Congratulations on the opening of Rivea. Tell us, what prompted you to create your first ‘pure’ Italian restaurant at Pacific Fair?
Before little truffle, I had always wanted to do an Italian restaurant. When we opened little truffle, it was essentially modern Australian and we took our influence from Italy and France, and the Gold Coast just dubbed it a French restaurant, which I’m certainly not complaining about!We already had Bin 232 at Pacific Fair, which was obviously something a little different for dining in a shopping centre, and it was so well received. I’ve always wanted to do Italian, so when the opportunity came up at Pacific Fair, it made sense to me to put the Rivea concept there. Since opening, it’s been crazy.
How do you view the shopping centre dining concept?
Well, I have travelled around America and other places where its common for shopping centres to have everything you need under one roof – dining, retail, bars, things for kids to do. And we quickly realised we were onto a great thing with Bin 232, because it just works so well there. Across Australia, all these major shopping centres are pumping millions of dollars into bringing them up to standard, because that’s what people want. I do believe bringing Rivea to Pacific Fair was a good move and we’re happy we’ve done it. Unlike other places, you can drive in here at night, there are like 6,000 car parks and plus there’s a great ambience at any time of day – at some places your outlook is a road or a highway (mine included). People also like the convenience at a place like Pacific Fair.
Did you always want to be a chef?
Yes, always! My uncle married a Thai lady and once a month I would go and cook a Thai banquet and I always loved it. Every time someone asked me what I wanted to be, I just said ‘I want to be a chef’, and everyone seemed cool with that. I had no idea about it really at the time. My parents owned pizza parlours, fish and chip shops and cafes, though there was no professional chef stuff involved there – but it was good conditioning for me. So I did the course, got into the restaurants and I bloody loved it.
So, you have six restaurants spread across all corners of the Gold Coast – how often are you in the kitchen?
Essentially, during the ‘9–5’ the phone rings off the hook and there’s a lot of running around, but once it hits 5:00 pm, I’m like – great! Which restaurant am I going to go to? I am a bit biased towards Little Truffle, more because it’s fine-dining level. I probably spend three nights at Little Truffle, and the rest of the time between the other venues. It’s really important for me to be in the kitchen, for myself and to keep my head clear. Even though the kitchens are crazy busy and you’re getting smashed in service, you just focus on what’s in front of you, and that’s the rush that most hospitality staff love. Plus, it’s good to be in the ‘trenches’ with the team. It’s really important for us to be on the floor or in the kitchen everyday, in some capacity.
There is a lot on your plate, so to speak. How do you make it work?
Well, each restaurant has its own manager, a head chef and a full team – and on top of that we have a really good support network across operations, HR, finance and so forth. It’s kind of like a hotel set up, and instead of being in one building, it’s just spread out. As a group we’re quite small compared to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Though, we have 100-plus staff now – and our priority first and foremost is our team. Making a restaurant is actually quite easy – but making a restaurant work is all about the people, and that’s the focus for us and where we have to put a lot of time. It has to be enjoyable, or else there is no point in doing it, and you have to reward yourself and your team when things are going well. That’s the key.
How would you best describe your culinary style?
It’s quite diverse, and being so diverse in style means that I can’t do what I want in one venue, hence why I’ve got multiple venues. My background is high-end fine dining and 5-star hotels. Generally European is my strength, not Asian-inspired … but my favourite cuisine is Japanese, so go figure! That’s my brain in a nutshell.
After six restaurants in six years, natural progression tells us there’s more in the pipeline. What’s next?
Our other arm is Ridgeway Group Catering, which we’re about to relocate to tie in with a culinary college, which will get us in with the training side of things – giving kids a hands on work experience as well. This will be a great way for us to tap into some staff and get them when they’re pure! We’re planning to hold training courses and sessions, and the good thing is that if we can see a spark in the eye of anyone then we can start to train them up from scratch and mentor them in our way. We’re growing, and our team will need to grow. On the restaurant side, we’re extending our reach to the northern end in 2017. We’re as far south as Coolangatta and we want to have a good, quality offering of food and beverage across the entire Gold Coast. We’ll have more details in good time. It’s really exciting!