After almost a decade on the Sydney restaurant scene, Momofuku Seiōbo is closing. The restaurant's final service will be on June 26, 2021.
The announcement was made on the restaurant's Instagram on Monday morning, where an upcoming end of lease, and the desire to go out on a high, were cited as reasons for the closure.
"We've worked hard at Seiōbo to create a sustainable restaurant for our team. As we looked at our lease ending, we realised that after having poured so much of ourselves into this restaurant — especially over the past year — the most sustainable thing we could do was celebrate Seiōbo and end on a high note," the Instagram post read.
The announcement is bittersweet, says manager Kylie Javier Ashton, and she's been overwhelmed by diners' support in the past 24 hours. (The restaurant is booked out until its final service.) But she says the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 offered some perspective about work, and life, and the perpetual juggling of the two.
"The decision was made we'd go out on top, and that's a very privileged position to make in this climate where restaurants are struggling," she says. "But I realised it's ok to have boundaries, and realise when you've done your bit. To walk away – I feel at peace with the decision."
Momofuku Seiōbo opened in 2011 at The Star casino complex amid much fanfare – it was, after all, chef-restaurateur David Chang's first establishment to open outside of New York. Under the direction of then-head chef Ben Greeno, it most closely resembled the Asian-flecked, high-couture dégustation stylings of Momofuku Ko, complete with a shrunken version of Chang's famous pork belly buns on the menu.
Then Paul Carmichael took over the executive chef mantle in 2015 and the restaurant became his own, with the media-shy Barbados-born chef lifting the 14-course dégustation with the flavours of the Caribbean, remixed with the produce of Australia. It was a big and bold move for a local restaurant with international backing, at a time when Sydney diners, for all their global palates, had limited exposure to cou cou, rundown, and sofrito sauce.
"That's one of our greatest legacies. We don't have a white guy cooking Bajan food. We have a Bajan person cooking Bajan food," says Javier Ashton.
It paid off. You want to talk awards? The restaurant has won a slew, including Gourmet Traveller Best New Restaurant, Restaurant of the Year, the peer-voted Chef of the Year for Carmichael, while consistently earning its place in the Top 10 Best Restaurants list.
"Early on I thought Seiōbo needed to be very delicate, and fine dining and fancy," said Carmichael when he took out GT's Chef of the Year award for 2020. "I'm not saying we're not fine dining, but Caribbean food is bold and big and full of flavour. I've really tried not to change it into something it's not."
"I've seen a lot more of my personality, and Kylie's personality, go into the restaurant over time [...] But it takes a long time, and honestly a lot of believing in yourself, for that to happen."
Javier Ashton recalls a 2015 trip she and her husband took to Barbados that further bonded her ties to Seiōbo. Carmichael's parents, mother Orlyn and father Pearson, picked them up from the airport ("They had signs with our names on it!"). When they arrived at the Carmichael family home, Orlyn turned to Javier Ashton and asked: what do you want to eat?
Together, the pair cooked cou cou, a Bajan dish of cornmeal with okra. "It's normally served with salted [flying] cod, and at the restaurant [at the time], we served a super-fancy version with caviar that mirrored the salty crunch of the fish," says Javier Ashton. She holds onto the memories of stirring the cornmeal with the family's cou cou stick, a wooden paddle-like utensil that's been passed through the generations. "To be in somebody's home, cooking the 'mum version' of the Momofuku dishes, was amazing."
It's this meeting of the professional and personal that makes Momofuku Seiōbo so unique. (The drinks menu features cocktails named in honour of Orlyn and Pearson.) And for a fine-dining restaurant to be led by two people of colour, it's a rarity too.
"Paul and I are not your typical restaurateurs if you look at the history of restaurants," says Javier Ashton. "Let's be honest, people in positions of power are white dudes. So to have a Black person as your executive chef and a female Asian [as the manager] – we're people of colour who are making decisions in the restaurant. For me, that was incredibly powerful."
Post Seiōbo, Carmichael has told The New York Times he's unsure of his next moves, but he considers Sydney home. Javier Ashton is contemplating holiday plans, but beyond that her energy is focused on celebrating Seiōbo from now until its last service. "I just need to be immersed in that world for the next three months. I can't think of what's next right now," she says. "It's like breaking up with somebody you really love. So I want to be completely present while I can."
This story was first published on Monday 15 March, 11:20am, and was updated on Tuesday 16 March, 12.40pm