Food & Culture

Hospitality guns reflect on the year that was

From battling illness and drought to opening and closing restaurants, key industry players reflect on 2019 and their hopes for the future.

By Larissa Dubecki, Joanna Hunkin & David Matthews
Tania Houghton and Luke Powell.

Cam Fairbairn

When the time came, the conversation was simple. At the start of the year, Cam Fairbairn and Mitch Orr stopped, and asked each other, "Do we want to keep doing this?"
"This" was Acme, the Asian-inflected, not-Italian pasta restaurant in Rushcutters Bay that helped usher in a new blueprint for Sydney dining. A place that made haute bar snacks of devon sandwiches and star turns of Jatz and pig's-head macaroni and backed it up with a service style that was fresh and refreshing all at once.
In closing Acme, Orr (food) and Fairbairn (floor) were recognising that the lows had come to outweigh the highs. Come July, they were ready to turn out the lights. When they did, it was after a flood of bookings that saw them do it with a bang. When mFairbairn looks back now, it's with pride on where Acme sits in the city's eating and drinking history.
"You lose some perspective when you're in the day to day, so at the end it was nice to realise what an impact Acme had," he says. "When we opened in 2014 no one was really doing pasta at a starred restaurant level. It was always three stars, or Bar Reggio. And no one was really doing the kind of laid-back, friendly, casual-but-professional service we did either. I think there were a lot of things Acme influenced in a positive way."
Practically, closing was simple. They made the call, they told the staff, then they squeezed as many people in as possible so everyone could have a last experience. What stood out in those final weeks, Fairbairn says, was the support from the locals, and the personal stories – people who might have had their first date at Acme who were coming back as married couples.
Rather than be bitter that the support wasn't always there, Fairbairn is philosophical. "Acme went through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but a lot of businesses just peter out. That wasn't lost on me or on Mitch," he says. "And for us it was also very much the beginning of a new chapter."
For Fairbairn, that chapter is Bathers' Pavilion. He'd heard they were doing a refresh, and when Acme shut, took a closer look. A half-hour meeting became three hours, one where they talked through the project – bistro, restaurant, lounge, kiosk, and the terrace where you can drink Champagne, eat oysters and watch the world go by – and the vision for the next 20 years. "The idea is getting Bathers ready for the next generation."
Fairbairn spent time at Balmoral as a kid, but hadn't been back in 15 years. Bathers was there then, too. In many ways, that was the appeal. "In hospitality, it's pretty rare that a business sticks around longer than five years, so to be part of something that's been here so long, and has a commitment to be here for another 20 years is pretty awesome," he says. "If I think about it, the main correlation between what I've done in the past and now is that Acme was always an integral part of the community. And Bathers is such an integral part of Mosman and of Sydney."
2019 will stick in Fairbairn's mind as a turning point. Maybe he'd do a couple of things differently, but he's thankful. "We went through some rough times, and it's tough losing a business, but I wouldn't change the experiences. It's made me who I am," he says. "Also, it's really, really nice to be down here working near the ocean."
Cam Fairbairn. Photo: Nikki To

Tania Houghton

This time last year, Tania Houghton was immersed in the chaos of running a new business and juggling life with a toddler.
She had just opened the Newtown pizzeria Bella Brutta with her partner Luke Powell and the couple were both clocking 90-hour weeks as they knuckled down to make their new business a success, alongside their other restaurant, LP's Quality Meats in Chippendale.
2019 was set to bring another year of hustle and bustle until Houghton discovered something that brought her world to a standstill.
"I went to my doctor on the 4th of January to get a check-up... my doctor found three lumps," she says.
Her doctor told her not to worry, but with a history of breast cancer in the family, Houghton wasn't taking any chances. After an ultrasound she was recalled to her doctor's surgery to receive some earth-shattering news.
"Hearing that it was cancer was absolutely terrifying. My ears started ringing and I remember just feeling like I couldn't breathe. My cheeks went numb."
Houghton was sent straight to the hospital, where she would begin a series of aggressive treatments including five months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and five weeks of radiography.
"I was told I had a choice in treatment but really I had no choice at all if I wanted to give it another 50 years," she says. "It seemed like a small price to pay for the privilege of watching my son grow up."
The impact of 2019 has been profound. But as the year draws to a close, Houghton has finally had a chance to absorb all that's happened and realised that it has been a major turning point for her family.
"Having my mortality questioned at 31 has made me think about what's important," she says. "It sounds like a cliché but I feel lucky that cancer has so forcefully made us reconsider our options before Frank was too old and we'd missed his youth being too focused on work."
One of her biggest challenges has been managing her illness while parenting three-year-old Frank.
"Dealing with the debilitating side effects of chemo – lack of energy, physical differences, being admitted to hospital with infections. These are all things that are hard enough without throwing a toddler into the mix.
"I struggled with the heaviness of knowing that this cancer was going to affect him in ways we will never know… He is smart and understands far more than we give him credit for so it was very much a challenge to keep him informed in a way that he could cope."
Friends, family and the community have been essential to helping Houghton cope, in particular Powell, who she describes as "the most consistent and level-headed person I have ever met". Her sisters, parents and business partners also rallied around her, along with friends who shaved their heads in solidarity.
"From the moment we told everyone what was happening, it has been nothing short of incredible to see how people have stepped up and taken on huge responsibility without being asked," she says. "It's shown me the strength of community and just how important it is."
In return, Houghton has come to realise she owes it to other women to share her story. "I would be doing a disservice to so many other women to stay quiet. This disease is most preventable if caught early and in a lot of cases, by the time a lump is present, the cancer has already been present in your body for up to five years." Her message to women: check yourself regularly.
Now, even as Houghton farewells the most challenging year of her life, battered and bruised, she remains optimistic. "I feel excited about 2020," she says. "There are a couple more hurdles to go with treatment but I'm positive it's under control now and we can start living a life that isn't based on how sick I feel today."
She's looking forward to getting back on the floor at both restaurants; to being a mum and partner and not just a patient. And whatever next year brings, she will embrace it with a new outlook.
"As I was struggling to come to terms with my diagnosis, my surgeon said: 'you could walk out onto the street now and get hit by a car. This is just another near miss.' This is how I hope to approach life now. With lightness. And a lot more of the people I love."
Tania Houghton Photo: Will Horner

Astrid McCormack

You can't really plan a year like the one Astrid McCormack and Josh Lewis have just had.
The owners of Fleet, the restaurant that put the northern New South Wales coastal town of Brunswick Heads (population 1737) on the map, have spent the past 12 months nurturing recent additions Ethel Food Store and Mexican cantina La Casita while keeping Fleet riding its wave of critical acclaim.
On top of that you can add the fact that the local population rose to 1738 in April with the arrival of daughter Isla. "It does tend to be all or nothing with us," says McCormack. "I've had my highest highs and my lowest lows this year. I probably wouldn't recommend to anyone to open another two businesses when you have one that already takes up all your time, and then throw a baby into the mix."
Their first child announced herself during renovations on the dilapidated Gringo's Fresh Mex site late last year. "We were busy fixing it up and I just thought, 'Why am I so tired?' I'd been told I couldn't conceive naturally and we were looking at IVF so it was a real shock. A happy shock, though."
Stepping away from the day-to-day operation of Fleet has been something of a reckoning for McCormack, who ran the envelope-sized 14-seater as an integral part of the three-person team with Lewis on the pans and Rob Mudge on the drinks. Going from working full-time on the floor to staying at home with a colicky, unsettled baby was a period of radical adjustment. Deep in the trenches with a newborn baby feeding around the clock every 45 minutes for the first 10 weeks saw her entirely miss the month of May. "I thought it was May 1st and Josh said, no babe, it's June. The whole month just disappeared in a haze."
The first few times she visited Fleet, baby in tow, it was confronting to see someone else in her habitual role.
"I didn't realise how much my sense of identity was tied up in the restaurant until I left, and Josh struggled with it as well. I'm okay with it now. We go in every day just to see him. I wish I could clone him."
The duo deserves to spend 2020 sipping tea with their feet up, but augurs aren't exactly promising. They're in the process of turning the space next door to Fleet into their next project: a wine bar with snacks, which they hope to open by mid-2020.
"It will definitely be nice and small again; we love a three-person team," says McCormack.
"It wasn't part of our larger plan but when the opportunity came up, we just couldn't not do it – but that's what we always say. I was thinking recently that I'd love a bit of calm in 2020 but I've got to be realistic. It's probably not going to happen."
It's not uncommon for the arrival of a baby to usher in a period of reflection. For McCormack, it's given her a new zeal for the industry. "So often during my pregnancy people would say that a baby puts life and work into perspective. And it has, but not in the way I imagine they meant. For me it has magnified everything. Some things do seem less important. The washing can wait! But more than anything I want to create a life for my daughter and our family. I want to be a role model for her. It's given me renewed drive to be the very best that we can be in our industry."
Astrid McCormack Photo: Kara Rosenlund

Matt Moran

When Matt Moran first opened Aria in 1999, he never imagined it would still be open for business 20 years later. That's just not how you think when you're young, he says.
But while Aria celebrated its 20th birthday this year, Moran marked a more personal milestone: he turned 50. And in the process, he came to a few key realisations.
The first was that he is no longer the young chef in town, he says, laughing. "I was always the young one," he says. "I was always the baby who looked up to Neil [Perry] and all those guys."
What that means, he explains, is that he feels a responsibility to help lead the industry and champion new talent. When it came time to celebrate Aria's anniversary in October, he hosted an intimate dinner in the harbourside dining room, inviting some of the industry's youngest rising stars.
"I did that for a reason," he says. "We are a small industry that sometimes cops a lot of flak and we have to be strong and united. It's up to people like Neil and Pete Gilmore and myself, the guys who've been around for a long time, to embody that. It's really important."
But 2019 hasn't all been Champagne and celebrations. In May, Moran and his co-owner Bruce Solomon announced they were closing Aria Brisbane, after 10 years of acclaimed service.
"The lease was up. The place is a development site. They were offering tenure, but not enough to renovate it."
Moran admits the closure was a sad chapter of 2019 but is adamant it was the right decision.
"I renovated [Aria Sydney] three years ago and gutted it. I took every tile, every tap out of the place and redid it all. Even though the food in Brisbane was up to standard, it just felt as though the space needed work and money, and I just wasn't prepared to spend that on other people's buildings. It was time to go."
Closing the Brisbane site helped Moran to clarify his vision for Aria in Sydney, deciding to make the fine-diner a solo star.
"We're here for a long time. We're very lucky to be able to do that. Aria's the flagship and always will be. I'll probably never open another Aria.
"Like most people, Moran found that turning 50 came with its fair share of introspection.
"I had an ambition five years ago to open 100 restaurants. I think that's changed. I've got kids. Not that I'm taking it easy because I'll never take it easy, but my son's finishing his HSC this year. He's going to Melbourne. The thought of my son leaving home… Fuck! You know?"
He also decided it was time to give more time and energy to supporting others, intensifying his efforts to support struggling farmers. As a fourth generation farmer, Moran has long been a passionate advocate for farmers and producers, highlighting their stories in the TV series Paddock to Plate.
But as drought continues to ravage the country, Moran has teamed up with the global social enterprise Thankful to launch the Thankful4Farmers campaign, which raises funds and support for farmers in need.
"Being a farmer and knowing how hard it is, and the disconnect between city and country… They're doing it really tough," he says. "There's 40 per cent more chance of killing yourself if you're a farmer. It's unbelievable."
Moran launched the initiative in October, calling on other chefs to help support the cause.
"We've spent about a year on it now and it's all coming together," he says. "It's just been beautiful. It's not about me, it's all about the farmers. I don't care who comes on board as long as they help."
Matt Moran. Photo: Will Horner