It takes guts and faith to launch a new venture in a foreign country, a new market. Shaun Quade, his name now intimately tied to Lûmé, a leader in the Australian restaurant firmament, has both, in spades.
When a lot of chefs would be settling in for an easier long haul, established and ticking along, Shaun has upped the ante and is heading to Los Angeles. A new venture, a new horizon. Exactly why?
“We’d been looking at doing another venue for a year now. I’m very ambitious, and have a lot of things I want to achieve in life, so we were looking around, and now, the world’s such a small place – so doing something overseas is not such a big deal anymore.”
But LA? That’s a gigantic move and a tough call. Some big retailers have crashed and burned like fighter jets trying to break in there, and the latest Aussie transplants (Pies and coffee, principally) have had their share of teething problems.
“Getting outside my comfort zone is something I embrace. My partner Veronica is not from hospitality originally, she’s actually a behavioural economist – so she does a lot of research, and the reason for going to LA and a big opportunity for us? The market is so much bigger. In Australia, the numbers don’t add up any more – and the overheads are killing the industry. It’s tough – we have this kind of entrenched culture in hospitality that everyone works long hours, and it’s gone from blue collar to white collar, and is seen as a serious career that people can choose. But it’s not high paying unless you get to the top, even then, it’s still a lot of work for that pay cheque.”
That’s true – your dining public here is still small at the top end.
“Invariably so. It comes down to public perception – at Lûmé for example our tasting menu is $210 for 15 courses, and is considered expensive in this country, but if we were to rip Lûmé out of the ground and transplant to New York, or Tokyo, that’s cheap. Our food culture is very young – we don’t have hundreds of years of history and tradition. Our colonial past is very young, and we’re slowly developing our identity – food culture comes from either high end or cooking from necessity. We’ve never had to do the latter really, where unique dishes are developed and become part of a long heritage over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. Our food tradition is very much built on our European heritage. Our native cuisine is starting to be recognised and people are beginning to delve into that history. To the average Australian, food is sustenance, you don’t save up to dine out.”
Is that still a thing here you think? That we have a cultural cringe?
“Yes. We have this culture where we constantly look overseas, but our food here is world class, and it’s not promoted. The isolation is palpable, and where do you look for inspiration? A lot of chefs constantly look to Europe – especially 10-15 years ago, they came back and created a food scene identical to London. It doesn’t suit our climate – meat and three veg? Really? It’s changing, but it’s still seen not as a dining experience, but as sustenance, and with a small population, a fine dining restaurant has a tiny market, and there’s a huge number competing for that market.”
So you feel the market in LA is more adventurous?
“In LA, the culture is if they want a new experience, price isn’t an issue, so for me to open there – the produce is amazing – it suits my style of cooking. But we’re still looking for a venue. We’re waiting for the right thing to come along. I’m still at Lûmé until the end of the year. We’re thrilled with having John (Rivera) come on board and we’ll be working behind the scenes, developing the menu. But, all the way it’s John’s food, moving to a smaller set menu where’s there more choice, a lower price point, and more accessible to a younger generation. We have a huge fan base of 18-30 year olds, but they’re not necessarily customers.
That’s interesting! So you want to capture that market and move with them?
“I guess changing with the times is what I see this as. A good opportunity to change what we do, change a few systems, and I want to spread my wings with some ideas that won’t necessarily fit with the Australian market. So it’s important to give the next generation the opportunity to do their thing. I didn’t see myself staying there for decades.
We’ve been back and forth to LA and held a few pop-up dinners – the last dinner I did got some really positive feed back.”
And you felt comfortable?
“My style of cooking fits very well into what people in LA are looking for: plant based, a lot of seafood, and creating an experience for people. It’s not just food. If you asked 5 years ago what’s the food like in LA? I would have said, ‘Yeah it’s really nice, there’s lots of Mexican and Pacific influence, but now, it’s evolving and with the Olympics in 2028 they’re putting a lot of infrastructure in. The market here is saturated, and to do something different is risky. To be innovative with fantastic produce is what I really look for. If Heston opened the original Fat Duck in Melbourne now, it wouldn’t last. We don’t have the population or the money to support that sort of high end. Tall poppy syndrome unfortunately still exists here, and the high end is where I still see my skill set.”
So where did all this passion and drive begin?
“I’m originally from Toowoomba, in Queensland, where Weiss’s Restaurant, with the (seafood) buffet was the thing to do. My first job when I was 14 at school was at McDonald’s. I was always very independent – I worked there when I finished school. I was playing in bands, but I wanted to be a chef, and started my apprenticeship at Encores at the Empire Theatre in Toowoomba, which is still there. The chef owner Mark had a gourmet fish and chip shop up at the Range shopping centre, so the first year of my apprenticeship was cooking fish and chips. Even McDonald’s was great for teaching me systems, to clean as you go, and even in the fish and chip shop we’d get hammered on the weekend nights so it taught me to keep a level head.
I then talked my way into an executive chef position at the Burke And Wills Hotel restaurant, The Conservatory, for 18 months. I had no idea what I was doing so taught myself management and all the stuff that’s important. It’s not taught in the training, and should be. So I was an executive chef at 21, but it suited me – I taught myself to do a lot of things”.
It’s still a big issue isn’t it? That basic cooking skills are taught, but little else?
“My only qualification was going to TAFE in Toowoomba which taught me some basic cooking skills, but the learning on the job was invaluable. If they taught chefs how to manage businesses properly, we wouldn’t be in the crisis we are now.”
Not all chefs are meant to manage though, but it suited you obviously.
“It was good training, I was in charge of the whole hotel – we did weddings, functions, room service, and I made sure we made a profit. I took recipes from different sources, essentially teaching myself how to cook.
Eventually, I was looking at going overseas, got married, we moved to Sydney where I got a job at Quay working for Peter Gilmore – as Chef de Partie. It was a huge challenge, but I recognised I needed to learn more. I was exposed to amazing produce I’d never seen before, and was in the kitchen when he was working on the snow eggs! Then I moved to Melbourne, working at The Courthouse under Stephen Burke – that was super French fine dining with all the different sauces and turned vegetables, but it wasn’t me. Dan Hunter had just started at The Royal Mail and I heard he was doing incredible things. I did a trial, was blown away with the gardens, and what he was doing with the food.”
I take it though it wasn’t all a cakewalk?
“The early days there were tough – it was 4 hours from Melbourne with a brand new kitchen, and the set up was huge – food for the restaurant, bistro and pub all came from the same kitchen. We were doing food influenced by Mugaritz (top Spanish restaurant) that Australia hadn’t seen before, as well as Parmis and chips! Dan was a huge influence on how to think about food, using different techniques. We had a massive kitchen garden as well which was amazing – like a quince straight off the tree was cooked and served that night. I was there for just under 2 years with Dan, doing ridiculous hours, driving back to Melbourne most weekends. Then I worked at Sofitel when it first opened, in pastry, and was working with Darren Purchase, but funnily enough, working in a hotel was something I felt I had moved on from. Trying to run a creative restaurant and dealing with small producers was super frustrating in the hotel system.”
It’s a completely different business model, isn’t it?
“Totally. So I moved to Brisbane when Urbane reopened and was executive pastry chef, and though I never did any training I really enjoyed it. They supported me really well, and I spent just under 2 years there, and started getting media attention, which was kinda cool, as a young chef you lap that up. I was nominated for best new talent, but I always tried to keep it at arms’ length – the perception is that it helps to sustain your business to an extent, but I have found it doesn’t really sustain your business.”
Really? It’s all hype with not much substance? Doesn’t add to the bottom line?
“Doesn’t really. You go from one hat to two? It’s announced, and you celebrate, and put it out there as a big deal, but really? There’s no change – it was business as usual, but don’t get me wrong -it’s a great feeling being acknowledged.
Then I I then went to work with James Viles in the Southern Highlands – I’d worked for him at Number 35 in the Sofitel, and when he opened in Bowral, I followed, and was head chef at Biota for 2 years. That was a hard, high profile opening, doing media, costs were tight, we couldn’t find enough chefs, it was brutal.
There I learnt a lot about how to do things and not to do things – as chefs we’re always a work in progress. A lot of people are constantly learning about things but they don’t have the spotlight or judgement that chefs have – on every dish. When you’re doing that in the public eye and you’re constantly being judged you need to develop a thick skin. The process can be really challenging. In the first years of Lûmé, I made a lot of mistakes, and now the whole restaurant, the style, the philosophy, even the chair coverings, is a personal choice by me. So you have to back yourself. You can’t be all things to all people – that’s McDonald’s and they’re struggling constantly to reinvent themselves.
Pretty early on, I decided to develop my own style and absolutely ran with that. Media attention is not a permanent thing – everyone has their own agenda – but you come into the sun and then out.”
That’s a huge learning curve, isn’t it? You need a strong character to stay the course and stay grounded.
“Yes. After 2 years in Bowral, I moved back to Melbourne, and was questioning myself. I was pretty burnt out, so had some time off and worked at The Brix in Fitzroy part time, but we ended up doing a tasting menu from a café kitchen working 6 days. And the business flashed like a comet, and closed down.”
Burn out number 2 hit?
“I just stopped cooking for a while, did a bit of consulting, and looked at opening an ice cream store. I was doing pop-ups before they were a thing and ended up working for Salvatore at St. Ali, doing pastries again – starting at 6pm and working through till 6am. I enjoyed it, but it was isolating, and tiring. I ended up at Collins Square in Docklands, which was a massive project, as executive pastry chef, and I set up and opened a café bakery, tapas bar, Spanish restaurant and catering business. We had a whole floor of a building devoted to pastry production – we were designing everything, learning how to do things in bulk, managing production schedules, it was huge.
It was a fantastic learning curve developing my skills. I had a pastry team of 8-10 people, and dealing with the recipes was the easy bit, but the management and business side of hospitality can be very difficult. I saved up and after 2 years, I had worked my way out of a job. If you hire the right people, have people you trust you can do that.”
And that was the genesis of Lûmé?
“Lûmé came about – where do I start? As a young chef, even as an apprentice, I always wanted to create my own restaurant where you have full control – as you do being a control freak! So I ended up getting in contact with an investor, who likes to be known as ‘Mr Harry’ who owns a food import/export business, through mutual friends. He had another venue and was looking at a space in South Melbourne. It was a Bella’s Club, and was an unusual building with a couple of small terrace houses that had been hollowed out. Over the course of 6 months we discussed ideas I had for a restaurant – you need some sort of investment behind you – and we decided to do a restaurant there. It was a beautiful building, so we decided to go ahead, and opened in August 2015. I knew exactly what I wanted, and the fit-out was not a typical Melbourne restaurant. There’s no industrial steel or edgy and dark interior, I wanted a sort of Scandinavian/Japanese feel to it.
I didn’t want the esoteric sterile feel of some fine dining restaurants – the food was challenging enough. I didn’t want people sitting in a challenging environment – you feel like you can relax at Lûmé, the outside of the building feels like someone’s house. The great thing is it’s timeless, it hasn’t aged at all, and certainly doesn’t look like it was built in 2015 – it was fun designing it. We worked with a design studio to find all the furnishings and draw up a plan – everything in that building has come out of my head. Getting back to wanting the full package, cooking’s just one part of it. How you do business, business practices, it’s not just about the food. The whole venue is based around expressing that food in the way I want people to enjoy it. Otherwise you just go work for someone.”
It shines as a complete labour of love – but must have been a major renovation?
“We pulled the kitchen apart and designed it around the general way I thought the menu would work. The flow of the food and workflow which works really well – comes into when you’re designing a dish, you have to plan for the logistics of plating and cover numbers.”
And finding staff?
“The chefs were easy to find – that was my background. Starting something brand new is always a risk for everyone. You’ve got to convince people that you’ve got something special, so I brought chefs across I had worked with in other menus, and I didn’t have to put an ad out – all word of mouth really for front of house as well. Then you build the culture – the hardest part of running a business, you have to develop your business culture right from the start – you need to get your staff behind you and believing in you – it’s the hardest thing as well. Actually putting things on the menus is easy, but it’s all the other stuff that goes around it.
I worked very hard, I had run venues for other people but when it’s your name on the line, it’s a steep learning curve. You don’t know until you do it. We made a lot of mistakes, and a lot of things I would change in hindsight. When you have a spotlight on you and you’re learning in the spotlight, it’s tough. The expectations were huge and in the first two days we had all the media in. The first week was tough – you have to be ready from day one, which you should be. Doesn’t mean it’s going to be what it’s going to potentially be after two weeks or three years – it’s a work in progress. You have thousands of things to bring together. That’s life so you just get on with it and learn from your mistakes.
We’ve built up a really good fan base and word of mouth has been our most powerful marketing tool. The first interview I did was at Lûmé for Broadsheet and I got misquoted a little bit in the article, a couple of things I said were taken out of context and that had a flow on effect and some people bring that up even today.
Wow, that’s tough. So from those early days, how do you feel now?
“My priorities have changed – that whole restaurant was based around me, my decisions, philosophy and style and if I’m not there, it’s just not the same. So I want to move on in my career, and there’re so many different avenues for chefs now. You don’t have to be in the kitchen filleting fish at 8am, – you create a brand about yourself. I didn’t want to have a restaurant that was only me. The restaurant’s doing really well now, so I think it’s a big opportunity to change and the philosophy is based on change and fluidity. Trends come and go, and the culture here doesn’t necessarily fit with what I want to do now, but it’s still working well for us, so going overseas is a natural progression. You bring good people on to work with you. The ultimate aim of any business owner is to make yourself redundant, but I don’t want to have a restaurant where the owner is never there, it’s just going to be someone else’s food. For me creating an opportunity for a successor – for me that’s really satisfying. I’ve worked in really well known places but that have lost touch with their ethos, and I don’t want to do that with my own businesses.”
And just what is the plan for LA?
“We know exactly what we’re going to do, it’s finding the right space to do it in. I’ve spent my whole career in Australia – so it’s a completely new playing field, we’ve been planning for 12 months. I’m not rushing into anything – it’s very competitive there – and is a much bigger playing field. Mr. Harry is coming with me and we have a pretty detailed plan of what we want to do. It’s a huge amount of work to do, though that’s no different to what happens here.
The booking platform at Lûmé that we use here is an American based system – we’re the only restaurant in the southern hemisphere that uses it. Everyone pays up front so we don’t have no-shows.”
That’s frontier territory isn’t it? How did the public react?
“We didn’t open the restaurant using it, but we were losing about $5K a week from no shows and changed bookings which is crushing on the bottom line. The new system – it’s called Tock, people get on the website and pay for everything up front. That means we have a constant cash flow – we have money in our bank account, we can forecast income and numbers and do better deals with suppliers. We have a really good loyal customer base so it wasn’t that big a deal.
People want to be there. We don’t haemorrhage money in no shows and have very little food waste. Our food costs on average are around 20% or under, because it’s so refined – we know all the details beforehand, dietaries – staff costs are always the same. It’s a good example of doing things a touch differently – chefs all bitch about the same stuff. Things need to change – we’re not in the old days and if this makes us more sustainable in a tough industry then it’s only a good – no great – thing.”
And what’s your take on young chefs now?
“Young chefs getting in to the industry now have more opportunities than ever for doing what they want – anyone who works hard can be successful. But it’s still hard work, you’re not going to have an easy run.
I advise them to keep an open mind for what they want to get out of it. In the States there’s countless cooking shows – if you become a chef because you want to get on television, I suggest you do something else. The odds of that happening are miniscule.
But if you know what you want, be realistic about what you want to do – work hard, read a lot of books and listen to people you work for and work for someone where you can stay for a year and learn about the business – when you get up the ladder, it becomes more about management.”
Thank you Shaun, and that’s so true – from self-management, to people, to business management, the chef arena now is big and diverse, and challenging. We can only wish Shaun Quade the very best success in LA, and if anyone’s going to crack the market there, it would have to be him. And meanwhile, his legacy is in good hands with John Rivera, and I’m pretty sure Lûmé won’t miss a beat.