One of the many pleasures of my recent visit to Hong Kong as judge for the Hong Kong Food Festival was the opportunity to visit Michelle at the Fringe.
Within less than a decade, just seven and a bit years, Michelle Garnaut's restaurant has become a Hong Kong dining institution. And it now seems very likely that she'll be starting a branch in China.
After all, the reason for her coming to Hong Kong was to get a visa into China. Finances required that she stay and get a job. The Melbourne born William Angliss graduate has progressed far from that first, hard won job at Restaurant '97.
At that time in Hong Kong women chefs were unheard of. Michelle recalls that the executive chef actually walked out rather than face the prospect of working with a woman. So she was left to try and serve a full menu from a charcoal grill with a small toaster oven. Her battles with limited equipment and the colourful displays of temper made her quite famous. People used to come to watch me flinging the pots around and swearing like a trooper.
Michelle then graduated from her mini-kitchen to managing the much flasher upstairs restaurant with another Melburnian, Greg Malouf (the deservedly acclaimed chef now at O'Connells) in the kitchen. Then there was a period of catering, the hardest bloody job in the world which she did from her tiny flat as well as teaching cooking and food consulting.
In 1989, she was able to open her own restaurant in part of The Fringe Club building. The Fringe Club is a lively organisation, hosting exhibitions regularly and an important annual Arts Festival. Michelle at the Fringe hosted Sydney performer, Paul Capsis, one of the Festival Acts during this January's festival.
The restaurant was packed for those evenings, but then Michelle's is always busy, lunch and dinner. She does not need any entertainment to fill her restaurant. The distinctive decor, excellent food and service are reason enough. But she likes the way Paul sings and wanted to support the Festival. This is typical. Being a woman of very strong opinions she believes in making herself heard.
As someone that the public looks to for opinions, I think that it's important to say what you think and important to educate the public. I don't mean that arrogantly or pompously but I think that (as an industry leader) people do go to you and do look at what you are doing and therefore it is important to maintain standards.
Michelle is intensely proud of the integrity and individuality of her business.There are lots of good restaurants in Hong Kong, there's lots of good food But most of the Western restaurants serving European food are either in hotels or they are run by groups and so they don't have individual input.
What's important here is that it's about what I think, what Andrew [McConnell, the chef] thinks, what Bruno [van der Berg, the restaurant manager] thinks and what we all feel and think is all manifested in one product . . . all around the world there are fewer and fewer places where there are people just putting their hearts and souls into a restaurant. Rather than all putting their heart and soul into a management company that operates 15 restaurants even if they all have different concepts and different looks.
Michelle is concerned that the individual' restaurant is getting to a point where it's becoming redundant. Ours is unique in Hong Kong, it can't be compared with a hotel and there are no other really individual places, run professionally. It is the only place.
She very strongly feels that being Australian has made it possible for her to develop and to continue to exist in the fiercely competitive food world of Hong Kong.
Australia has real indigenous populations who expect real food from their native countries and . . . imports the produce to ensure that. People demand good quality food in Australia and we've become used to that variety. Hong Kong is one of the most international cities in the world. It has huge expat communities, it's an enormously multicultural city of people who are still attached to their own culture. So the expectations of food in a restaurant like this, where we do some Italian, some French, some Scandinavian, some English, and some American. - the expectations are for all of that food to be really authentic and that's a really big challenge. That has really been a big challenge from the time we started.
I think coming from an Australian background, having worked and lived in Europe and then having lived here for a long time, having travelled to lots of different countries. That I actually know what people expect,
We don't put anything on the menu that we don't know. I think as an Australian that information and that knowledge is not just because I am clever. I actually think that part of that information and knowledge is because I am Australian and in the food business.