In an era where the Australian food industry is saturated with new restaurants/bars/cafes that are hyped up as the next big thing one moment, only to fail spectacularly the next, it is difficult to understand just how chef/restaurateur Andrew McConnell and his partners have achieved the kind of success and longevity they have. With nine food business entities throughout Melbourne that boast shining reputations, the McConnell brand is a recognised force in the Australian food industry. And it’s no wonder – the consistent quality of his establishments has created a loyal patronage that grows ever larger.
We spoke to McConnell about the challenges of the industry, his bold new Chinese restaurant housed in Fitzroy’s Builder’s Arms Hotel, and why food enthusiasts are so partial to Asian cuisine.
You have so many establishments. What would you say is your secret to their consistent quality across the board?
Well yeah that’s a big question that covers a lot of ground in terms of service and ambience and atmosphere.
But I think it’s just a relentless drive to keep, you know, getting better. To get better at what we do. But it’s also about being able to evolve with time as well – changing and improving what we’re doing, revisiting and reanalysing what we do and how we do it and why.
That goes from how we’re training staff, the process of service, how we’re cooking, how the room and the ambience feel… I think it’s just always questioning things, and the drive to evolve and change and get better.
And what are the greatest challenges in doing that? Is it staff?
The challenges come from all areas of running a business.
But I think the most challenging thing facing this industry right now is finding staff, [because there’s] a staff shortage. I think that’s been the case for many years now.
Why do you think there is a staff shortage?
I think it’s got more to do with… maybe it’s not a shortage of staff. Maybe it’s just that there are too many restaurants! There’s been quite an explosion of restaurants in Melbourne in the last five or six years, and the growth has outgrown the amount of people coming into the industry.
So what is your process in setting up an establishment? How involved are you in creating the menus and the general culture of the place in its initial stages?
I’m involved every step of the way, in all aspects. [The setting up is] what I enjoy doing. You know. Everything from the food, working with the chefs, to engineering an environment that works as far as functionality goes, and then working very closely with an architect to design a space. [Working to make sure that] all of [those elements] really create an ambience that works for the kind of business that you’re trying to establish. And that’s the fun part of the job I reckon.
Yep. And the day-to-day maintenance is probably the most stressful part!
Yeah, that’s the hardest part. Everyone says opening a restaurant is really hard; but actually, the hard work is running the restaurant and maintaining the motivation and the standards.
So once you’ve come up with a concept, what are the first steps you take to set up an establishment?
Well what has happened with me historically is, I have been fortunate that sites have come along and been offered to me. So when I have an idea – when I had the idea to open Cumulus, for example – the site dictates what will happen, how it will evolve, and what we think would work there.
I think a few people were surprised that you decided to open Ricky & Pinky at the Builder’s Arms site. What made you decide to go down the Chinese restaurant path in that space?
Well look, a few reasons. I worked in China for five years, with Chinese food. I’ve always wanted to explore Chinese food in a bit more depth, and the opportunity to make some changes at the Builder’s Arms presented itself.
The environment around it; in Fitzroy, in Melbourne, and then [its proximity to] the city made it seem like the perfect opportunity and a really good fit. Looking at it in hindsight, how people are using the space, using the Builders Arms and also coming to Ricky & Pinky, it was the right decision.
It doesn’t get any easier. It doesn’t become any more of a sure thing, the more experience you get. It’s still just as nerve-racking, going through the process and the self-doubt that comes along with you know, going out on a limb. But it’s now two and a half months in [at Ricky & Pinky] and I’m a little bit more comfortable with the direction of what we’re doing there now.
So why do you think there’s such a huge focus on Asian cuisine and taking it to such an elevated level? I feel like that has been happening everywhere.
I think that’s been happening all over the world for a long time. The Flower Drum, one of our longest-standing fine dining restaurants in Melbourne, is Chinese. So I don’t think there’s anything new about the fact that there’s good Asian food [available] now, both in Melbourne and around Australia. I do think we’re seeing a lot more of it, and that’s based on the growth of the industry per capita, the amount of people going to restaurants etcetera etcetera. And I think that’s a response to how the environment’s changing, [rather than] a strong push in the industry.
It’s an evolution of what people are looking to eat as well. People are looking for diversity in how they go out and socialise and use restaurants now.
You focus on European food as well as Asian food across your restaurants. Do you prefer one to the other?
I don’t prefer one to the other! But I trained and worked in European kitchens for 20 years. Towards the end of those 20 years, I had the opportunity to live and work in China. That exposure really gave me the confidence, the knowledge, the palate and the understanding of how to use those ingredients and to be quite true to the flavours, and I suppose the heritage, of some of these different cuisines.
Are you partial to any one of your restaurants in particular?
No. I don’t think you can have a favourite child; you can’t have a favourite restaurant, either. But I like them all for different reasons, I love working in them all for different reasons, and I like working with the people I work with, which is the most important thing.