Shannon’s world

Untitled-1It’s Shannon Bennett’s world—we just live in it. After a year of ups and downs, Vue de Monde has again been named Restaurant of the Year. By Kerryn Ramsey

Shannon Bennett has never shied away from the theatrical. His cutting-edge restaurant, Vue de Monde, his adventurous cookbooks and his glamour cache have given himself a reputation as one of Australia’s culinary visionaries.

“You have to make the dining experience much more than just good food and wine,”  says Bennett, whose renowned French degustation menu offers 55 dishes. “You have to make it an experience that is theatrical and unforgettable.”

However, this 32-year-old Melburnian boasts more than just a flair for the dramatic.

His business acumen, his managerial skills and his philosophy of making patrons re-evaluate the usual three-course dinner come to the fore. To recognise these achievements, Bennett’s Vue de Monde recently won Restaurant of the Year at the Savour Australia R&CA National Awards in Adelaide.

Bennett is the only recipients to win this award twice—the previous time was in 2005. That was after Bennett had packed up Vue de Monde in Carlton and moved it into an architect-designed venue in Melbourne’s historic Normanby Chambers. By late last year, he had expanded his empire by opening two new eateries. These include the sleek Café Vue for coffee, cocktails and pistachio cupcakes and the eclectic Parisian-inspired restaurant, Bistro Vue—”the place to have a glass of wine after work with no financial commitments”, he says.

Bennett recognises his skills as a restaurateur have evolved during the past two years. “We are a very different restaurant from what we were then. We are more established now and most of the staff are still here, particularly senior management.”

Despite his passion for whipping up truffles, caviar and foie gras into mini-masterpieces, Bennett reveals a touch of melancholy when he discusses his restaurant’s stellar performance. “We’ve had our time at the top—for a lot of people, we were flavour of the month. That’s passed now; we’ve moved beyond that.”

His sense of disappointment is mainly due to a recent occurrence in the cuisine industry. Last August, Bennett found out he’d lost a hat in The Age Good Food Guide. It was a brutal blow since he’d won the newspaper’s Restaurant of the Year in 2006 with three hats.

“I could actually see it coming,” admits Bennett. “It’s about selling guidebooks and the Good Food Guide has to sensationalise it. They are basically saying that our standards dropped by two-and-a-half points in one year.  But we are still full, we still have a waiting list every night and we are busier than ever, so I think that speaks for itself.”

Vue de Monde’s demotion has caused controversy in the industry. Apart from the R&CA’s national award, Gourmet Traveller recently deemed it the only restaurant in Victoria worthy of scoring three stars.

Bennett questions the Good Food Guide’s methodology. “If you are going to put a restaurant on a pedestal, you should think hard before you do that. For many restaurants, that could destroy them. And I think, unfairly. The Michelin guide doesn’t just drop you, and they would never do it in one year like that. I think the tall poppy syndrome came into play there.”

Yet Bennett refuses to dwell on the negative, instead revealing one of his most passionate long-term goals.

“My dream was always to go back to Paris,” he says. After completing his apprenticeship in Melbourne, Bennett contacted Michelin-star restaurants for work, which led to stints with London’s John Burton Race and Marco Pierre White in the mid-’90s.

He then worked with Albert Roux in Europe before returning to Australia to open Vue de Monde. ”I used to cook in quite a few restaurants (in France) for nothing when I had no experience, so to go back there and open a restaurant would be pretty sensational.”

After mixing with the masters, Bennett has used these experiences to imbue his own philosophy, which combines cuisine, computers and cash flows. He can reel off number-crunching figures—about 20–25 per cent of his clientele dine at Vue de Monde on a monthly basis. With his Gastronome’s Menu ($250 for 13 courses or start at five courses for $150, then add $15 increments), his team of 32 chefs have about 55 dishes in their repertoire, with additional changes every two or three days. So the whole cycle of the menu will change in about 90 to 100 days.

Just mention the word database and Bennett’s eyes light up. “We use a database that we basically designed ourselves. It started as an ordinary POS (point-of-sale) system but we’ve figured out how to tailor it to Vue de Monde’s needs,’’ he says.

“Now we record all the patrons’ menus, chosen wines, any comments about the food, allergies, birthdays, middle names … with some customers, there are three pages of info that can help us make their dining experience even better next time.”

Bennett has a quiet smirk when he talks about patrons who are surprised when the waiter mentions the person’s birthday or can recall each dish that the person last ordered.

“Most of the time, it’s a great surprise and obviously we don’t often let our secret out.

“A lot of people just think, ‘How the hell did they know that’ ? Then they put it down to thinking Bryan (Lloyd, the manager) has a great memory.”

Bennett’s overall goal is to make sure the service is unique for every customer.

The database also includes the person’s seating preferences—do they prefer a formal or relaxed setting, whether they like to be overserved or prefer little table talk. “We record all that information so we know how to approach the table. It’s good fun for us, too.”

While the extensive clientele data needs to be filled in and analysed by managers and waiters, regular debriefing sessions are part of the process. “Every night and every lunchtime, we discuss all these issues half an hour prior,” explains Bennett, who has set up this system for both Vue de Monde and Bistro Vue.

“We go through it as a group discussion and then we break it down into sections where those briefings take about 10-15 minutes.”

The database also works as an evolving cookbook, which simplifies Vue de Monde’s complex degustation system.

Bennett works with his head chef Ryan Clift. They both dabble in the chemistry–cookery relationship.

“We look at dishes that were on the menu four years ago and we keep a record of the ingredients. We have a calendar so the same dish may come up over three months throughout that year but it will be different each time. A lot of the customers like to see that sort of  evolution.”

Before restaurateurs and chefs start getting on the phone to order this database, Bennett says it’s not being trademarked.

“It’s changing all the time. We’re still adding to it and tweaking it.”

His restaurant reservation system through his website is another breakthrough.

After getting a personalised server installed, the number of patrons booking online is now around 20–25 per cent. When customers make a booking on the website, they can look up the bookings register to see available tables. If they are on the waiting list, they can actually make a booking with the preferable table.

Bennett spends $60,000 each year to enhance the website. “We want to show you as much as possible on this site; we want to entertain you,” says Bennett.

This entrepreneur is not being flippant—he’s planning to install a webcam in the kitchen. “We get a lot of requests from people wanting the chef’s table for the live theatre action, so our next step is to have a private boardroom that seats 12 people. We would stream a camera from the kitchen on to a TV screen.

“The people can feel like they are part of the live cooking experience. My designer has even suggested that it would be easy to stream it on to our website,’’ he says.

Another recent avenue has been the expansion of Vue de Monde’s online shop.

“This year, it has grown by 220 per cent,” says Bennett.

“We get so many requests—it includes all the pieces that are on the table. Most are bespoke items so we decided to stock a bit extra and put it on the website.”

These products include pieces by Alessi, Reidel and paintings by Tasmanian artist and former chef, Tom Samek.

Due to constant requests, Bennett used his nous to let major manufacturers know of this development, and now its bespoke glassware by Reidel is available to the public.

“George Reidel is personally designing different glassware for us,” he adds.

Despite his wünderkind status, Bennett says he has already refused to appear as a TV celebrity chef.

He prefers his partner, former Neighbours star Madeleine West, to get the limelight.

“She would be fantastic on TV in a cooking show,” he quips.

“I’d rather have a great successful restaurant and maybe at the age of 40, I’ll happily sit in the background and cook dinner every night while Madeleine goes out and makes millions of dollars in the film industry.”

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