How did you get started in the restaurant business?
Tristan: I got into the industry because I wasn’t very good at school (laughs). At the time, my parents were saying, “Ok, you’re not going to finish school, so you have to get a job”. So, when I was in year eight, I got a part-time job as a kitchen hand in a local cafe and I’ve never really looked back.
So, you knew you wanted to work in restaurants even then?
Tristan: No, it happened more organically. Once I got that job I was working every weekend and every day in the school holidays, and I think the exposure to the industry and the people just had an impact on me. Being around lots of adults and working alongside them really accelerated my learning and showed me an exciting world I’d never seen before.
What did you like most about it?
Tristan: I loved the camaraderie. I learned so much from the get go, but mostly I just really felt like I was part of something and that was an amazing feeling.
How did you make the move up the ranks?
Tristan: Once I’d been doing the kitchen-hand work for a while, I just gradually started getting prep jobs and pretty soon after I started my apprenticeship and that was that. Fast forward to 2010, and I was working at the then-three-hatted Est as a chef de partie.
What was it like working at Est?
Tristan: I learned so much while I was there, and made so many incredible connections that have helped me get to where I am today. Probably the most significant connection was my friend Michael Mu Sung, who I met while we were working the same section, because we ended up starting a restaurant together a few years later!
How did you make the move to work in your own venue?
Tristan: I’d just started a stint at Biota Dining, after returning from travelling for a while, and one day I got a call from Michael out of the blue saying he wanted me to come to Sydney and help him cook dinner for some guys he’d met. He was very vague, but I went up to Sydney for the day and we went to his mum’s house. He’d prepared a menu and I helped him cook for these three guys. Turns out they were opening a restaurant and that dinner was basically an audition to come and run it. So we went to see the space, this is at the beginning of 2013 – it was Farmhouse in Kings Cross – and it was so tiny, just 35 square metres! I’d just been offered the sous chef role at Biota, but after chatting with Michael, we decided that the opportunity to open a restaurant with your best mate was too good to pass up.
So, you were hired as chefs?
Tristan: Yep, at first, but then after about two weeks, the owners said that they didn’t want to work in the business at all, so our roles evolved to include doing all of the business side as well as being chefs. So, we were doing things we had no idea about, like, hiring floor staff. We were definitely in over our heads.
But Farmhouse was a success?
Tristan: It was a challenging year, but after the first 12 months, in 2014, we received one chef’s hat, which was amazing. People really loved what we were doing.
Is Farmhouse where the set menu idea came from?
Tristan: Yep, the set menu idea was born out of necessity – that was all we could serve. We just simply didn’t have the space or resources to do a la carte. We offered a set menu for a set price so we could get away with having only exactly what we needed and not one bit more. We were learning how to operate a business from the ground up, and a big part of this was figuring out food costs and literally costing out every single ingredient, and this gave us a real appreciation for the dollars that went into everything, and also made us not want to waste a single thing.
When did you move on from Farmhouse?
Tristan: After about a year and a half, Mike bought the business and we continued working together for a while, before I went travelling again. When I was in Canada in 2015, I got approached to go and work at Dead Ringer, which was just opening. I worked there for two years and it was a completely new challenge. I was working with new owners who had more of a background in bars, so the drinks were a big focus and that was something I hadn’t really been involved in before. I learnt a lot about how drinks play into the whole dining experience, which was really interesting.
And it was while you were at Dead Ringer that you decided you wanted to open your own place?
Tristan: Yeah. I knew I wanted to do my own thing and do things a little differently. After two years working in an a la carte restaurant, spending days prepping food that never got ordered, I was a bit over it, and I wanted to carve my own path.
Is this where your focus on cutting out food waste came from?
Tristan: Yeah, it’s hard to be passionate about preparing something that’s not going to be eaten, or not going to be at its best because you’re not serving it when it should be served. I hated the wastefulness from an ethical and environmental perspective, of course, but it was also just soul-crushing as a chef. I knew there was a better way, and that was the way we’d done things at Farmhouse – open your doors knowing that your guests are spending the set menu price, at a minimum, and know exactly what ingredients you need, in what quantities, so you’re not in a position where you’re prepping a whole lot of food that just doesn’t get used. I knew I had to go out on my own and do things my way.
And that’s how Arthur was born?
Tristan: Yep, my partner and I decided to open a restaurant and we were inspired by places we’d seen on our travels, so I gave myself six months to get something open. It took 18 (laughs). I needed to get my finances in order, find the right site and the right team and these things take time. In hindsight, it was totally worth the wait – I’m so happy with where Arthur has ended up.
And then Arthur opens in 2018…
Tristan: We finally opened! We stuck with the set menu concept and our menu is… Australian, I suppose. Everyone wants you to define yourself as one thing or another, but I hate saying ‘modern Australian’, because what does that even mean? We want to taste like Australia, so we’ve kind of spun that concept to be more about focusing on using Australian products. So, we’re supporting our local producers – for everything from chocolate to the botanicals we use in our drinks, and using this great Aussie produce to make delicious food, because that’s what’s important to us.
Supporting local is really important to you.
Tristan: Of course. But for me, it’s not something I bang on about, because it feels kind of obvious to me. Of course we buy from local producers and of course we purchase products that are sustainable. I don’t see any other way, it just makes sense.
It’s also about the fit with the individual business. You have to trust that they’re not going to sell you shit, and you want to buy from people who’re passionate about what they’re doing. Similarly, our suppliers also need to trust us and know that we’re taking care with their products and using them to produce something great. Our goals have to align. When they stop aligning, it’s time for us to move on.
What’s the focus for Arthur’s menu?
Tristan: We’re mostly serving up ingredients you’re familiar with, served in a way you might not have seen before. Our food is challenging enough for people who are foodies and looking for something a bit surprising, but accessible enough for those who have a more traditional palette. The food still has to be homely and delicious, that’s what we’re really going for at the end of the day. I’m much more interested in showing our customers what a really, really good tomato tastes like, not the shit you get from the supermarket, and celebrating that, than I am about doing something really tricky or serving some obscure ingredient purely for the shock factor.
How do you tackle the food waste issue at Arthur?
Tristan: I just can’t stand the concept of wasting anything. Whether that be ingredients, money or our time as a team. So, our set menu allows us to order ingredients based on the bookings we have, which is a great first step, but then, in addition, we have a real commitment to using every part of an ingredient wherever possible. We make good use of offcuts, for example, which we trim and re-use for other purposes. We currently have Wagyu fat in one of the dishes on our menu, and this was stored from our first ever menu. And it doesn’t just apply to meat – we’ll have a dish with nectarine and the entire nectarine might not go into that dish, but we’ll keep the offcuts and make a nectarine puree, which we’ll turn into sorbet in the future. It’s all just about getting creative and thinking about what we can do with each ingredient to get the absolute most out of it.
What’s next for you and for Arthur?
Tristan: Short term, I’m focused on fixing all the little issues that come hand-in-hand with a newly opened restaurant. Finishing the things on the fit-out that we didn’t have the time or money to do before we opened.
We’re also trying to hire more staff. I’m hoping to free up some time to be more creative and to focus on running the business. I’m keen to hire some chefs who are just starting out – I wouldn’t be where I am today without the many mentors and contacts I met throughout the industry and I’d love to be able to offer that to those just starting out as well.
I’m also really passionate about our culture as a business – the staff come first. I want to find ways for them to work less, make more money, and make their days easier overall. I also want to foster a creative environment and provide training and space for this creativity to be realised. The people side of the business is the most important thing to me.
Is another venue on the cards?
Tristan: It’s still early days for Arthur. I haven’t scratched the surface of what this place will be yet, and there’s still a lot I want to do in terms of investing in the creative process and streamlining our operations, so it benefits the team and the customer.
That said, I’d love to do another venue one day. I have an idea, but it’s still very early days. Timing is important but I’m always open to opportunities, so we’ll see.