Soju Girl is the country’s hottest new restaurant. But for many years Derek Brown had a difficult time convincing anyone of the value of his concept. By Chris Sheedy
Central Canberra restaurant Soju Girl seems to have developed a gravity all of its own. It draws people in from far and wide with a promise of an all-new dining experience and meals that are liberally peppered with stunning mixes of flavours and inspirations. Its well dressed clientele have created a ferociously positive word-of-mouth campaign in terms of the atmosphere, the service levels and of course, the food. When Soju Girl won the 2012 Savour Australia™ Restaurant & Catering award for Best New Restaurant, few were surprised.
What has been a surprise, though, is the very fact that the eatery was opened at all. Executive chef Derek Brown says he campaigned for five years to have such a restaurant opened. Even once he succeeded, Soju Girl was seven months in development.
“I was interested in a collaboration of a lot of Asian styles, including Japanese, Thai, Korean and Chinese,” Brown says. “People couldn’t comprehend that we could do a modern take on this, and they weren’t keen on the shared eating idea. Our guests can choose to share small plates or large plates between them, but they can also order their own plate for themselves.
“The shared plate idea is a real conversation starter and it helps make the evening a bit of an event. And with the availability of small plates plus the extensive menu, you can actually create your own degustation experience.”
Soju Girl is one of four venues owned by the 2617 Group. The other restaurants, all Canberra-based, include The Abbey and Versatile Restaurant, both in Gold Creek Village, and Ellacure in the north Canberra suburb of Bruce. Brown, the executive chef of the 2617 Group, is focused on Soju Girl as the business builds and reputations are formed.
The idea for Soju Girl, Brown says, began to form when he was working as the head chef at another leading Canberra restaurant, Parlour Wine Room. But it was actually the result of many experiences he had enjoyed far away from the Australian capital.
“I began working at Parlour Wine Room after working for 12 months in Thailand,” the 38-year-old explains. “I had actually opened a restaurant in Phuket and that was a very character-building experience. When you open a restaurant in a foreign territory there is a series of challenges that you don’t fully comprehend until they hit you. It’s not just about the language—there are issues with social structure, religion, finding the right produce, with sourcing equipment. The list goes on and on. Once we began working on Soju Girl I felt as if I was quite well rehearsed in the whole situation.”
Brown’s entire life, in fact, seems to have been a rehearsal for his current role. Having grown up in Wagga Wagga in rural NSW, he began an apprenticeship in a local hotel restaurant when he was just 13 years old. Once Brown had earned his qualifications he moved to Canberra, where he learnt the ropes in various restaurants over 12 years.
The next move was a big one—he took off to Canada for a year where he lived the endless winter while working at Araxi, an award-winning restaurant that is somewhat of an institution in the snowy white wonderland of Whistler. As the restaurant’s sous chef, Brown began to recognise the awesome possibilities offered by Japanese fusion cuisine which heavily influenced the Araxi menu.
On his way home from Canada, Brown [then 30 years old] went the long way around by travelling across Europe before stopping off in Turkey for four months. Here he worked in a resort town with another Australian chef creating modern Australian dishes for locals and visitors alike.
“When I came back to Canberra I worked at Water’s Edge restaurant by Lake Burley Griffin,” Brown says. “That was a two-hatted restaurant and I worked with chef Darren Vaughan, who had worked under Gordon Ramsay for five years. After 12 months at Water’s Edge many of us went with Darren to 360 Bar & Dining in Sydney’s Centrepoint Tower. After another 12 months my wife had to relocate to Melbourne for her work, so I followed her there and did a short stint at Longrain. Once again, that really emphasised the Asian aspect of what I wanted to do.”
Finally, before re-settling in Canberra, Brown moved to Thailand for 12 months where he honed his skills by immersing himself in the Asian food culture.
Bringing it all back home
“Having moved around so much I finally feel settled now,” Brown says. “It’s not just because of Soju Girl, which is growing more successful every week. I also have two children and they keep me grounded in one place. But what I do at work each day is anything but grounded in one place! Asian food is very clever. A great deal of the dishes are extremely creative. So to bring various Asian styles together gives you an enormous amount of creative inspiration and I think people are recognising that when they visit.”
Brown says Soju Girl is a gastro pub in an Asian format. Others have described the restaurant as a reinvention of the pub concept. Really it’s a little bit of both, with a high-class restaurant thrown in for good measure. There is a bar at which food and drinks can be ordered for casual consumption at tables with friends, then there is a formal dining section.
“We’re very focused on the food element of the place,” Brown says. “There is a lot of very high-grade produce amongst our ingredients. We have a very strong, large kitchen filled with incredibly talented people. We have the formal service part of the restaurant where you sit down and you’re waited upon, then on the other side of the building there’s a large bistro where you can buy your own drinks and order your food—you’re given a number and the food turns up at your table. People can have the relaxed atmosphere or the high-end dining atmosphere. Either way the food is of a very high calibre.”
The Soju Girl core market, Brown says, ranges from the ages of 18 to 45. “We’ve developed a space that is classy and funky but not pretentious,” he says. “We’re pretty much an open market and our guests come from a broad cross-section of the community. Perhaps unsurprisingly, thanks to the name ‘Soju Girl’ we do tend to attract slightly more females than males.”
Recipe for success
When so many restaurant businesses find themselves having a difficult time in today’s market, how does one manage to stand head and shoulders above the rest? “You have to be very hands-on and really get to know the business and its customers,” Brown says. “A lot of a restaurant’s success comes from the fact that somebody is watching over it, ensuring standards set at the beginning never slip.
“As a restaurant manager you’ve got to be constantly monitoring what’s going on. You’ve got to be intellectual about your approach to it as well as being practical in ensuring you’re being cost effective. You’ve also got to be a motivator and a mentor. You’ve got to know what direction you’re moving in terms of your restaurant’s physical space. What type of design are you after and why? Basically you really have to work hard to stay on top of a myriad of things when you run a small business.”
The monitoring of the business, Brown says, happens on a number of levels. In the lead-up to the Christmas period as large groups of people come in for work and social celebrations, for instance, specific dietary requirements tend to become more pronounced. There may be more people requesting gluten-free meals or light meals. This demand must be fed back to the kitchen to ensure plates are developed to satisfy the specific and constantly changing needs of the customers.
Staff must also be monitored to ensure they are motivated. Brown encourages his people to get out and about, to see the world and develop their experience overseas. “I think one of the best things I ever did was travel,” he says.
“It opened my eyes and lifted my skill level and I really embraced that development. It’s exciting and satisfying and rewarding and very good for your career. We enlist our staff to help us develop menus and their feedback is incredibly valuable. Staff are always coming and going as we now have such a reputation that we springboard people into great restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. I’m very happy for them when that happens and very proud of what we have achieved here to make that happen.”