Food & Culture

''The fact that we're siblings is the only thing that got us through those first 18 months''

Screaming matches in laneways, kitchen disagreements, make-up dinners. While some say it's unwise to mix business with pleasure, these food businesses prove the unbeatable power of family.

By Larissa Dubecki, Michael Harden & Karlie Verkerk
Cam and Kate Reid at Lune Croissanterie.

Amy Chanta & Palisa Anderson | Chat Thai, NSW

by Karlie Verkerk
It would be fair to crown Amy Chanta Sydney's queen of Thai cuisine. The constant stream of punters eager to nab a table at any of her seven restaurants and the never-ending lines that form outside are evidence enough.
Chanta opened her first Chat Thai in 1989 on Liverpool Street in Darlinghurst, and has since expanded to create a Thai-eatery empire, which is now run by family members including her daughter Palisa Anderson.
"I had deep reservations about joining my mother's business," says Anderson. "I grew up witnessing her total dedication to the restaurants, which meant there was little time for much else."
Anderson was determined not to work in the hospitality industry, but the way of life was ingrained in her from a young age. "I spent most of my childhood and teenage years at the restaurant with my mum, either doing my homework, doing the dishes or lying on top of the fridge waiting for her to deep-clean the kitchen before we went home at one or two o'clock in the morning," says Anderson. "Food was everything in our household."
After living in four different countries and a string of career changes, she decided to return to Australia with her husband and their two kids to help build her mum's business. "I knew that I would have to strike some balance between being devoted to the business, but also making time for my young family," she says. "But as it turns out, the business is such a deep-seated part of family life, as everyone who works with me I count as family."
Amy Chanta and Palisa Anderson of Chat Thai. Photo: Kara Rosenlund
Anderson's husband, Matt, works as in-house counsel and back-of-house operations. Her brother, Pat Laoyont, is in charge of the interior design, branding and maintenance of each location, while Chanta works as Anderson's mentor and advisor. "Mum is still very active in dealing with our upper management and we talk about the food constantly," says Anderson.
When it comes to menu development, the mother-daughter duo makes a good team. "We each have our strengths and weaknesses," she says. "It helps that we have different preferential flavour palates and we tend to meet in the middle. We both love to use bold aromats and long cooking processes to draw out flavour and make the food as authentic as possible."
Chat Thai's successful evolution, which also now includes Boon Cafe and Asian grocer Jarern Chai, is in large part due to the family's strong bond. "I am very lucky to have a mum who respects my opinions and is always willing to put into practice my sometimes crazy ideas that don't always work," says Anderson. "Working in a family business can be frustrating at times because you can't really walk away from family. Overall, our relationship is deeper because of our experience working together and we have learnt to have a lovely simpatico interaction."
Above all, kindness and generosity are the most valuable things Anderson has learnt from working with her mum. "Her approach to people has always been to lead with understanding and kindness. This colours all our business choices."
Chat Thai, various locations, NSW, chatthai.com.au; Jarern Chai and Boon Cafe, booncafe.com, 1/425 Pitt St, Sydney, NSW, (02) 9281 2114

Kate & Cam Reid | Lune , VIC

By Larissa Dubecki
It's lucky the glass cube at the heart of Melbourne's cult Lune Croissanterie in Fitzroy is not only climate-controlled but soundproof. Lune Lab, as it's known, was the setting for a legendary screaming match between Kate and Cam Reid when they processed creative differences in the way only siblings can.
"We must have looked pretty comical to anyone standing outside," says Kate. "Staff had to tell us to take it out the back."
Kate and Cam Reid at Lune Croissanterie.
In fairness, you don't get to be the owners of two hyped bakeries with 70-odd employee and queues stretching around the block without a few dust-ups along the way. And, despite a few hiccups, the Reids have weathered their seven-year road to success without any fracturing of their bond.
Cam, 35, joined his sister, Kate, 37, when she was at a crossroads of wanting to evolve her wholesale-only business. An entrepreneurial spirit, he'd just sold his Melbourne café and was at a loose end. In 2013, they opened the Friday-to-Sunday shop in Elwood that would make the Lune name. The rest is pastry history.
It's safe to say they didn't know what they were in for. The alarm went off each day at 3am; they put in 70 to 80 hours each week. "We were open one-and-a-half hours a day, three days a week, and worked all those hours," says Cam. "It was insane." With just the two of them, the pressures were immense.
"We were living together at the time," says Kate. "The place had paper-thin walls… there were dark times for me. But seriously, we could have a fight at work, then get in the car together, go home and then go out to dinner."
Circumstances have certainly changed for the pair. With their café-impresario partner, Nathan Toleman, they moved into their impressive Fitzroy mothership in 2015, then expanded into the city in 2018 with predictable just-add-Instagram success. A Sydney location is now in the works, too. Lune sells around 21,000 croissants a week compared with 1100 back in Elwood. And their role is now to guide Lune and its employees into the future rather than work the pastry bench.
"To be successful, you have to be prepared to write off a couple of years," says Cam. "We worked and worked and worked. Our health suffered. But I was really fortunate to have Kate there. I could have said, 'This is too hard,' but because it's family you can stand those pressures. The fact that we're siblings is the only thing that got us through those first 18 months."
The siblings as children.
If you ask nicely, they'll happily share more stories of explosive sibling bust-ups. There was the time they stared each other down, knives in hand, across the pastry bench. The time – much more recently – when Kate screamed expletives at Cam down Flinders Lane.
But they've weathered it all and come up smiling. Want proof? Kate was Cam's best man at his wedding last year. "When I was a kid, I really wanted a sister and used to dress him up," she says. "The joke was that Cam had the last laugh because he got me in a tuxedo."
Lune Croissanterie, various locations, lunecroissanterie.com

Abla Amad & family | Abla’s, Vic

By Larissa Dubecki
It can be hard to keep track of the warm Amad clan, with its countless children and grandchildren, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, but one thing is clear: Abla Amad is the sun around which the family revolves. The 85-year-old is the picture of the elegant matriarch as she holds court from her favourite table, but few octogenarians can claim to work every night in the restaurant they opened 41 years ago.
"My house used to be like a restaurant, all the cousins coming over on a Saturday," says Amad, who arrived in Australia from Lebanon aged 19. "My husband, John, said to me, if you want to open a restaurant, I will help you."
A unique strand of Melbourne restaurant history began in 1979 with the opening of Abla's on Elgin Street. A true family affair, it has seen her five children, 13 grandchildren and "the extended Amads" working in the kitchen and on the floor.
It's a shifting population. Currently, the restaurant's core family group comprises daughter Margaret-Anne, daughter-in-law Rae and niece Jeannette Douaihy heading the team affectionately described by Amad as her "ladies" in the kitchen, making kibbeh, stuffed silverbeet leaves, and the classic chicken and rice. The esteem in which the boss lady is universally held is palpable. "She's not my boss; she's my mother," says Douaihy. And Rae says, "You have words, then it's all over in two seconds. Amad never lets anything get to her. At the end of the night, you sit down and have coffee together."
Another positive with such a big clan? Finding staff is never a problem. "It's word of mouth," says Amad. "It's such a big family… you know someone who wants a job."
Abla Amad (third from the right) with her family.
The legacy of Ablas's stretches beyond these pale-grey walls decorated with gilt-framed oil paintings of the old country. Amad's niece, Linda Malcolm, founder of the Alimentari café-delis in Fitzroy and Collingwood, started as a dishwasher at 13, before waiting tables through her teenage years. She credits her aunt with lighting the hospitality fire through her own time in the Amad family-job time-share. "It wasn't so long ago all the nieces and nephews were sitting around and we realised we'd all been through the restaurant in some way," says Malcolm. "She was the first person in the industry I really looked up to. Every night without fail she'd take her apron off, brush her hair, put lipstick on and go out to greet each table. It was never about making money for her; it was a source of pride."
Amad with her granddaughter, Abbey.
Amad is thoroughly deserving of her accolades. She was a guest on MasterChef in 2011, alerting a new generation of diners to the joys of classic Lebanese cooking. She received a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2015 for her service to the industry. But it's her family and her restaurant, two indivisible entities, of which she's proudest.
"We have a lovely life and a good family," she says. "I go to sleep at night never once regretting that I did this."
Abla's, 109 Elgin St, Carlton, Vic, (03) 9347 0006, ablas.com.au

June & Andrew Marks | Gembrook Hill, Vic

By Michael Harden
The trajectory of Gembrook Hill from hobby farm to one of the Yarra Valley's most acclaimed wineries was determined in part by a high-school exchange program. Andrew Marks, son of June and Ian, who had bought and planted the Gembrook vineyard in the 1980s, spent six months with a winemaking family in Bordeaux when he was 16. It was life-changing.
"My father had always been a Francophile and loved wine and had a vineyard, so I wanted to spend some time in a wine region in France," says Andrew. "I stayed with a family like us who were having a good life on the winery and that made a huge impression on me. It looked like a good way to live your life and is what pushed me into wanting to be a winemaker."
Andrew's decision made his parents see their vineyard in a new way. "When Andrew decided to study winemaking, we thought: this is just a hobby farm but now we have to become serious," says June. "That's why we planted many more vines, to make it big enough so that Andrew would be able to make an income from it. We were delighted when he decided to be a winemaker, but we wouldn't have become such a serious enterprise if he hadn't made that decision."
Working in the family business was something of a tradition. Ian Marks was a dentist and worked in his father's dentistry practice for decades. The land at Gembrook, at the southernmost point of the Yarra Valley, was his passion and Andrew, his sisters and his mother spent part of every weekend there, helping with the business of farming.
"One year on Christmas morning we weren't allowed to open any presents before the whole family was out in the vineyards lifting vines, because that was when it had to happen," says Andrew. "Dad was a perfectionist and a taskmaster sometimes, but I would not have become a winemaker if I hadn't been a member of a family that planted a vineyard from scratch with the purpose of making the best wine possible."
June and Andrew Marks with their dog, Milou.
When Ian passed away in 2017, Andrew, who had also established his own wine label, The Wanderer, and the Melbourne Gin Company, found himself in charge of the family business.
"I'm very aware of my father's legacy every day I'm in the vineyard," he says. "It doesn't mean that things can't change, but that we follow his lead in doing things the right way."
June still lives at Gembrook Hill, actively involved in the business, from bookwork to tasting. She also cooks lunch for the small work crew. Just as when Ian was alive, everybody gathers at the dining table and eats lunch together. "Being in a small family business can be difficult because you're always in it, but sitting around the family table having family lunches and making decisions together is a real privilege," says Andrew. "I consider myself lucky that a lot of my adult life I've known my parents very well and have inherited both vision and drive from them."
Gembrook Hill, 2850 Launching Place Rd, Gembrook, Vic, (03) 5968 1622, gembrookhill.com.au

Tekebash Gebre & Saba Alemayoh | Saba’s Ethiopian Restaurant, Vic

By Michael Harden
Opening a restaurant was never a part of Saba Alemayoh's plan, but for her mother, Tekebash Gebre, it was the dream. What brought their paths together – and brought a smart Ethiopian restaurant into being – was a sudden craze in Melbourne for the Ethiopian grain teff.
Alemayoh had been looking for ways to make use of her entrepreneurial skills following a stint as an officer in the Army Reserve, while simultaneously studying business and arts at Monash University. She'd been working as an employee-wellbeing consultant when she started to notice a lot of talk about this "new" ancient grain superfood, teff (the gluten-free base ingredient for injera bread), and the difficulty people were having sourcing it.
"So I started importing teff into Australia from Ethiopia and selling it to health-food stores," she says. "But then I realised not many people knew how to use it properly and so I saw that, to grow the business, I'd have to start educating people on how to cook with it. We started doing markets and then picked up some catering jobs and then more catering jobs and then one day I thought: oh, a restaurant is where we need to be."
Alemayoh's mother is a great cook and had always wanted her own restaurant, but had hesitated, not feeling comfortable negotiating the front of house or the inevitable paperwork with her limited English. So when Alemayoh approached her with the idea of doing the restaurant together with Gebre as full-time chef, Saba's was born.
Saba Alemayoh (from left) and Tekebash Gebre.
It quickly became more than a mother-daughter affair. A cousin who had recently arrived from the Netherlands agreed to help out in the kitchen and became a valued second chef while Alemayoh's younger sister, Sara, though still at school, worked weekend shifts. Alemayoh says that there are particular challenges working with family. "My mum doesn't have a lot of care factor when it comes to speed," she says. "She is very meticulous in
the way she wants things done, is not good at delegating and is a very, very neat chef. As a result, she slows things down. I have a restaurant full of hungry people and the food's not coming out of the kitchen fast enough, but you just have to manage that."
It can get fiery, but that's where the advantage of working with family comes in. "Mum and I fight every shift, but it's okay, because it happens quickly – it's there and then it's done and 30 seconds later it's forgotten," says Alemayoh. "That's the great thing about working with family – you can have these flare-ups and you don't have to deal with HR. We usually have dinner together at the end of the night and talk about other stuff."
As Alemayoh sees it, working with family is all about the art of compromise. "When your mother's the head chef, it can be difficult to change things, to implement certain things that I've learnt or experienced through a Western kitchen that would be better, more proficient and productive," she says. "But sometimes you just have to let that go and let the kitchen dictate the pace to keep the peace."
Saba's Ethiopian Restaurant, 328 Brunswick St, Fitzroy, Vic, (03) 8589 0442, sabasethiopianrestaurant.com

Anthony & Jason Lui | Flower Drum, Vic

By Larissa Dubecki
The Australian hospitality scene had a sliding-doors moment in the early 2000s, when Jason Lui was at university. Studying marketing and finance, the son of Flower Drum owner and executive chef Anthony Lui had no intention of ever joining the restaurant – but his dad had other ideas.
"He said to me, while you're kicking around killing time, you can come in and do a shift," says Jason. "One a week turned into two, two turned into three, three turned into full-time. And here I am."
"August" is a word often applied to Melbourne's Flower Drum, which was started in 1975 by Gilbert Lau and sold to Anthony and his partners in 2002. "Venerable" also pops up regularly. "Institution" is a given.
But Flower Drum had become stuck in its ways, and Jason, 42, can be credited with bringing it into the 21st century. The accidental operations manager started a website and sparked up its social media. He un-stuffed the service and encouraged a fresh look at a menu that was feeling overly long and tired. Anthony responded with innovations such as barramundi noodles with Chinese pork sausage and tangerine zest, mud crab baked with turmeric-spiked custard and wok-fried pearl meat. It helped propel Flower Drum back into the critical consciousness, where it has been cemented ever since.
Anthony, now 73, is still very much in charge of a kitchen that makes the refinement of Cantonese cooking look like a cinch. Nurturing Flower Drum and raising his two boys –Victor is four years younger than Jason – as a single father has been his life.
"My brother and I had to learn to do things for ourselves, like studying and cleaning," says Jason of his primary years following the death of his mother, "but Dad would cook our lunch and dinner for us when he got home late from work. He was never overly strict because he had to trust us, but he tried to do as much for us as he could."
Anthony never intended Jason to become a full-time member of Flower Drum. "Eventually I came round to it," says Anthony. "I thought, if Jason had found his passion it might be a good career path, and it's also good to work with family."
Bringing a son into your territory isn't always the smoothest process. "Of course there are disagreements," says Anthony. "As a boss to an employee, it's a hierarchical thing and as a father with a son, working with him is the same thing."
They're shouters, not sulkers, but disagreements generally get shelved until after service, when they can be discussed without the fireworks. "These days, we're getting better at it," says Jason. "Rather than seeing who's going to back down, it's about finding out where we can compromise."
Cantonese remains the lingua franca between the two, Lui Jr translating for his dad. It's difficult to tell who's having the joke when Anthony responds to a question about how proud he is of his son. "Yeah, he says my grades are alright," says Jason. Judging by their grins, it's probably both.
Flower Drum, 17 Market Ln, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9662 3655, flowerdrum.melbourne