Serial restaurant investor Peter Bartholomew spins a good yarn about the reason he got into the game. In the late 1990s, he and business partner Con McMahon bought a rundown old pub on the fringe of Melbourne's CBD to give their layabout sons a job. "Mykal [Bartholomew] and Andy [McMahon] were gainfully unemployed, so it was motivation to get them out of bed."
The truth is disappointingly more prosaic. The pair intended to demolish the Carron Tavern and develop it into apartments, and while Mykal Bartholomew and Andy McMahon were indeed "enjoying youth", as the younger Bartholomew defends it, they had plenty of experience in the hospitality game. As an origin story, however, it gives pause for thought.
Melbourne restaurant history may well have turned out differently had Bartholomew and McMahon not kept the pub, or if a chef named Frank Camorra had not wandered in one day looking for a job.
"One day Mykal called me and said 'there's a guy here you should come in and see'," says Bartholomew senior, "and it was Frank, freshly back from a few years in Spain."
It's difficult to imagine Melbourne without MoVida, the Iberian empire that now employs 400 and planted its flag in Sydney in 2012 (a venue which sadly closes this week). But try also to imagine a Melbourne devoid of Rosa's Kitchen or Canteen; Lee Ho Fook or its recent spin-off, Lawyers, Guns and Money; newcomer Ides, with rising-star chef Peter Gunn; or Pei Modern, the vehicle that moved top Sydney chef Mark Best into the southern city, and proved so successful it made the return journey.
Sixteen years down the track, despite so many runs on the board, Bartholomew senior (who got his start in the horse-racing industry and bought his first commercial property in his late twenties) continues to refer to himself as a property investor. No mention of restaurants troubles his CV. "I don't count restaurants as an investment," he says. "They're a passion."
Downplay it he might, but he (along with business partner David Mackintosh) has carved out a reputation as not only an important backroom player, financing many of the city's most successful and exciting restaurants, but as a talent-spotter par excellence.
The younger Bartholomews - Mykal and his wife, Kate - have also drunk the family Kool-Aid and done their bit for Melbourne's restaurant excitement with the South East Asian-leaning Coda and its modern Indian sibling, Tonka, both run with chef Adam D'Sylva. The accidental restaurateurs have well and truly made their mark on the city.
There's a frisson of friendly rivalry when these two generations of one of Melbourne's most influential hospitality families get together. Their businesses might officially exist independently of each other - Mykal sold his share in MoVida to open Coda - but there's definite overlap. Accusations fly that the paterfamilias has just that week poached three staff members from his son and daughter-in-law. Touché - they nicked Pei Modern head chef Florent Gerardin for their upcoming venture, modern French bistro Ôter.
It's banter (well, 90 per cent of it at least). And the family connections generally help rather than hinder. Coda's sexy basement space on Flinders Lane, for instance, belongs to a friend of Bartholomew senior and was destined to be a Mexican outpost of MoVida before Mykal announced his intention to go into business with Kate (then his girlfriend), whose waitressing background lay in fine dining at the likes of Vue de Monde and Taxi (they met over the bar at MoVida when he served meat dishes to the then-vegan). Bartholomew senior introduced them to D'Sylva, one of many chefs he's mentored - "he's like Tinder or eHarmony for chefs", says Mykal - and the circle was complete.
Bartender James Tait is the elder Bartholomew's latest find. The pair will open Gin Lane in Bourke Street in September. The move marks Bartholomew's first excursion into the world of bars, but the deal came about fairly typically: Tait approached Bartholomew for advice and ended up impressing him so much he got a financial backer to boot. "Peter's a total Godfather," says Tait. "Going into business with him is a bit of an eye-opener because he has so much knowledge."
The main thing Bartholomew senior looks for in a business protégé is a talented operator, whether a chef or front-of-house. "Look at Peter Gunn at Ides," he says. "He's got a lot of energy, he's a good self-promoter, he's a very good chef." He ticks through his stable. "With Rosa [Mitchell] I thought she was too good to be sitting around doing nothing, and I teamed her up with [chef] Lucy David who was working at Coda but looking for something of her own. Victor Liong - I got a call from Mark Best saying I've got this young guy up here looking to do his own thing. I met him, was impressed. That's how Lee Ho Fook started. Peter Gunn - I went to an Ides dinner, conversation started."
Hospitality is renowned for its ample share of dubious characters, yet Bartholomew seems to be universally admired. "If it wasn't for Pete we wouldn't have MoVida. He saw the potential to take it further when he sold the Carron Tavern," says Camorra. "He's happy to take a punt, he's encouraging, he pushes you in ways you're not normally pushed. And he's a really lovely man."
Best credits Bartholomew's patronage for putting his Sydney restaurant Marque on the map. "Pete is a bon vivant and one of the most enthusiastic restaurant patrons you'll ever come across. He was a customer in the early days of Marque and introduced himself, and he brought in the Van Haandels and things started to happen for me. He's a friend and a mentor."
And the secret to his success? According to Best: "This industry is all about relationships. He strikes up friendships with people rather than going for the dollars, then decides whether he'll go into business with them."
You could do worse than listen to the Bartholomews expound on their rules of restaurant engagement. In their world, the CBD is the place to be because of its population density. You should never run a restaurant in a space you own: it's double jeopardy. And if you want to find the right space, just walk. "When I was at MoVida we walked around Melbourne every day," says Mykal. "You have a look in and see what a place is doing. Dad said you'll find out when they're ready to sell if you have a beer there once a week. I used to have my break here [at Coda's predecessor Mini] and you see if the staff are disheartened or if there are no customers."
As for Ôter, it was another piece of familial advice that encouraged the Coda pair to snaffle the space when they got wind it was being vacated. "It was Peter who told us to get it now because someone else will," says Kate of the basement formerly known as secretive Japanese restaurant Yu-u. Opening in late April, it's their third restaurant, and the first without D'Sylva.
Directly across the laneway from Coda, Ôter (pronounced oh-tay) has kept the open kitchen and broad wooden bar, and ripped the plyboard from the windows for another Coda-esque wonder. Less visibly, Ôter is a test-run for a move into a backroom role for the pair who, while not exactly silent partners of Gerardin and business partner Tom Hunter, will be far quieter than is their norm.
"We're dipping a toe in the water to see if it can be done," says Kate of their decision not to work the Ôter floor. "What we need to find out is how to keep that charisma in the venues without being so hands-on… That comes into what I've learnt from Pete. How do you recognise that talent and know they'll do the job as well as you, and how do you keep them there?"
It isn't difficult to see why they might contemplate moving into the shadows. The younger two were working seven-day weeks in preparation for Ôter; Bartholomew senior has jetted off for a lazy couple of months in France, where he can rue losing Gerardin from Pei Modern ("we didn't pinch him, we gave him a new home", says his son). It's a downward shift of gears from the frenzy of running two thriving CBD restaurants, although going the full Bartholomew Monty as mentors and backers might be a while off yet.
"Mykal got home the other night and told me he and Pete had just looked at another venue and I said, don't ever say venue to me again," says Kate. "That is ridiculous; you are not looking at another venue."