Food News

Brunswick Heads’ Fleet is taking a sabbatical and transforming into a ramen bar

And its incoming Tokyo-born head chef has no qualms about charging $40 per person for the Japanese noodle soup experience.
Blonde woman holding a bottle of wine walking behind a restaurant counter.

Fleet in Brunswick Heads seats just 14 diners at a time. Photo: Avalon Lane

Avalon Lane (main)

It’s a tale of two hospitality stories, forged in the same restaurant. Of a restaurateur couple taking their feet off the proverbial accelerator to spend more time with family; and of a Japanese expat running his dream ramen restaurant for three months.

Astrid McCormack and Josh Lewis, the wife-and-husband team behind Fleet on NSW’s Brunswick Heads, are taking a three-month sabbatical from their pocket-sized restaurant to care for a family member who’s been diagnosed with cancer. The diagnosis came just months after McCormack’s mother passed away from pancreatic cancer last year.

From June to September Fleet will become Roco, a ramen bar operated by their long-time colleagues chef Daiki Shigeta and barman Robert Mudge.

Josh Lewis and Astrid McCormack, co-owners of Fleet, in 2018.

(Photo: Kara Rosenlund)

“The decision feels really right, both physically and emotionally,” says McCormack. The past six years since Fleet’s opening, and its rockstar reception from diners and food media, have made for a “very intense period” that also included launching café Ethel and Mexican eatery La Casita. And though the culture around hospitality is changing, with more flex and thought to staff members’ mental wellbeing to level out the industry’s gruelling hours, McCormack admits initial talks about work-life balance in Fleet’s early years played on her conscience.

“Friends were saying, ‘You’re always at work, we never see you’, and it caused me a lot of anxiety because I enjoyed what I did and work was important to me,” says McCormack, who was still working at Ethel the day she went into labour with the couple’s now two-year-old daughter. She’s since stepped back from day-to-day management of Fleet. “I felt a lot better after I realised that work-life balance is a sliding scale, and at times you give more to one section of your life than another.”

McCormack and Lewis had entertained the idea of a sabbatical even before their family member’s prognosis but the dregs of guilt of leaving their business, even temporarily, lingered. “[But] until recently I think we, like many in our industry, felt an obligation to be available to our guests.”

Robert Mudge and Daiki Shigeta will run ramen bar Roco from June to September.

(Photo: Supplied)

As for Roco, it’s not the first time ramen has made an appearance on the Fleet group’s menu. Chef Shigeta sold takeaway bowls of the Japanese noodle soup at Ethel during last year’s COVID lockdown; as a visa-holder, he wasn’t eligible for the Federal Government’s JobKeeper subsidy and the ramen sales were his only income source. The Tokyo-born chef remembers crying tears of relief and gratitude when chef Ben Devlin of Pipit, another destination restaurant of note 20 minutes north of Fleet, offered to make ramen noodles free of charge. “That pushed me, and made me feel like I have to make this ramen really good.”

At Roco, Shigeta will serve tokusei ramen, a “special” ramen that’s untethered to a region of Japan. “You can’t really say it’s Tokyo or Hakata or Yokohama ramen. It’s more like an artisan type of ramen that’s dependent on the chef.”

Roco’s pork tokusei ramen.

(Photo: Supplied)

The pork tokusei, for example, features a broth of pork bones that are simmered across two days. “It’s the opposite to French cooking. French is low heat and a clear broth. But with ramen we have to get the fat out of bones, into the stock and emulsified as much possible for that creamy texture and deep flavour.” It’s flavoured with garlic, onions, ginger, leeks and apples – a “modern tonkutsu”, says Shigeta. The tare is soy-based and combined with bonito, seaweed and a big-time umami powder of sun-dried mushroom trimmings, prawn shells and fish offcuts; the pork for the chashu comes from Esperanza Farm in Corndale; the eggs from Scrubby Gully in Doubtful Creek. And this time Shigeta is making his own ramen noodles, with the recipe to change week to week – a rye-flour blend one week perhaps, a buckwheat cameo the next. Like the broth, it’s a two-day process to rest, roll and laminate the noodles.

A labour of love? You bet. Shigeta joins the chorus of Asian chefs in Australia who won’t sell themselves short on a cuisine that’s historically been relegated to cheap eats guides in the western world. “Italian restaurants can charge $30 for a plate of pasta, and ramen is [usually] $15 to $20. I’d like to change that perspective little by little by doing this hard work.” He has no qualms about charging $40 per person for a bowl of his ramen, plus two snacks. “People are going to gradually realise Asian food is worth paying as much [for] as other cuisines.”

Mudge will be pouring a selection of sakes, Japanese whiskeys and cocktails; and for the first month of Roco, Lewis will work with Shigeta to ensure its smooth operation before handing over the keys to the kitchen. Roco is a stepping stone for Shigeta to one day open a ramen bar of his own. “Daiki has such care for Fleet, we feel comfortable about leaving the restaurant to him, and Rob is essentially Fleet,” says McCormack. “I can’t think of two better people to look after it for us.”

Roco Ramen and Sake Bar runs from June to September, 2021

2/16 The Terrace, Brunswick Heads, NSW

Opening hours: Wed–Sat, 5pm–10pm

Bookings for June are open and highly recommended.

Fleet is set to return in October, with reservations to open on 1 August.

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