Winning Restaurant of the Year was another highlight in a great year for Vue de Monde and the story isn’t quite over yet, writes Rob Johnson.
It has been a big year for Shannon Bennett of Melbourne’s Vue de Monde. In April he moved the restaurant to its current home in Little Collins Street. A couple of weeks ago he picked up the awards for Fine Dining Restaurant and Restaurant of the Year at the R&CA National Awards. In a few weeks time, he and partner Madeleine will have their first child. Before the end of the year, he’ll be opening a bar at the same site as the restaurant. Oh, and around the time you read this, he’ll turn 30.
So, next year will probably be pretty disappointing, by comparison. He laughs. “I think it will be a ‘stabilising’ year. I’m writing a second book at the moment and working on that has been a great challenge. I was happy with the first book (My Vue, 2004, published by Simon and Schuster), but you always want to improve on what you’ve done before. I’m also looking forward to keeping the restaurant good and consistent.”
Bennett’s rapid rise to prominence and success may prompt sighs of another celebrity chef, but it’s actually based on training, skills and enormous amounts of hard work. The book contract came about after his publisher had become a regular in Vue de Monde and had fallen in love with Bennett’s food. He wrote it after work for two years, every night between 11pm and 1am.
Bennett began his apprenticeship while still at school in Melbourne’s suburbs and in 1991 he continued it full-time, working at Melbourne’s Grand Hyatt under Roger Leinhard. “In those days, not many restaurants offered good training,” he explains. “It was a tough time to get into the restaurant trade. That’s part of the reason I wanted to train at the Grand Hyatt.”
He finished his apprenticeship six months early and wrote to all the Michelin star restaurants in Europe to find work.
Only two of them replied—John Burton Race (L’Ortolan,
Berkshire) and Gordon Ramsey (Aubergine). So in 1994 he hit the road for London.
“I went overseas to learn about discipline—particularly about self-discipline—and I could do that with John Burton Race,” he says. “I stayed with him for two years, then worked with Marco Pierre White (the Criterion, Mirabelle, L’Escargot and Quo Vadis) for two years. I was really young—I was 22 when I finished working with Marco and London was a great place to be, not only socially, but also for learning about myself. I then went to work with Albert Roux (47 Park Street, and the Albert Roux consultancy) as an apprentice pastry chef, and followed him around Europe.”
Towards the end of the decade Bennett was ready to return to Australia. “I applied for a couple of jobs—I had the option of working for Alain Ducasse, but instead I decided to go back to Australia. I opened the restaurant in March 2000.”
To get started he borrowed $70,000 from a friend and also got some help from his parents. Those initial loans have been paid back in full. He found a site in Carlton and opened up shop. “I never over-capitalised,” he says. “You just start slow. Work with what you’ve got. Back yourself, but know your constraints.”
His philosophy at Vue de Monde was to provide a dining experience that was difficult to create at home. He achieved that through his dedication to sourcing rare ingredients, an uncompromising approach to classical technique and a commitment to the very best of restaurant service including crockery, cutlery and glassware.
It seems like a risky venture at a time when fine dining restaurants come and go, but in Bennett’s view, “if you open a restaurant for profit you’re an idiot, particularly if you’re opening a fine dining restaurant. You do it because it’s your passion. Fine dining restaurants have to be driven by a belief in yourself. You have to have a passion for it and if you’re careful with your cash flow and so on, it should work.”
The restaurant quickly gathered fans and praise, including a few plugs from Kitchen Confidential author Anthony Bourdain, an Australian Gourmet Traveller Best New Talent Award in 2003 and a best French restaurant gong by the Age Good Food Guide in 2004.
“It was a slow build for the restaurant,” he says. “The year 2002 was a self-assessment year—that was when we really started to tune in with what our customers wanted. But last year was the telling one. About two years into it we were fully booked. In 2004, when we came back from holidays in January that year, it was bang, straight into it. I felt the team were doing really well and I was really happy about how I was cooking.”
By that stage he was mentally ready to move into a new space. In one of those serendipitous moments, he mentioned his desire to talk to one of his customers, Melbourne property developer and publisher, Morry Schwartz. Schwartz, his daughter Zahava Ellenberg and son-in-law Callum Fraser were regulars at the restaurant, and when Bennett told them he wanted to move they said they’d help him secure the present site.
The new site is one third larger than the old one in square meters, but the restaurant does the same number of covers. It seats 64 and the dining rooms can be divided, “which was one of the reasons we moved here. Also, the toilets were outside in the old restaurant. The new place has been a dream.”
Bennett had some big plans for the new place, including the mandatory inclusion of an open kitchen, solely for the showbiz element. “Restaurants are all about theatre, so there had to be an element of theatre to it,” he says. “With the open kitchen, the chefs are on show and so they know they have to have clean uniforms, clean fingernails and so on.”
The theatre extends to the floor staff and the design of the menu as well. “It comes through each staff member’s passion for what they do. Then part of it is also having no menu—we offer a minimum of four courses and a maximum of 17 courses—that’s
a big part of it because it means that the waiters are like chefs on the floor,” he adds.
Wait, there is more to this story
But even though Vue de Monde is settled in its new home, the story isn’t quite over yet. When he bought the space, Bennett made sure he had room for a bar and a café. “Those two sites are ready for fit-out now,” he says.
“The bar will come this year. For the café I’ve already commissioned a fit-out from Italy—Luca Trazzi will do it. It’s really modern with polished mirrors and stainless steel finish—a very sophisticated café bar. It’ll offer simple, clean food, and will seat about 30. I think of the bar as more of a French tapas style, very intimate.”
And his involvement in the industry continues to burn up any spare time he may have left. He has appeared at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, the Good Food and Wine shows and several charity dinners, not to mention media and promotional opportunities. At the invitation of San Pellegrino, Bennett travelled to Venice last year and competed in the San Pellegrino Cooking Cup, taking out the overall prize and the award for best dish, beating over 70 chefs. Competing in the Victorian Kitchen of the Year held by the Australian Culinary Federation, Bennett and his team took out first place.
The Restaurant of the Year Award was fun to attend, but he admits: “It’s nice to get the award, but we never work for awards.
“Reviews are important, and we’ve got some good ones and some bad ones. The awards are good in that it’s good for the staff to receive accolades.” ν
Vue de Monde is located at Normanby Chambers, 430 Little Collins Street, Melbourne VIC 3000, T: (03) 9691 3888, W: www.vuedemonde.com.au