that’s great. But if it’s a long-term approach, which is the approach I’ve taken, be patient and always reinvest back into the business. Don’t be stupid and pay yourself $100,000 a year and then have the business struggle.
“We’ve been fortunate to win a number of awards over the years, including Savour Australia Restaurant & Catering HOSTPLUS NSW Regional Restaurant of the Year award in 2015, and NSW Regional Contemporary Australian Restaurant—Formal (‘15 and ‘16). Those accolades are a mirror to that consistency. When people know they can trust you and will receive quality service and food, they’ll come back.
“We don’t have a large staff turnover because I don’t overwork my staff. They know there are days when we’re a little under the pump and I expect them to step up. However, I’ve also taken an approach that’s different to most other restaurants. If we’re short-staffed, I limit reservations. That way everyone still gets the Eschalot experience as if we had a full crew. It certainly affects the short-term cash flow but it protects the reputation and the brand in the long-term.
“The advent of social media has added another dimension to the business but it’s important to believe in what you do and not be put off by bad reviews.
“Eschalot is closed Sunday nights, Mondays and Tuesdays. That’s when I ride my motorbike and play music. Most of the chefs are also musicians so on Sunday afternoons, we go upstairs and rock it out for a few hours.
“When Eschalot is open, we’re all incredibly focused on the job at hand but it’s also important to have a quality lifestyle. For me, it’s a case of staying balanced and happy, and just loving what I do.”