The hospitality industry is pretty competitive and the restaurant and kitchen environments are famously high pressure places to work in – especially when there’s a high standard to live up to … what’s it like working together in that environment? Obviously, it’s a huge part of your life … how do you turn off at home? Is it difficult leaving work at work?
ANNA: It's terribly difficult leaving work at work, and I think when it is your own business you don’t really have this luxury. You are always thinking, planning, taking a call.
For me personally, this has been a major struggle since having children. I now consciously take my ‘work hat’ off when I get home, put my phone away, don’t have my laptop inside. I strongly believe that engagement is key to whatever you are doing, and this is ten-fold with kids. I was pushing the swing the other day and took my phone out to take a photo – my two year old son said ‘please mamma, no phones’. That’s terrifying. That shows that even with a conscious effort they still notice when you are distracted.
I always feel thinly stretched – when I’m at work I should be with the kids, and vice versa, but I think if you wallow in this ‘guilt’ then you’ll be swallowed by it. You have to do your best to achieve what you can in the appropriate time frames.
Alessandro and I never ‘switch off’ with each other. Our lives are dominated by our businesses and this is both a blessing and a curse. We share a goal, we always have this constant pressure on us to continue achieving, to continue growing, but in saying that this is also what makes us such a great team at both work and home. We are both motivated, ambitious, and passionate about what we do, and to be able to share that with your life partner is pretty awesome.
It’s pretty well documented that restaurants and kitchens have been male dominated workplaces in the past. Anna, this is something you feel strongly about and your role as a mentor and participation in Women in Hospitality make that pretty clear. Are things changing? Are women being increasingly respected and valued for what they offer? Alessandro? What are your thoughts?
ANNA: I believe that women in hospitality is a focus right now, both right here on our doorstep but also internationally, for example just look at World’s 50 Best, or the Parebere Forum. This is a great thing. Just consider if all the amazing women who started in hospitality stayed in hospitality. Just think about that opportunity for our industry right there for a second!
Everybody gets a job in hospitality when they're 14 – girls and boys, no problems. Then they go through school, make their money and everything's good. The issue is when young women start to weigh up their options in their 20s (and contemplate their upcoming life changes) – they start to leave because they don't see a viable future in the industry. I just want to jump up and down and say, 'there is, there is!'
To encourage women to stay, it's necessary to show how hospitality is a legitimate career path. This is my passion, this is why I’m involved in WoHo and my other (more informal but awesome) initiative Council of WAR (Women and Restaurants). There is a huge range of roles and responsibilities in our industry and I think there has never been a recognition of this fact publicly, these jobs are not as glamorous as the chef or customer facing roles, but are just as important! Think IT, accounts, PR, marketing, HR, compliance, events and reservations! We are losing women in the industry because we are not educating people about the rest of the ‘industry needs’.
I believe we need to respect and value these jobs just as much (and tell people they exist!), and maybe doing this will have an immediate effect on balancing the male domination we currently see. Hospitality is NOT just about restaurants and kitchens, there is the business side too.
Running four restaurants must be extremely constant and challenging. We often hear about successful businesses collapsing after stretching to open just one more restaurant … how do you find that sweet spot? How do you control quality and ensure what’s happening in your restaurants is happening the way you want it to be? I guess this is where education, faith and trust play a role?
ANNA: Cost control!!!!!!!! Control of the numbers is key. It’s easy to push back everything on the to-do list because you’re tired, or the kids are sick, or the inbox is overflowing, but the cash flow needs to be controlled daily. Chase up your suppliers when they get a price wrong; question the bank if your fees go up. Make sure your team are meeting their budgets, and teach them how to do this daily.
Employ great people. Trust them. For us it has been key hiring staff for the roles that require specific hours or tasks so we can take care of our larger responsibilities when we’re at work. Don’t be scared of hiring people that are better than you - learn from them! And allow yourself to delegate.
Obviously Italian cuisine is your passion … is there a valid case for its traditions being lost? Have you seen this happening? Or are there enough passionate custodians like you two out there ensuring it lives on? And can these traditions be merged with modern hospitality? What are some dishes you think should be just served the traditional way and not played around with? What are your favourite traditional dishes?
ALESSANDRO: I don’t think tradition is getting lost in the modern army of chefs – they embrace tradition but utilise new techniques. Tradition was also limited in the past by their knowledge, so we can actually IMPROVE on tradition based on our education, but still keeping the respect within that.
As for my favourite traditions, I’m a mountain man, from the north of Italy, so I love cooking on fire, it’s so simplistic and yet such a challenge to get it right. And pasta of course. Hand making pasta is an art unto itself.
In an area like the Hunter Valley, how do you believe restaurateurs should be harnessing the wealth of what it offers? Is it a case of every business doing their own thing and doing it well and the rest will follow? How important is working together to cultivate and nurture identifiable regional cuisines and traditions like what’s found in the regional parts of Italy?
ALESSANDRO: I think having such abundance of fabulous produce on your door step is such an opportunity. Working with your neighbours, whether they be food or wine, or even other restaurants creates a community, how lucky you are! It’s not about following it’s about working together.
I believe Australia is incredible in all the cuisine styles it offers, that’s not something you find in Italy very much. It offers the industry an incredible chance to showcase the region as a whole, not necessarily a ‘regional cuisine’ in this case. It’s so interesting.
Tell us about the importance of marrying food and wine, particularly in a region like the Hunter Valley that’s internationally renowned for its wines. What are some of your favourite Hunter Valley wines? How do you work with them? And what seasonal produce can we look forward to seeing you work with at the Spring Seasonal lunch?
ALESSANDRO: Food and wine matching is also an art. When the back and front of house can work together with their palates and expertise to bring an incredible experience to the diner – isn’t that what it’s all about?
We currently have a number of Hunter wines on our list (Margan, Brokenwood, Lakes Folly, Mount Pleasant), but who can go past Hunter Semillon, what a creature it is. I love the aged ones the best, that bit of extra weight and complexity is amazing.
The spring seasonal lunch is the second being hosted by the Hunter Culinary Association (HCA) in 2018 and will be held at the award-winning, one-hatted Margan Restaurant on Monday, 12 November. Following Alessandro’s cooking demonstration, Margan head chef Thomas Boyd will prepare a three-course lunch, which will be served with a premium selection of Margan wines.
SPRING SEASONAL LUNCH DETAILS
Date: Monday 12 November 2017.
Time: Demonstration starts at 10.30am and lunch 11.30am – 3pm.
Location: Margan Restaurant, 1238 Milbrodale Rd, Broke.
Cost: $100 for HCA members, $130 non-members and $30 for apprentice chefs.
To book contact Angela at Hunter Culinary Association – firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the ‘events’ page on our website for more details.