Like many parents working from home, Joel Bickford is feeling the pinch. The chef is meant to be designing the menus for Sydney's Shell House, a three-part hospitality project due to open in October. But his domestic set-up is not exactly stimulating his culinary creativity.
"When you're locked-down and your seven-year-old is next to you doing homeschooling, that does make it more challenging," Bickford says. "But that's part of the reason I made the move – to be part of something from the ground up. It's a bit challenging and scary, but you don't want to die wondering, do you?"
Bickford has jumped from the good ship Aria, the Sydney harbourside fine-dining restaurant owned by Matt Moran's Solotel group, where he's held the executive chef mantle since 2018. Little has been said about his departure or his replacement; the restaurant remains closed during lockdown, and at the time of writing its website still lists Bickford as its lead chef (his profile has since been removed from the site).
His departure marks the latest senior-chef loss for Solotel. In July, it was announced chef Tom Haynes was leaving Barangaroo House for Western Australia's Z1Z, the "lifestyle" division of Tattarang, a holding company by mining billionaire Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest and family.
Bickford is venturing inland – well, a few blocks south of the harbour – to the city's corporate heartland, where he's just been announced as culinary director of Shell House, a hospitality project by the Point Group (The Dolphin, Bondi Beach Public Bar). The Shell House building forms part of the $2 billion Brookfield Place development, and will interconnect with a mixed office and retail tower in the Wynyard precinct.
Bickford will oversee the menus at The Menzies Bar, a ground-floor bar and bistro; flagship restaurant Shell House Dining Room and Terrace on level nine; plus Shell House Sky Bar, a rooftop cocktail bar.
He's already had to scrap the first draft menu of the Dining Room; truffles and mandarins will no longer be in season by the proposed spring opening. But the food will be close to his vision of "laid-back luxury": low-fuss yet elegant, casual but finessed, to suit the mood of the light-filled restaurant. "Part of the attraction is to challenge myself with food that's a bit less-worked," says Bickford. "Food that's very social and share-y is a good way of putting it."
But there are more challenges on the horizon. The July début of the handsome Menzies Bar was kiboshed by the Greater Sydney lockdown, while building work on the remaining venues has been delayed by the region-wide pause on the construction industry. Then there's the recruitment of the 30-plus kitchen staff needed across the three venues in the middle of a nationwide hospitality worker shortage, no less.
And once they have bodies in the kitchen, there's the matter of transporting customers to levels nine and 10 of the heritage building.
"We have two dedicated lifts, holding 20 people each, that go straight up to the rooftop. But under social distancing laws there'll be a limit to how many people we can put on those lifts at any one time," says Point Group CEO Brett Robinson.
And how confident is he about the proposed October opening? Not at all, he admits. Like hospitality operators across the Greater Sydney region, Robinson is at the mercy of state government COVID-19 restrictions. But the Point Group's 15-year lease of the premises means the team has the luxury of time on its hands. "We'll open whenever we've recovered from this outbreak," he says. "And we're going to do it properly."
Shell House is slated to open in October, pending lockdown restrictions.
2 Carrington St, Sydney, NSW
2 Carrington St, Sydney, NSW
This story was updated on Wed 11 Aug at 5.20pm to reflect the removal of Joel Bickford's profile from the Aria website.