Their fresh and fearless approach to dining, matched with world-class food, has seen this Perth couple rise to the top of Australia’s restaurant scene
There are no eye-popping water views or five-star fitouts. They open at 7pm sharp; there’s a set degustation menu on offer at $120 a head, no a la carte.
By Perth’s standards, with diners more attuned to glamorous settings and a wealth of options, this is a radical approach. But for Carolynne and Hadleigh Troy, who opened Restaurant Amusé in Perth in 2007, the bold move has paid off. Chef Hadleigh’s modern European food has been critically acclaimed, as has Carolynne’s warm, informative service at front-of-house. Last month they were awarded the prestigious 2010 Restaurant of the Year at the Savour Australia™ Restaurant & Catering Awards for Excellence (as well as the award for Fine Dining Restaurant), ranking them above more established restaurants in the major cities.
“We were completely shocked, but it’s such an honour for us to be recognised in such excellent company,” says Carolynne. “Perth’s always been regarded as a backwater when it comes to restaurants, so this is an affirmation we’ve been on the right track.” Their achievement is even more extraordinary when you consider they’re each just 32 years old, and this is their first restaurant project. And they’re the first to admit their brazen, yet innovative, approach to fine dining, was a big risk.
“It could have broken us,” says Carolynne. “We’d just arrived home in Perth after working overseas, and here we were, a couple of young kids, trying to dictate what the diners do. It could have been our downfall. I guess we just had a mixture of naivete and a sense we had nothing to lose.”
Carolynne’s modest confession downplays the extensive, prestigious training she and Hadleigh gained in Australia and in Europe, cutting their teeth in some of the world’s best restaurants.
Both grew up in Perth and met at 19, when she was studying law and waitressing, and Hadleigh was an apprentice chef. He worked in several Perth culinary institutions, The Loose Box and Jackson’s Restaurant, before heading to Melbourne to work in Langton’s Restaurant. Carolynne dropped her law career and dove into high-end hospitality, joining Hadleigh in Melbourne and helping open The Brasserie by Philippe Mouchel. From there they headed to London, working at a string of world-class restaurants, including Hadleigh’s role as sous chef at the Michelinstarred The Greenhouse, and opening the Gordon Ramsay-owned La Noisette. Carolynne’s jobs included a stint as kitchen administrator at the five-star Landmark London. Their stay in London was cut short by the need to return to Perth for a family health concern. Once home they decided to stay and fulfil a long-held dream of starting their own restaurant.
A restaurant is born
The couple had a crystal clear vision about the type of restaurant they wanted to open. They wanted to reflect the European sensibility they’d experienced in London, with a single-minded and passionate focus on the food.
“It was a case of not trying to be everything,” Carolynne says. “We wanted to do the degustation menu and to tailor it to suit. We didn’t want to be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but were aiming for a special-occasion restaurant.”
First step was finding the right location. “Perth restaurants are a lot about the view and the sunny outlook,” Carolynne says. “We’re the opposite to that.”
Limited by budget, their long hunt ended with a modest little shopfront in a residential area near the CBD.
“We drove away from the building three times because it was so ugly, before realising it was in the ideal location, with low overheads,” Carolynne says. “We didn’t have the money for a location with a view, so we figured, make it good and they’ll come. It’s very handy to the CBD but is in unchartered territory for a restaurant.”
Carolynne and Hadleigh tackled the former Thai/Malaysian restaurant, left empty for the previous six months, in a whirlwind of DIY.
“We did the renovation over eight weeks, calling in every family member and friend who could help,” she says.
Just months after their official opening date, the hairdresser in the adjoining house next door moved out, so Hadleigh and Carolynne decided to take it over.
“As you do, a young restaurant not quite floating, you decide to expand,” she laughs. “We approached the landlord, knocked through the wall and renovated the second space too.”
The result of all their efforts is a simple, chic, deep-toned space that clearly sets the tone for the dining experience ahead.
“We get a lot of requests, asking for a table with a view, and I explain to people there’s nothing to see except what’s on their plate,” Carolynne says. “It’s intimate and fairly simple, streamlined, low key and romantic, with space between the tables.”
The restaurant’s menu was planned to be a showcase of Hadleigh’s sophisticated skills and style, changing with the seasons. “We describe it as modern French, or innovative and modern European,” Carolynne says. “Hadleigh’s background is classically French, but we then lighten it up, and have a sense of play and a lot of fun. We believe food doesn’t have to be taken too seriously.”
“Hadleigh loves playing with fresh produce, getting dishes right, and he’s notorious for having a bit of fun with his desserts,” Carolynne says. “We have a lot of people ask why we don’t do a la carte, but we felt it would dilute the experience and what we were trying to achieve. We wanted to slow things down, reduce the number of covers, and focus on the food. It’s about being generous to our guests so they return.”
Secrets of success
The rave reviews begain soon after Restaurant Amusé opened its doors in August 2007. In just three years, Carolynne and Hadleigh have gone from heartin- mouth restaurant novices, to owners of the top-ranking restaurant in Perth. Their controversial approach has won them praise by diners and critics alike.
“It seems like it’s happened overnight,” Carolynne says. She has worked hard to ensure guests understand how the restaurant works and doesn’t leave room for any misunderstandings or disappointment.
“It was important that customers didn’t have false expectations,” she says. “We ask the guests to allow a minimum of three hours for their meals, and don’t take walk-ins.” That approach has won them a loyal customer base.
“For us it’s about not being pretentious,” Carolynne says. “For a lot of people a dinner like this is a big outlay, they’re often choosing to come here once a year, for a special occasion. So if we can be warm and informative and guide them through in a way that’s friendly and unpretentious, that’s what we aim to do.”
Carolynne says they’re often asked how they cope being married to each other and working together every day.
“I refer to him as chef,” she laughs. “We’ve worked in quite a few places together and have an understanding. He’s the chef and we don’t cross that line, but just support each other. It’s not an industry you should be in if you’re not passionate about it. It’s a lifestyle.”
Carolynne and Hadleigh’s teamwork is backed by excellent staff.
“We’re very conscious of looking after our team, they’re the most important part of it all,” Carolynne says. “I’m really lucky with the team, and have had our assistant manager for two and a half years and we’ve got a passionate sommelier on board now, joining me on the wine list.”
After a nerve-wracked first six months, the couple now know their risky approach has worked.
“We love it, and we’re grateful for every guest who comes in the door,” Carolynne says. “You don’t forget that first six months, but now we’re enjoying the independence.”