It's been closed for more than a decade but people are still talking about Est Est Est. Maybe it's because Donovan Cooke has just returned to Melbourne to head up the enormous Atlantic restaurant at Crown. Perhaps it's because Marriages, the cookbook penned by Cooke and then-wife Philippa Sibley in 1997 (Est Est Est's first year), is selling second-hand on Amazon in the US for more than $450, or that the experience of having eaten in the spartan South Melbourne dining room has the same cachet in culinary circles as having seen the Rolling Stones at their peak. Certainly for many chefs, the restaurant continues to represent an almost mystical ideal: the chef- and waiter-owned business fanatically, intensely committed to perfection with scant regard for the compromise-riddled bottom line.
One reason Est Est Est's name lingers on is that it was a game changer. At a time when the fine-dining palaces - Mietta's, Stephanie's, Paul Bocuse - were all shutting up shop and the dining scene had gone brasserie mad, Est Est Est brought rigorous cooking, rarefied ingredients and the idea of perfection to the table, packaged up in bare-bones rock-star cool. Cooke, Sibley and co-owner Frank Heaney brought sexy back.
And the Est Est Est alumni is more than memorable. The rollcall includes Josh Emett (Maze), Rita Macali (Supermaxi), Ben Russell (Aria Brisbane), Leilani Wolfenden (Next Door Diner), Joseph Abboud (Rumi), Daniel Southern (Comme) and Karen White (Verge). Some stayed years, others months, but all were part of the five years when Est Est Est changed dining out in Melbourne. Some of the key cast and crew sat down with us to tell it like it was.
The Idea Philippa Sibley (co-owner, head chef): "The idea of the restaurant came when Donovan and I were working in France. We had no money and nothing else to do, so we sat in our unfurnished apartment and smoked pot and drank stolen wine and discussed the kind of restaurant, the kind of dishes that would be our ideal."
Donovan Cooke (co-owner, head chef): "When we came to Melbourne they told us that fine dining was dead and that people didn't want the sort of food we were interested in. But the idea was that we didn't want any fluff, any frills. We wanted to do fine dining in a different setting with no bells and whistles, where you just came for the food."
Frank Heaney (co-owner, front of house): "I was looking to open my own place, something small with a street-level credibility. I'd heard about Donovan and knew that he'd worked with Marco Pierre White and Michel Roux. I rang Mietta's at about four o'clock one afternoon and got through to the kitchen to speak with him. He asked who it was and when he was told 'Frank somebody,' he said, 'Tell him we're f*ing busy,' and hung up. And I thought, he sounds like a pretty good guy, he's committed to his mise en place."
Philippa Sibley: "Frank started stalking us and eventually he talked us into it - he's a good talker."
Frank Heaney: "We came across a place in South Melbourne that used to be Tony Rogalsky's Hot Pot Shop. Tony just wanted to cover his expenses and so we struck a deal - no banks, no institutions, no brokers. We got the keys and were able to walk in and begin smashing the place up. It was all financed by two cooks and a waiter, and between us we were lucky to have tens of thousands of dollars."
The Set-up Frank Heaney: "The minimal renovations that we could afford stopped whenever we ran out of cash. Donovan and I were the labourers and the job was coordinated by a friend of mine, Freddie Strauks, who was a builder and was also the drummer in Skyhooks. There would be Metallica blasting, and Donovan and I stripped to the waist, and Freddy coordinating, so it was sort of born out of rock-and-roll and Marlboro smoke. I can remember thinking to myself at the time, 'This is what it's all about.'"
Donovan Cooke: "I'd do all the sanding of the floorboards and then go off and do evening shifts at The Point. I'd be cooking and all of this sawdust would be flying out of my hair."
Philippa Sibley: "The place was Jurassic Park-green, with tiles and flock wallpaper. We got rid of the wallpaper, painted the walls white and put dark carpet on the floor, and that was it. The focus was never on the room, it was going to be all about what was going on the plate."
The Original Kitchen Ben Russell (chef): "I think part of why it became a bit cultish is because it was so humble and the kitchen was so diabolical. There was this one oven with a 12-burner range that only four burners worked properly on, no salamander, no cool room, no heat lamps."
Josh Emett (chef): "It was a tiny, miniscule kitchen: no fridge space and no vegetable store, so what we ordered in that day was what was used. It was five carrots and four leeks, so if you used any of the ingredients and cocked it up or burnt it, you didn't have any back up."
Donovan Cooke: "There was a hot box that was going to blow up the restaurant, so I disconnected that, put a blanket over it and turned it into the plating table."
Karen White (chef): "It was a tight space and the main thing I remember is the heat, it was totally intense. I think I lost about 14 kilos in three months."
Philippa Sibley: "It was like a lean-to with a corrugated iron roof. Halfway through the service on the first night the oven door fell off and so Donovan was holding the door closed with his foot while he was doing other stuff."
Daniel Southern (chef): "That food like that could come out of such a poky, undermanned, underequipped kitchen, with everyone dressed in T-shirts, was just amazing."
The Buzz Frank Heaney: "The support happened almost overnight. We opened the doors with zero money in the bank and all of a sudden the phone started ringing. We were the thing, the enfant terrible. It became really hard to get a table - you add unattainable to the mix and you have the perfect storm."
Ben Russell: "It wasn't in any way contrived. It was a long skinny room with nothing on the walls and it just served food. It relied totally on the product, and there was nothing gimmicky about it. There were times when we were booked out months in advance. People would ring and ask for a booking, any booking, whenever they could get one."
Philippa Sibley: "There was the whole rock-star English chef thing going on. Donovan was one degree of separation from Marco Pierre White and so everybody wanted a part of that. And Frank had his own following, which was integral to our success; people wanted to eat where he was."
The Food Frank Heaney: "I'm a person who's very aware of the commercial realities of life, but on this very rare occasion that was a secondary thing. It was an artisanal restaurant, a craftsperson's restaurant."
Donovan Cooke: "The food was ever-changing - we changed half the mains, half the appetisers, half the desserts every two weeks."
Rita Macali (chef): "Everybody likes to think they get the best stuff, but they really did. Donovan decided he was going to make raspberry vinegar and he bought the best raspberries at however much a punnet and then he just chucked them into the tub and made vinegar out of them. He was on a mission to make the best food, regardless of how much it cost."
Ben Russell: "Donovan's food was classy, classical, perfectly executed. He'd put just a few ingredients on a plate - roast pigeon with celeriac purée and thyme jus - and then charge top dollar for them so they had to be great. I don't know too many chefs who would have the confidence to put so few things on a plate."
Josh Emett: "He's great with game, really great with rustic, autumnal flavours - terrines and pigeons, pheasants, those really hearty, earthy flavours. He was good with fish as well, but it was meat and game that were his strengths. I can remember his pig trotters. He did them so beautifully, so technically spot-on, absolutely no bulls*."
Joseph Abboud (apprentice chef): "It was the only place I ever worked where just getting the food out was not acceptable. First and foremost it was about standards."
Leilani Wolfenden (chef): "Everything was made from scratch, every day. There were these massively long procedures - getting the right potatoes for the pommes purée, sorting out sweetbreads - and incredible attention to detail every single step of the way. It was about perfection."
Karen White: "I always remember Donovan's sauces - they were like silk on a plate - and the way he cooked meat and game was amazing. There was no watering down. There would be enough for a certain number of portions and they didn't ever make more or stretch things to go further. They would
never cut corners ever."
Philippa Sibley: "Donovan was almost like a winemaker or a perfume maker with his artistry. His sauces were refined and amazingly delicate."
Daniel Southern: "Everything was cut in the morning and then cooked to order. It was nuts! All of the pasta and sauces were made in the afternoon and the stocks were made in the morning - the level of freshness was incredible."
Josh Emett: "Donovan had the technique and Philippa had a huge amount of creativity. Philippa would come up with an idea and then Donovan would execute it. They worked well as a team that way. Donovan had skill in plating but Philippa would bring something extra to it."
The Work Ben Russell: "After we got a new stove and a coolroom it became a little more user-friendly but it was still an intense job. We worked six double shifts a week for years. I can never remember working as hard as we did there. It wasn't a job, it was a lifestyle choice."
Daniel Southern: "Everything had to be precise. It was purely about knife skills, there was not a mandolin in sight. My hands used to hum when I got into bed at night because there was that much knife work. And it was always checked and if it wasn't right, you'd do it again."
Joseph Abboud: "I was the apprentice and was working 85 hours a week and every day that I was at Est Est Est I was humiliated in one way or another. It was the biggest shock of my life and the only reason I didn't leave earlier was because I was either too scared or too busy. The other reason was that the torment was backed up by what was being produced. They weren't abusing me and producing rubbish, they were doing food that I admired."
Karen White: "It was a really hard kitchen but there was method and there was madness. I think all good kitchens have a certain amount of madness."
Rita Macali: "There was so much work and it was so intense. Josh was boning something and he accidently stabbed himself in the thigh with the boning knife. It went into his leg, and I was like, 'Josh I think you should get that looked at,' and he just said it would be fine and went on working. There was that sort of intensity - you'd just carry on."
Leilani Wolfenden: "Everyone was pretty emaciated and sleep-deprived and pretty burnt, and no one ever had any money and all the rest of it, but we were proud to work there. Donovan was really hard but fair as well. He just wanted everything to be right. And we always ate together every day. We'd sit down to a lunch that one of us would cook. It was what made it seem even more like a family."
The Music Josh Emett: "There was music blaring the whole time: Zeppelin, Metallica, Happy Mondays, Prodigy. Suppliers would come in and you couldn't really hear them speak."
Frank Heaney: "Donovan would play 'Hell's Bells' just before service. The clanging of those bells would start the night and the level it was turned up would indicate what sort of night you were in for."
Donovan Cooke: "When I was working at Mietta's there was a lot of talk in the kitchen and I didn't like it, so at Est Est Est I put the stereo up so loud that nobody could talk. The only problem was that if you got in a little bit late you had no say in what was going to be played."
The Front of House Frank Heaney: "I was able to alter the direction of my service in a fairly significant way. I was allowed to become more casual, and music in the restaurant became very important. Many restaurants at the end of the night will turn the music down and the lights up. We did it the other way. Al Green would be cranked up, the lights would go down and just when people thought it was time to go home, they'd find themselves in this whole different atmosphere."
The Close Donovan Cooke: "It was time for it to close. A restaurant like that has a certain longevity. For one thing, the working conditions were s* - I had an illegal bore on the gas so it was hotter than it should have been and you couldn't get away from the heat. You'd have to change your T-shirt three times during the night. The restaurant was a springboard to other things."
Philippa Sibley: "It was really sad to close it, but we didn't want to let it drag on for too long. We closed on New Year's Eve 2001."
Frank Heaney: "It was a place that was independent, hot, packed. We would rather go down in a blaze of glory than do it any other way. It was all about passion and ideals."