Fear and ambition turned Italian-born Tony Percuoco from an apprentice chef at Sydney’s Bennelong restaurant into the highly successful owner of Tartufo—one of Brisbane’s finest Italian restaurants
My food journey began when I was a young boy growing up in the Italian town of Naples. Both my father and uncle owned restaurants, and my mother was—and is—an excellent cook. She has this amazing knack of turning the simplest ingredients into stellar dishes. So, while all the other kids around me wanted to grow up and become pilots, firemen or police officers, I dreamt of becoming a chef. And I put that dream into motion as soon as I migrated to Australia with my family in the early 1970s.
I was 15, just out of school, and I landed the role of an apprentice chef at the Bennelong restaurant in Sydney. It was one of the most iconic restaurants in Australia, and it was only about to get bigger with the opening of the Sydney Opera House. I was young, full of fear, with excitement and ambition. But I took the bull by the horns, worked long and hard hours, and learnt as much as I could on the job. In many ways, my experience at the Bennelong set me up for life. It made me fall in love not only with the idea of managing restaurants, but big restaurants.
My experience at Sydney’s Hilton hotel further honed my skills for managing big-cover establishments and taught me to never judge a book by its cover. The Hilton in the late ’70s and early ’80s used to attract the enfant terrible of the Sydney society. I was shocked when I saw a guy rock up at the restaurant for dinner in a pair of jeans. It was unheard of in those days and quite a departure from the scene at the Bennelong where everyone was always seen in the finest formals. But I was asked by the chef at the Hilton to never judge my guests. That guy in the jeans might have arrived in a Lamborghini or a Ferrari, for all I knew. And I was told to respect all my customers, irrespective of their appearances.
Respect, as I readily discovered at my subsequent jobs, including a stint at the prestigious Regent hotel in Sydney (now the Four Seasons), is the secret to success in the restaurant and catering industry.
Respect everything, starting with your ingredient. If you keep it simple and not camouflage it or unnecessarily tamper it, that ingredient will give you back a beautiful dish.
Respect your staff. I spent some time helping my family manage the Pulcinella restaurant in Kings Cross, then went on to launch and operate a number of my own restaurants—from places such as Grissini, Studio Assaggini and Ristorante Fellini in the Gold Coast, to my current establishment, Tartufo, in Brisbane. Over all these years—almost 30 now—there are three things I have done every single day. When I get in at work, I go and say hello to everybody. Before I leave, if I leave before others, I go and say goodbye to everybody. And we always sit together for a staff dinner at five o’clock in the afternoon. We all eat together and I eat the same food as they do.
I have learnt if you respect your staff, it comes back to you, along with unquestionable loyalty. I have been managing Tartufo for four years now, but there’s a waiter who’s been working for me at my different establishments for the past 23 years. My restaurant’s general manager has been with me for eight years too. I also don’t believe in having young, trendy waiters, which seems to be all the rage these days.
What I believe in, however, is beautiful, clean, unobtrusive service, so I invest a lot of time in my staff. I train them sufficiently and nurture a healthy, respectful relationship with each of them.
Finally, respecting your client is the most important thing. I don’t believe the customer is always right, because—frankly speaking—they’re not. But I always ask my staff to listen to what the customer has to say. Even something as simple as someone saying, “We didn’t enjoy the fish; it was a bit fishy”, may help you improve your game. Because, while the customer may not be right, they do sometimes say things to you because they genuinely care for your establishment. And you must be receptive to that.