Stephen Mercer

Stephen14The owner of Mercer’s Restaurant in Melbourne’s suburb of Eltham says working at a Michelin-starred dining room in Frankfurt and then at The Dorchester in London was the perfect foundation to a stellar career

I wasn’t one of those chefs who knew they were going to be cooking when they were five years old. I took on an apprenticeship when I was 16 and it was through those teen years that I really developed a love for food and cooking. I went on to work at a Michelin-starred dining room at a hotel in Frankfurt and that was where I met my girlfriend Ute—now my wife and business partner—who was working on reception. From there we went to The Dorchester hotel just as it was reopening after two years of renovations. They’d pulled in the best chefs in London, and being surrounded by such talent was a great opportunity.

That’s why I tell my apprentices they should go overseas when they move on. Why not use your career to travel, to expand your mind, to expand your style of cuisine? I also think it’s a great advantage to go somewhere non-English speaking—to come out bilingual is a massive bonus for anybody.

I’d always wanted to own my own restaurant but was very aware that I’d spent all my time in hotel fine dining rooms, and they usually lose money! Coming back to Australia, I wanted to be cooking quality food in a business that worked, so I went to Jacques Reymond’s restaurant in Windsor for two years before getting my first head chef role at Adams of North Riding. Going to a place with a team that’s a similar size to the restaurant you’re planning to open is a good move.

You have to think carefully about location. Ute and I looked around for quite a while because we wanted to stay out of the CBD. Crown Casino opened around that time and we were aware it would affect city restaurants. We opened Mercer’s in 1997 and have been here for over 17 years now, which is an unusual thing for the Melbourne restaurant scene. It’s a really difficult market and you’ve got to get it right. So many international names have had a go and most of them haven’t worked. Guys like Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver … I don’t think they realise how competitive it is here. For many restaurants in cities, the first year is the busiest they ever do because they get all of the press early on and for a restaurant to hit its capacity early isn’t the healthiest thing. It’s much better to have a business that grows steadily over time.

“After almost 30 years in the business, I still enjoy cooking. It’s actually the part of the job I enjoy the most!”

That said, there’s always an element of luck in any venture and I’ve seen some very good chefs not get it right. Sometimes it’s their own doing, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s the environment, sometimes the location. We’re in a very uncool location really, in the outer suburbs. It’s not where you set up for fame and glory. But then we don’t live and die by the press like many city restaurants do.

People tend to focus on me, but Mercer’s is very much a partnership and I couldn’t have a better partner than Ute, who does most of the bookwork and a fair bit of the management. I’m very lucky and very grateful that it works the way it does.

That also means I get to work a lot with the apprentices and oversee their training. This business can be hard and antisocial given the unsociable hours, so I make a real effort to help them enjoy it. We take them out and dine with them and involve them in industry activities.

Investing in yourself is the best investment you can make in terms of knowledge and training. I was never particularly worried about what I got paid in Europe. Even when I got back, it was about targeting the right jobs, not the money. You learn an awful lot in any good kitchen.

When I started my apprenticeship, the guys in the kitchen would say, ‘This is a fun industry but you wouldn’t want to be cooking behind the stove when you’re 40’. Back then I was thinking the same thing, but after almost 30 years in the business, I still enjoy cooking. It’s actually the part of the job I enjoy the most!

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