Christine Manfield has something of a fondness for the road less travelled. Whether it's the flavours in her food, the way it looks on the plate or, indeed, the way it's structured on the menu, she's willing - driven, almost - to step away from the familiar in search of new ways to do things. And so it is with the service at Universal. Though the restaurant is barely a year old, the experience on the floor is more akin to something you'd hope to see from a seasoned crew of many years' establishment - and it works, in part, thanks to the unusual teaming of partners Liz Carey and Paul Guiney.
"We have equal billing - restaurant manager and sommelier - but it's a joint role shared between the two of us" says Guiney. "We run a slightly different shop to most at Universal, it's not the classic floor hierarchy with the manager, then the assistants, with the sommelier doing a separate role, and the general staff rounding out the working pyramid."
Carey's parents are publicans, so she grew up in hospitality, peeling prawns and doing the books on her school holidays. Wine work at the Brisbane Polo Club led to a leap to Melbourne's Georges, Middle Brighton's Baths and Magic City before she and Guiney left for a stint in London; she with Manfield at Covent Garden's East@West and as sommelier at Roka, and Guiney at David Thompson's Nahm.
Melbourne-born Guiney got his first serious restaurant job working for Paul Wilson at Radii, at the Park Hyatt, before doing spells at MoMo and Becco. "It was while working for Peter and Tony Giannakis at The Graham that I learnt the craft," he says. "Their catchphrase was, 'This dining room is your house, and your customers are friends you're welcoming into your home'. You look after them, you cook for them, you care for them, you bring them what they want because it's hospitality, not just fetch and carry."
"We've both got experience in both sides," says Carey, of the sommelier/manager divide, "and from Chris's perspective it was never a case of, 'You're this and you're that'. In a smaller restaurant, you can't have that standard hierarchy. With guys with us like Stuart Blackwell and Graeme Foster, they've all got experience, they've all got knowledge - even our youngest member of the floor, Banjo Harris-Plane, is only in his early 20s but he's worked with Chris at East@West. This is what they do, this is their industry, they're professional waiters. They've all come to this job with a strong drive for perfection. They care about what they do, and I think that comes across on the floor."
Universal, Republic 2 Courtyard, Palmer St, Darlinghurst, NSW, (02) 9331 0709, universalrestaurant.com
WORDS PAT NOURSE PHOTOGRAPHY JUSTIN ALEXANDER
This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.