Mietta & Friends

Australia's top chefs and food educatorsin words and photographs


Iain Hewitson

Iain Hewitson

At the market, an early morning after a late night. Wake up , there's a telvision camera out there! Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

Iain Hewitson likes simple things, and he likes flavour. "And the flavour I like is the flavour you can get through simple ingredients, and without having to scatter pickled duck's bums or three tons of caviar on the top," he says.

That's Huey: outspoken and irreverent, considerably larger than life, but always original and clever. He is a leader, never a follower. And the Melbourne restaurants he has established and run have always been strong influences on prevailing food trends. Since arriving in Australia in 1972 he has operated Le Petit Vatel at the Lemon Tree, Clichy, Fleurie, Champagne Charlie's, The Last Aussie Fishcaf, Memories of the Mediterranean and most recently Tolarno Bistro.

"All have been very different in style and character, due mainly to the fact that I have a rather short attention span and constantly need new challenges in order to keep myself amused. But whether they have been very casual and slightly mad like the Fishcaf, or near the top of the tree like Fleurie, my aim has always been to produce high quality, simple food using the best ingredients. I have, I hope, grown along with the customers as they have become more knowledgeable and progressive in their culinary tastes," says Iain.

"Television, which happened purely by chance, offered a challenge that was not dissimilar to the one I face in my restaurants. The majority of my viewers are not regular restaurant diners, yet in their enthusiasm for new, simple ideas, they remind me so much of my early restaurant customers.

"On Healthy Wealthy and Wise, I aim to encourage home cooks to regard something like a chicken breast or a handful of vegetables as the true convenience food, rather than the stuff to be found in the supermarket freezer cabinet. And the viewer response - our recipe requests number in the many hundreds of thousands - takes me back to those days when I first introduced my customers to the joys of pink lamb or asparagus that was crisp and bright green, or even fish that smelt and tasted of the sea. It will always be exciting to be part of any process, no matter how minor the part you are permitted to play, which helps a nation's food horizons to expand."

Iain understands that restaurants are about far more than food. His ability to stay one step ahead of his customers, and to stimulate them with new and exciting tastes, is what has made him one of our most successful chef-restaurateurs.

Iain's first Australian venture, with Harry Murphy and Anne Mahon, was at the Lemon Tree Hotel. It transformed a beer-based Carlton pub into a thriving food business. This may seem commonplace today, but in 1972 it was ground-breaking. A French bistro with checked table cloths in a pub? The licensing inspectors had a collective seizure; they were troubled because it broke no laws - only new ground.

Likewise Clichy, Iain's more up-market venture with Sigmund Jorgenson of Montsalvat, was such a culinary leap forward that Sydney food critic, Leo Schofield, pilloried it in a national magazine - on the grounds that, in his view, Sydney really was better; restaurant passions ran high in the 1970s.

His decision to start Fleurie, "the last BYO in Melbourne" and an establishment that served better food that anybody anticipated, raised eyebrows. It also raised his bank manager's spirits. Champagne Charlie's, a modern cafe in Toorak, repeated the dose. But the big one was yet to come - The Last Aussie Fishcaf. This extraordinary restaurant-bar-disco combined nostalgic Aussie food - fish and chips - with nostalgic 50s music. And it worked brilliantly.

Iain's next venture was Memories of the Mediterranean at Rockman's Regency. It anticipated the Italian boom, and a growing fascination with the southern shores of the Mediterranean and seductive links to Middle Eastern foods.

Iain

Iain adds it up for his television producer, Gavin Disney.
Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

It is Iain's great ability to anticipate, enact and lead by example that is his unique strength. Each of his restaurants has taken us another step on the journey towards our present national culinary identity. And in that light, it makes sense to listen carefully to a note of warning which Iain has sounded about the state of restauration in Melbourne in the mid-90s.

"Now, what have we got?," he asks. "We've got four million bloody cafes. We have to be very careful about what we do, and in which direction we move. I blame the present situation, to a certain extent at least, on our food reviewers or our restaurant critics. They seem to share an obsession with the trendiest establishments in this town, rather than those serving the most worthwhile food.

They run into every new restaurant the minute it opens, which is odd; I have never been to a restaurant in my life three weeks after it has opened and had a great meal. I've opened many restaurants and if you came into my places three weeks after they had opened, you could not be completely confident of getting a great meal.

"It is absurd for restaurants to be made or broken by judgements of their worth made so early in their development. Many of them really could have made it, and could have been very special; but an unfavourable review after three weeks could mean they might not be around to get another one. In my view, it is the duty of restaurant reviewers to report the facts. So for God's sake, they should be out there telling us what's happening in the town; they should be giving restaurants a decent chance to settle down and evaluating them when they have reached their potential; and they should not be trying to suggest that they are the only ones who really know what's happening.

"What we need is a bit of a return to fine dining, casual dining, cafes, the whole lot; we need the broad spectrum that we used to have in Melbourne, because that was what was so good about Melbourne. That's why the place was so special. It's lovely to be sitting here and talking about 21 years in the industry for people like Mietta and Tony and myself, and believing that perhaps we were the young Turks. But I don't know who the young Turks are these days.

Iain

"There are many people in the industry who are making a lot of money out of it, and they are most probably doing just fine, and I'm not criticising them. But in 21 years, will they still be in the industry, still passionate, still interested? The one thing I will say is that we were never, ever, governed by money. It was all about a passion for the industry.

"I would like to see passion rekindled, because Melbourne used to be the best restaurant city in Australia. It isn't now, but it can be again. But we have to have that breadth of restaurants, we have to have the support of the customers, and we cannot just be a cafe town. We really can be better than that."



Update August 1998

Iain has left Healthy Wealthy and Wise but not Tolarno Bistro, which today thrives serving great hamburgers to its busy bar.
Updte 2009
Iain has started Barney Allen's little further along Fitzroy St at 14 Fitzroy St, St Kilda, 9525 5477

Iain Hewitson's recipes

Soy-braised beef shank
Spice brushed chicken with sweet-sour pickles and a mint and cucumber yoghurt
Steamed oysters with Thai flavours
Pear and polenta steamed puddings
Salad of witlof and radicchio with shavings of Heidi gruyere on a cheese biscuit
Mietta O'Donnell
©Mietta's 1996