Food News

Two new restaurants, two chefs, one couple: the story behind Poly and Lankan Filling Station

O Tama Carey opens one of Sydney’s most anticipated restaurants this fortnight. And so does her partner, Mat Lindsay. Two top chefs, two new restaurants, one relationship: how does it work?

Chefs O Tama Carey and Mat Lindsay

Ben Dearnley

Opening a restaurant is hard work, and it’s such a headache that even members of the same household can get caught up in the stress of it. But what about when that household is home to two people who are each opening a high-profile restaurant of their own at the same time? And what if those two people happened to be a couple? It’s not a situation that comes along every day, but it’s exactly what O Tama Carey and Mat Lindsay are experiencing right now.

You may have tasted Carey’s Sri Lankan cooking at Carriageworks Farmers Market on a Saturday morning or at one of several pop-ups she’s done in the last two years. Or perhaps you remember her from her days at the now-shuttered Berta in Surry Hills. Lankan Filling Station is her first solo venture, the eagerly awaited permanent home for the hoppers and curries Sydneysiders have happily criss-crossed the city for each weekend.

Lindsay, meanwhile, is readying himself for the scrutiny of opening a follow-up to Ester, the beloved Chippendale diner that has become a regular haunt of local and out-of-town chefs and earned him the peer-voted accolade of GT‘s Chef of the Year at our most recent Restaurant Awards.

When we speak, both restaurants are behind schedule. Way behind. And while the pair don’t know it, there’s still a month of waiting ahead of them.

“The saying ‘roll with the punches’ feels pretty apt here,” Lindsay says drily.

String hoppers with kiri hodi at Lankan Filling Station

Lindsay’s restaurant Poly is situated on the ground floor of Paramount House Hotel and will act as both hotel restaurant and neighbourhood hang-out for the surrounding Surry Hills area. Slated for a late 2017 opening, the restaurant was pushed back when the hotel was delayed to March this year.

“There are just a lot of little things that you don’t think about [that] popped up,” Lindsay says.

Those not-so-little little things include acoustic issues because of the hotel rooms above, the location of the hotel water pipes in relation to the kitchen and how much power the kitchen will require, all of which were compounded by the fact that a brand-new restaurant was being built from scratch. “They add up to a lot of things,” he says.

In Lankan Filling Station’s case, a scheduled April opening was left hanging because of an all-important gas connection. The final piece of the puzzle, the gas has kept Carey’s architect busy for the past three months with daily phone calls (sometimes twice a day) to the government agency responsible for flicking the switch. Carey laughs when asked about it; her frustration clearly dissolved long ago.

“It was a big race for a while to see who was going to open first,” Lindsay says.

Carey won that battle, finally getting gas in the final week of July and opening Lankan Filling Station a few days later. But for Lindsay it’s still a waiting game.

What does a chef do without a restaurant? They become the project manager of their venue-to-be, in touch with architects, local councils, suppliers and the dozens of others that play a part in getting the doors open. Carey says she was waking up at five every morning and cycling through her mental checklist. In the house she and Lindsay share, a jumble of kitchen equipment has accumulated in the spare room as opening dates come and go. Printers, boxes of wine and chopping boards the pair bought in Japan. Spices covered most surfaces of the kitchen, where Carey had to test recipes until she could get into the restaurant kitchen. For a while, the hallway was occupied by French bench seats waiting to take their place outside Lankan Filling Station; elsewhere, five jars of preserved lemons lay in wait under the stairs.

“We’ve got nowhere else to put [this stuff] so we just bring it home,” she says.

Lindsay’s burnt leeks with sesame seed sauce

So, is it more or less stressful than actually having the doors open? Like anything, the anticipation can sometimes feel worse than the real thing.

“I think my greatest fear is that it’s a really dumb idea and no one will like it,” Carey says.

“I’ve got this nightmare at the moment that the first time I fire up the grill, the whole hotel has to be evacuated,” Lindsay chimes in.

Despite what the fears of the subconscious may be trying to say, Lindsay has survived the experience with Ester, providing a useful sounding board for Carey, especially on the more practical questions an owner has to work through, such as wages. And there’s the bonus of working on fairly similar schedules.

“It’s lucky because everything is very close,” Carey says. “We did a walk from Poly to Lankan Filling Station and it’s six minutes.’

“My plan is that he closes after me so I’ll go there after work and have a glass of wine.”

As for spending time together in the calm before the storm, it sounds like a pipe dream. Both agree that this interview is the most amount of time they’ll enjoy together for a while.

But if you could choose anyone with whom you’d share the highs and lows of opening your own restaurant, surely another chef would be it.

*Lankan Filling Station is now open. Ground floor, 58 Riley St, Darlinghurst, NSW,; Tues-Fri noon-10pm, Sat 10am-10pm, Sun 10am-4pm.

Poly opens 2 August. 74-76 Commonwealth St, Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 8860 0808,, Mon-Fri 5pm-midnight, Sat noon-midnight, Sun noon-10pm.

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