Adrian, I hear you come from a family of pilots, how would you liken flying a plane to running a kitchen?
Well I suppose you have to be well trained in both of them, and you need to be able to handle pressure. You really need that focus, so when everything is falling apart you need to be calm, collected and be able to bring the service home or land the plane, one or the other.
You’ve achieved amazing success with La Luna, you’ve been around for 18 years, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 50% of hospitality businesses close within 4 years, which is really high. How have you kept the doors open for so long?
You’ve got to run it properly, you’ve got to be around and you’ve always got to strive to be better every year. One of the most important things is the customer – making sure the customer is well looked after and that doesn’t mean the customer is always right, because they’re not always right, but it’s about looking at your customers and providing them with great food and great service and keeping it at a reasonable price. I think that’s what we do and not getting too above ourselves or too in front of ourselves. I would say a great deal of our success has got to do with my staff. Having great staff in this business is essential, looking after them, empowering them – I think that’s really, really important. That’s your front line and when they’re doing the right thing, when they’re happy, that flows onto the customer. That’s how you keep your doors open for 18, nearly 19 years.
Have there been times where you’ve felt like closing the doors? And how have you overcome that?
We used to do brunch here and we did it for probably 6 or 7 years and were very good at it. We would do 2 or 3 hundred people in a day. And I just decided one day that I can’t do it, I’d had enough. I can’t do brunch anymore – I can’t do brunch and dinner, it’s just too busy. So that’s when I closed the doors for brunch, which upset a lot of people and I felt like it was a bad move because the weekend trade dropped off, but it’s picked up again and we’re fine.
I guess closing for brunch was a big thing for you – do you think you can’t be everything to everybody and maybe new businesses try and do that?
I think new businesses are trying to find their feet so they will open the doors to everything and they will try everything to see what works and I think that’s the way it works. A few places around here that started with breakfast, lunch and dinner then they worked out that the dinner service didn’t work so they just did breakfast and lunch. Your customers will tell you, but I think you need to learn fast because if you keep stretching yourself over those hours you can burn yourself out and that’s when a lot of places fail I think – they don’t work out what is actually working, when they’re making money and what the customers want.
How have you seen Melbourne’s food landscape change over the years, for better or worse?
It’s constantly changing, there’s always different cuisines coming in. But I think about 15 years ago we went off on this gastro sort of journey – you’d go into pubs and get a cheese foam on top of a parma, that sort of stuff. That’s where it goes crazy. I think we’ve had that craziness, there’s still a bit of it around which is great because you need that craziness but I think people are starting to settle down and realise that the people want real food on their plates. They want something a bit interesting but something that’s real and substantial and I think that’s where we’re going.
How do you think attitudes in the industry have changed in terms of the mindset of owners, staff culture and how the business might run?
20 years ago when I was a young lad, you pretty much worked 70 hours a week and got paid for 20, and it was a harsh environment. Now I think it’s changed, I think the young people that come into kitchens now are empowered, they know what’s going on, they know their rights, they know what they should be getting paid. You know have to look after people and do the right thing and that’s where it’s going. You really have to look after people to keep them.
You’ve got a new place – Bouvier, which is exciting. But there’s a lot of new bars opening up in Melbourne and always new restaurants – how do you make your place stand out from the crowd?
If you look at the front page of The Herald Sun or Taste magazine you’ll see Bouvier is number 1. You’ve got to be bloody good. You’ve got to have a good fit out now, you’ve got to have good staff, a good attitude, you’ve got to be knowledgeable, you’ve got to have good drinks, really good service. How do you stand out? – You’ve got to be good at it. I think if you are wanting to open a restaurant or a bar or a new venue, my recommendation is go work with some good operators, learn what they do and then open it up. We talked about people closing down – it’s usually lack of experience, people thinking ‘Oh well I cooked an omelette once, I should open a brunch menu’, well it doesn’t work that way, you really have to know what you’re doing. These businesses soak up a lot of money, very quickly. Once the meter is running you can go backwards very quickly. I’ve seen many people unfortunately lose their houses, their investments, their parent’s properties – it’s diabolical what can happen to you if you start without knowing what you’re doing.
How do you think social media has changed the way you operate business?
Social media is a great medium, it can be used for good – for letting people know what you’re doing, but it also can be used for evil. You’ve got people who don’t know what they’re doing posting reviews online, so you’ve really got to be careful. But I think most people that are looking at social media can read between the lines and see what’s true and what’s not.
Have there been any words of wisdom along your career that you’ve held onto and taken through your journey?
There’s been many, many words of wisdom. One of the most important things was my Grandfather who was quite a well-known chef and he said to me, ‘Adrian, you’re a chef, you’re a tradesman, your job is to pass on your skills to other tradesmen. Never hold it back, never hold back a recipe or your skills – pass it on.’ And that’s been one thing that’s stayed with me. I always try and teach my skills to chefs or young restaurateurs coming along if they come and ask me. I’m maybe a little bit too generous but I don’t want to die with it. The more you pass your skills on, the better the industry becomes and that’s the best words of advice.