Food News

Pipit chef Ben Devlin on building his restaurant with his bare hands

Opening a restaurant is tough. Building it yourself? That’s another world of pain. Just days before launch, we dropped into the worksite at Pipit, the new NSW North Coast restaurant by chef and handyman Ben Devlin.
Chef Ben Devlin of Pipit

Chef Ben Devlin

Russell Shakespeare

It’s two weeks until opening and Ben Devlin and Yen Trinh are getting close, but not close enough. Behind the scenes of their first solo venue – one they’re fitting out themselves from scratch – it’s a whirlwind of lists, scheduling and graft.

The last of their finance has been approved. They’ve nailed a lease they can afford. But with a budget, the need to plan an opening menu and a new baby – Penny, their first child, was born in January – stress levels are climbing.

Yen Trinh and Ben Devlin with baby Penny.

(Photo: Russell Shakespeare)

At the couple’s home, there’s seaweed drying on the clothesline and under the stairs black macadamia nut oil is fermenting. Trinh is firing up back-of-house systems for their 40-seater, while caring for their daughter, whose nursery now doubles as a storeroom. There’s a dehydrator and a Vitamix in one corner, and her wardrobe is rapidly filling with other assorted kitchen essentials.

Devlin is tackling all the painting, rendering and tiling at Pipit himself, and quietly fretting. The mullet are running and the window for making bottarga is closing, and the kitchen still isn’t ready.

On site, Devlin’s dad, a carpenter, is building outdoor seating around courtyard garden beds. Pipit is already a bona fide family affair, with friends pitching in, too.

At Boon Luck Farm at Tyagarah, in nearby Byron Bay where Devlin grew up, a corner of Palisa Anderson’s coolroom is crammed with Devlin’s ferments and preserves that will feature on Pipit’s opening menus.

At Paper Daisy, the starred restaurant at Halcyon House, Devlin built a reputation for intricate dishes showcasing the region’s bounty – tropical and subtropical fruits, pristine seafood and vegetables. At Pipit, he’s taking it a step further. His Boon Luck cache includes a riberry vinegar (to be mixed with kelp oil as a marinade for cobia or bonito) and a citrusy lemon-myrtle-flower vinegar. There are garums made from prawn heads, squid and oysters, and a vegan version made from green garlic. “It’s not really a garum but hopefully it gives the same effect – strong, salty and lightly sharp,” says Devlin.

Pipit’s anchovy garum, vinegars and spices.

(Photo: Russell Shakespeare)

The plan Devlin has for Pipit’s menu is to feature around a dozen dishes built around a wood grill. It will be hyper-seasonal, covering eight different growing periods; Devlin has kept a diary for more than three years, documenting the ebb and flow of local fruits and vegetables, wild plants and seafood. For sustainability reasons, the menu won’t feature hoofed animals – just poultry and marsupials. They’ve also signed up to the Good Fish Project to avoid depleting endangered fish stocks. “The food will feel similar to Paper Daisy but really, I want to start afresh,” Devlin says. “I want dishes to be simple, beautiful, and layered with flavours and complexity.”


Pipis steamed with kelp served with potato, macadamia and wing beans.

(Photo: Russell Shakespeare)

For his opening menu Devlin has been experimenting with the likes of chicken poached in beeswax with a mead glaze and huitlacoche – the dark, delicious corn fungus – and grilled gem lettuce stuffed with mud crab served with crab bisque. Finding time to focus on food in the maelstrom isn’t easy. “I’ve started trying to write menus, but my mind is too focused on the building,” he says. “I need to knock through that first.”

Pipit’s tartare-style eggplant with peanuts, chicory and shiitake mushrooms.

(Photo: Russell Shakespeare)

Devlin’s always been a dab-hand at DIY in the kitchen, but getting on the tools for Pipit has been an eye-opener. He’d never plastered anything before. But rendering, he says, is just like icing a big cake. Tiling has been trickier. “I just assumed I could do because I didn’t like the look of the quote – it was $10,000 for labour alone,” Devlin says.

Being on the ground with the other tradies speeds up communication, but it can be tough problem-solving while trying to hit your own targets, he says. “Every day I say ‘Right, I’ll tile this and this’, and I get about half done – I know I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.”

But he’s learning to roll with the surprises. The process isn’t necessarily harder than he imagined, it’s more complex. “You make a small bit of progress and then there’s another three questions.” Then, there’s the everyday horse-trading with banks, lawyers, landlords and real-estate agents. Every decision brings more decisions.

For the detailing, Devlin and Trinh have chosen to support talented locals, commissioning hand-blown pendant lights from Currumbin’s Søktas, and sourcing Tasmanian and Queensland blackwood timber joinery from Gareth Robertson of Brisbane’s Blackwood Collective. They engaged Julie King of Whitewood interior-design agency in Byron Bay to design a space featuring coastal interiors using the colours of rocks and sand and sea pulled from aerial photos of Pottsville.

One of the biggest things, Devlin says, is deciding where the point of no compromise lies. What’s a deal-breaker. Inevitably, some things fall by the wayside. “We’d like to have better cutlery, but we can’t afford the $10-$12 a piece sets,” he says. Ceramics, however, are a no-concession zone. “You can see the result and it supports the community,” Devlin says. “That makes a difference.”

The detail is exceptional. Casuarina’s GritCeramics is making the bulk of Pipit’s plates and bowls. Some plates will use a tuna-spine ash mix, for example, sourced from Paper Daisy’s grill and milled by Devlin. They’ll be glazed using the same ash, and will be used for raw or marinated fish dishes.

The ceramics selection at Pipit.

(Photo: Russell Shakespeare)

Pipit was originally due to open at the start of the year, but the delay means being able to deliver on the exacting standards the couple have set, and have brought a bonus – precious extra time with Penny before the final push. “Yes, it is challenging,” says Devlin. “But this needed to happen. We were always going to do it [open a restaurant] and realistically, we’re never going to have any more time than we have right now.”

Ben Devlin in the kitchen at Pipit.

(Photo: Russell Shakespeare)

Pipit’s name references a beautiful, Australian ground-dwelling bird, and has a special significance for the couple. “Yen’s name is Vietnamese for swallow bird, and Pipit is our name for Penny, although we haven’t used it as much as we thought we would,” says Devlin. “Because we keep calling her peanut.”

So, would he do it all over again? “I definitely would. But would I take on all the tiling next time? Hopefully I’ll be able to afford someone else to do it.”

Pipit, Shop 4/8 Coronation Ave, Pottsville, NSW, is open now for lunch (Fri–Mon) and dinner (Thu–Sat),

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