Food News

Exit interview: Mitch Orr on closing Acme, and his next move with the Icebergs group

The chef on the weight of owning a restaurant, kicking out Paul Carmichael, and the baloney sandwich 2.0.
Chef Mitch Orr

Chef Mitch Orr, ex-owner of Acme, and the newest recruit to the Icebergs group

Ben Dearnley

Acme has closed, and Mitch Orr can breathe again. For the past five years, he and Cam Fairbairn ran the restaurant in Sydney’s Potts Point, where their distinctive take on Italian-Asian-ish food was dished up with a loud and proud soundtrack of 2000s-era hip-hop.

But as restaurateurs know, Sydney is a hard scene to crack, and winter is even harder. Diners tend to bunker down at home, and if they do head out, they make a beeline to the newest, shiniest, most on-trend restaurant in town. After a difficult few months balancing the books, Orr and Fairbairn made the heartbreaking decision to close their restaurant.

The dust has settled a little after Acme’s final service on 29 June. After a brief head-clearing holiday to Hong Kong and Cambodia, Orr reflects on his time at the restaurant, and his next career move with the Icebergs group.

How does it feel now that the Acme era is over?

It’s shit anytime you decide to close a business. Ideally Acme would still be up and running, it’d be busy every night, and I’ll be driving around in a Mercedes-Benz G wagon. But sometimes that’s not the way things go. Sometimes I pull back and think, “Why did I make that decision?” But for the most part, I’m happy, and I think the last month of trade we had has a lot to do with that.

When you announced Acme’s closure, it was one of the hardest restaurants to score a booking in Sydney. Was it bittersweet to see the restaurant so busy in its final weeks?

People would come in and ask, “Why are you closing? You’re so busy.” And I’d ask when they last ate at Acme. They’d say: “Oh, three or four years ago.” There’s your answer. The irony that we’re busy because we’re closing was not lost on us. And the fact that half of the dining public are blissfully unaware of the fact – there’s definitely a bittersweetness to it.


Outside Acme

How did you celebrate your final days at Acme?

The final two weeks were a celebration in itself. We really worked our arses off. I did 200 hours in 12 days, which I haven’t done in a long time, and I’m definitely too old to keep doing. But it was definitely very fun to be at work – it reminded us of what we had created.

On the last night a lot of friends came by after service – Dan Hong (Merivale), Louis Tikaram (formerly of EPs & LP in Los Angeles), Paul Carmichael and Kylie Javier Ashton (Momofuku Seiobo), and Monty Koludrovic (Icebergs Dining Room & Bar). It reminded me of one time after the Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Awards where everyone came back to the restaurant, I got the shits with them all, and booted them out. Even Monty said, “It’s nice to get kicked out of Acme one last time.”

Did you take home a souvenir?

I’ve got the blue neon Acme sign in my sunroom. I had to cut the wires to get it out of the wall.

What’s your fondest memory of Acme?

Caitlyn Rees [wine director at the Mary’s group] had her wedding reception here in 2017, and she said that the happiest day of her life was at Acme. To be associated with that – it feels incredible.

But I think the best memory is the first time we had the restaurant set up and ready for service. We walked outside and thought: fuck we’ve done it. It looked like a proper serious restaurant. That memory still sits with me.

What won’t you miss?

The hard-arse winters. The quiet times. Gluten-free diners coming into a pasta restaurant.

And just the weight of everything: the financial stress, staff politics, dealing with 20 different people and being responsible for their mental wellbeing while managing a restaurant. If the business is running well, these things aren’t major issues. But when it’s quiet, those problems are amplified. It’s not like I’m never going to have those stresses again. But it’s also nice not to have to think about how we’ll pay next month’s rent.

What’s the service you remember for all the wrong reasons?

At one dinner service in our first month of opening, food kept going to the wrong table. Some staff had mapped the table numbers incorrectly, so orders meant for table 40 were going to table 46, and waiters would come to the kitchen saying diners hadn’t received their food. I had to re-cook food about four times throughout the night, which really throws your flow out.

I told Cam, “Go and get every fucking waiter from their section and bring them here right now!”, and blew my stack. And a couple of tables seated near the kitchen could hear me and were probably thinking: “The chef’s not very happy right now.”

You’ve recently announced you’ll be joining the Icebergs group, and heading up a new restaurant at the Da Orazio Pizza + Porchetta site. How does it feel to work with a large, established hospitality group?

Maurice Terzini is a long-term mentor, and to work with him and Icebergs, with their knowledge, expertise and support network to lean on – it’s really great. They have PR and marketing teams, James Hird in charge of wines, Matt Whiley at Scout with the cocktails, and I can go to Monty Koludrovic for support when I need it.

I’ll be running the snacks menu during the Dolphin Hotel’s Aperitivo Sunday to Thursday, which will include my next evolution of Acme’s baloney sandwich. Then when Da Orazio wraps up in mid-August, we’ll do a refurb, and hopefully open towards the end of the month.

Would you ever look to opening your own restaurant again?

Not with my own money. To have a really creative, progressive place that pushes the envelope, with a menu that changes all the time, while also making it financially viable – that’s pretty much impossible in Sydney.

But everything comes in cycles, and Sydney has been here before. Hopefully the next generation of young chefs will get bored with what I’m doing, in the same way that I got bored with what Neil Perry was doing, without any disrespect. But without the support of the dining public in Sydney, that’s never going to happen.

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