Matt Moran… From The Bush To The Beach
During the month The Beast caught up with one of the most recognisable characters in culinary circles, the affable chef and restauranteur Matt Moran.
Where are you originally from?
Country New South Wales. I was born in Tamworth. I lived on a sheep farm until I was five and then a dairy farm until I was about nine, and then I moved to the western suburbs of Sydney, near Blacktown.
Where are you living these days?
I live in Gordons Bay. It’s a good spot. I wouldn’t recommend anyone go swimming down there though. It’s unbelievably polluted.
Very sharky too…
Sharks everywhere. Ha ha.
What do you love about living in the Eastern Suburbs?
Just the proximity of everything; it’s so easy to get around. For me, to get to where I work in Macquarie Street, it takes about 12 minutes in the car. On a bad day it would take 14 minutes. You just go around the back of Centennial Park and then straight into the Eastern Distributor and come out at Macquarie Street. There’s only like two sets of traffic lights.
What that else do you love about the eastern suburbs?
Obviously the beaches. It’s God’s country.
Is there anything you don’t like about the eastern suburbs?
Summer crowds, but that’s about it really. I lived in North Bondi for two and a half years while I was building in Gordons Bay, just up on Ramsgate near Speedos, and I have to say the worst three months of the year was summer because of the crowds. Apart from that you’ve got everything here- great bars, great pubs, great food, you know, amazing coastline – what more could you ask for? We’ve got the best life here.
How did you get started as chef?
I hated school and school hated me and we came to the mutual agreement that I’d leave. I started my apprenticeship when I was 15 on the North Shore in a place called La Belle Helene, which happened to be one of the best restaurants in Sydney at the time, and I became obsessed with it and just wanted to learn as much as I could. I just fell into it and fell in love.
Did you have a connection at La Belle Helene or was it just a bit of luck?
No, I just got lucky. I went for a good twenty different interviews before I got a job. I remember going to one interview in the city at the Rocks and the owner said to me, “If the first ten don’t work out we’ll give you a call.”
How did your parents feel about you leaving school and pursuing a trade in the kitchen?
Well, it wasn’t that cool back in those days, being a chef, especially for a boy from Blacktown. Boys from Blacktown didn’t become chefs. I think my dad was just happy that I had a job and he wouldn’t let me leave school until I did have a job.
When did you make the step to opening your first restaurant?
I was pretty young. I was 22 when I opened my first restaurant and that was at the Paddington Inn. I had worked for a couple of the big guys and just decided that I didn’t want to work for someone else anymore and I wanted to be my own boss, so I opened at the Paddington Inn and that was a bit of a success and all went from there.
Was it a bit of a baptism of fire?
Yeah, it was. You grow up very quickly and you learn a lot very quickly.
How many restaurants do you own now? How big is your empire?
I have seven businesses … well, eight if you include the catering company.
Can you list them for us please?
List them? There’s ARIA Catering at the Opera House and ARIA Catering, then there’s Opera Bar, ARIA, Chiswick, North Bondi Fish, ARIA Brisbane and River Bar in Brisbane.
Your latest venture is North Bondi Fish down, down at the old North Bondi Italian site; can you tell us a little bit about it?
North Bondi Fish is the newest restaurant in the stable. Look, I’ve always loved the location and for many, many years I could never understand why there wasn’t a fish and chip joint, or at least a fish café, down there. It’s very casual, it’s very easy, it’s got a great little wine list, great beers, great cocktails, really simple seafood and a couple of steaks for the meat eaters.
In reference to your restaurants, do you have a ‘favourite child’?
Yeah, ARIA Sydney is my flagship and always will be. It’s the eldest, it’s been there 14 years and it’s never to be sold.
In reference to your two kids, do you have a favourite child?
I certainly do. I have a favourite daughter and I have a favourite son.
What is the hardest thing about working in the hospitality game?
Where do I start? The hours are long, there’s a lot of pressure and it’s very demanding. Cooking is all about knowledge and knowledge takes time. It’s definitely not something you can just do overnight.
Do you prefer cooking exquisite French cuisine or knocking up a basic barbecue or fish and chips for your mates?
It depends on what mood I’m in. At home I love doing a barbecue. I love cooking and people think that because you’re a chef and you cook fine dining food at work you don’t cook at home, but it’s quite the opposite. I love cooking at home and I love cooking for friends and people, but it depends on what mood I’m in. It can be anything from a boiled chicken to a full on French banquet.
Do you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing that the trend has moved away from fine dining and towards a more casual approach to food?
I don’t actually believe that. I think there’s a need for both. Obviously people really enjoy a casual meal but there’s always going to be a need for fine dining. There always will be.
Do you have a favourite Sydney restaurant?
Apart from my own? It really depends on what I feel like. For casualness I love Sean’s Panaroma in Bondi; for a Sunday lunch I think Icebergs is pretty hard to eat; I love the Clovelly Hotel for a steak; Lox, Stock and Barrel in Bondi is great for breakfast. Where else? Harry’s Espresso Bar is great if I want to go and get a coffee. I’ve got too many to list and that’s just in this area. It just really depends on what mood I’m in.
You mentioned earlier that being a chef was a lot glamorous back in the day; in light of that, how many celebrity chefs is too many?
I don’t like the term celebrity chef because I don’t figure that I am one. Look, too many chefs spoil the broth, don’t they? If you can’t handle the heat get out of the kitchen.
When you started out did you ever imagine that being a chef would lead to a media career as well?
No, no, no. Chefs barely owned their own restaurants back in those days. I suppose that’s the difference. I fell in love with food, I didn’t fall in love with being on TV. There was no ambition to write cookbooks, own my own restaurants or whatever; it just developed that way. One thing led to another.
How did your first gig on TV come about? When did you transition from being behind the pans to in front of the camera?
The first gig I did was ‘My Restaurant Rules’ with Curtis Stone about eight or nine years ago. Someone asked me to do an audition and I really wasn’t that keen. I just went in and sort of spoke my mind and they liked that.
That’s what chefs do, isn’t it?
Yeah, absolutely; we always speak our mind.
Is it tough balancing your work, social life and family life?
Yeah, of course. It’s all about time management. I don’t have much of a personal social life. When it comes to family I obviously try to spend as much time as I can at home, but work is obviously very demanding, especially at this time of year. It’s insanely busy.
What’s the response like from the missus when you say: “I’m opening another restaurant down at Bondi Beach”?
Do you have any advice for people looking to open yet another cafe in the Eastern Suburbs?
Yeah, look, I think you should do your homework. Location is key. Get some business advice because they are businesses and you don’t want to open a restaurant and lose money. You want to be able to make some money. So make sure you know what you’re doing and get your figures right. Having some good food and good service is always helpful too.
Chef’s hats or profit, which is more important?
Profit, I suppose, because if you don’t have any profit well then you don’t have a business and you won’t get any chef’s hats. What comes first: the chicken or the egg?
What do you think will be the next big trend in the Sydney culinary scene?
Look, that’s something I get asked all the time. I think nowadays, and especially because I’ve been filming my own show, ‘Paddock to Plate’, I think people want to know where their food comes from. I don’t think it’s a trend though, I think it’s here to stay. They want to know how it’s grown, who’s growing it, how sustainable it is, whether it’s been looked after, how it’s been killed. That’s not a trend; it’s reality.
Will that sort of approach become more affordable for your average punter?
Yeah, absolutely. Go to farmers’ markets, talk to the farmers who are actually growing it and get the knowledge from them about how they do it. You’re cutting out the middleman so it’s generally cheaper.
Is Terry Durack too powerful a figure in the Sydney food scene?
Look, Terry has a following and I don’t think it’s just food critics who are powerful these days, it’s word of mouth and social media. Social media and bloggers can become more powerful than a food critic sometimes. I think we need critics and I think critics are good because they keep the standards up.
What are your thoughts on the online review sites where people can anonymously make or break a restaurant, essentially?
Yeah, they can. I think some people are a little bit harsh and some of it’s not true. I think sometimes people are just having a go. It’s probably chefs slagging other chefs off, I don’t know. But look, the general customer is the most important thing in this business and if you do get good word of mouth, because you have a good product then generally your restaurant will be busy.
Can you tell us a bit about your role as an LG ambassador and the Red Cross Blood Blitz?
I’ve been an LG ambassador now for a couple of years. I’m passionate about LG home appliances. Being an ambassador is something that I believe in and I have LG products within my own home. If I didn’t believe in the quality of the products I wouldn’t use them. Integrity is a big part of what I do. These guys have got behind the Red Cross Blood Donation for the 2013 “Blood Blitz”, which is a fantastic thing. We obviously need to donate blood to save lives and the more people who do, the more lives we potentially save.
Will you be donating blood yourself?
I think I have to now, don’t I? I think I’ve set myself up. I’m just worried about the vodka martini I had last night…
Do you have any big food projects coming up in the pipeline besides North Bondi Fish?
Of course I do. There’s always something in the pipeline, but nothing I’m going to tell you about at this stage!
I’m sure your PR people will be ringing me in a couple of months’ time begging for coverage. Given that you probably spend quite a bit of time sampling food, how do you keep your rig in such good shape?
I train with the boys from Lifecycle Fitness in Bronte. Changa (Trent Langlands) and Whippet (Ryan Clark) really work me hard – Tama stairs every Saturday morning.
How often do you train with the boys?
If I’m in town I try to do five or six days a week; if I’m not, sometimes three or four. It really depends on where I am and what I’m doing. Last week I did five sessions, the week before three and the week before that six, so it just really varies.
Does the job take you on the road a fair bit?
How often are you outside of Sydney?
I travel every week. I go to Brisbane most weeks and I did a little over 100 flights last year!
That’s got to be good for the frequent flyer points. Are you an ambassador for Qantas or something?
I work for Singapore Airlines.
Who were your role models when you started out?
There are too many to list, from my first chef at La Belle, Michael De Laurence, to overseas guys. There were so many of them, from Michel Roux, Albert Roux to Paul Bocuse, the list goes on and on.
I’ve never heard of any of those guys but I’m assuming they’re a big deal, right?
They’re all fairly famous.
Michelin stars and all that sort of jazz?
Yeah, they invented them.
Do you have any advice for youngsters looking to make a career in the food game?
Yeah, look, do it because you love it not because you want to be famous. It’s too damn bloody hard otherwise. Simple as that. You’ve got to have the passion for it otherwise you will never last!
Do you support any charities?
I’m a Variety ambassador and I’m also an ambassador for OzHarvest, which is food related. It’s about reducing food waste. OzHarvest will pick up food from restaurants and cafes all around Australia and they take it away and they feed the homeless with it.
Is it tough eliminating waste at your restaurants?
There’s no excuse to have waste. You can use everything in some way, shape or form.
Is that partly the mark of a good restaurant?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a big part of being a good chef.
I guess it’s good for the bottom line as well?
In an ideal world what does the future hold for Matt Moran?
God knows. I do it day by day and week by week and month by month. I’m not ready to retire yet so there will be some more interesting stuff that comes up, I’m sure.