The joys of being a newbie to Melbourne started with being dropped off at one end of Flinders Lane only to realise that I was supposed to be meeting Chef Andrew McConnell at the very opposite end. And that’s how Pra found herself sprinting down the street dodging people in order to make her coffee meeting with Andrew.
I sat down with the Australian chef to find out more about his story whilst sipping a gorgeous cappuccino which was followed by oh-so-extremely-delectable cannelé! (A savvy team member had spotted our Instagram post dribbling over these gorgeous caramelised babies and thoughtfully set some aside…now that’s how you use social media!)
Having heard exceptional things about him through Chef Greg Malouf (for whom he had worked back in the day), I asked Andrew about his career path. He told me how he’d worked for a number of chefs to learn different disciplines and styles over a four year period before flitting off to Europe for eight years, including a one year stint working for Chef Antony Worrall Thompson in the early 90’s.
He could have stayed and built up his career smack bang in town but at this point in his life, Andrew was more keen on keeping the work-play life balance so he decided to be a personal chef to some pretty stonking celebrities instead.
“It was a great experience cooking and travelling—buying at the local markets with no budgets!!!”
At this point, I’d like to highlight just how humble he is. I knew from research that these celebs were the likes of Madonna but the way he described it, you’d think he’d been cooking for Aunt Maud down the street!
On top of that, when I mentioned that Chef Ben Russell from ARIA had been praising him together with Greg, it resulted in the most beautiful ear-to-ear grin and the genuine response of “That’s really nice to hear!”.
Seriously, what a guy!
During his time in Europe, he migrated from France to Italy as he learned unique techniques to add to his repertoire while at the same time being inspired by Marco Pierre White and the Roux brothers. Chef Andrew’s adventures didn’t stop there, either. In the late 90’s, he found himself in Shanghai with restaurateur and chef Michelle Garnaut, where he helped open the acclaimed M on the Bund in 1999. You could say it’s where he cut his teeth. Involved from pre-opening to opening, it was challenging and quite the learning experience.
“Michelle Garnaut was originally a chef with a silk glove iron fist. I learnt a great deal here and all about being a restaurateur.”
By the end of his time in Shanghai, Andrew was 30 and ready to move on with his dreams.
In 2001, he launched his first restaurant, a small operation that gradually grew as they developed their crafts. When I asked him how he deals with his left vs. right brain (or chef vs. profit), I discovered that he’s just one of those jammy buggers. Of course he would have both a bang-on understanding of finance thanks to his father being in the industry and an equal amount of food creativity clout.
With a good gut in decision-making, a head for figures, and choosing to not only grow but evolve, Chef Andrew McConnell now owns or is a partner of a healthy handful of restaurants: Cutler & Co., Cumulus Inc., Luxembourg, Ricky & Pinky at Builders Arms Hotel, and Supernormal.
And it’s not been a straight line from A to Z, either. For example, he started off with a fine dining restaurant but when he was contacted about a new plot, decided to evolve and close it whilst embarking on a new venture.
“It’s taken 16 years to get here and I’ve learnt as I’ve gone on whilst building an incredible team.”
I then asked about how he keeps his brand consistent. The chef stared up at the ceiling and then thoughtfully, but confidently, responded that he doesn’t have a conscious strategy in branding. He prefers to keep things simple, maintain a great product and have the right staff with the right property. When all of these elements combine, consistency just happens.
He also makes sure that the management team and the GM of each property select their own staff.
“Having a central HR function wouldn’t work. Each property requires culturally right people for that GM and environment so it’s their judgment call.”
So then, with 350 staff, how does he control the beast? Once again, in the beautifully humble way of Andrew McConnell, he simply says:
“It’s all about being visible and I really try to allocate myself in each venue once a week.”
With a growing array of venues and so many staff, how on earth do you relax?
“Four children for starters, plus, believe it or not, I will cook at home, too. Oh, and until a little while ago, skateboarding. Four pins in my arm later, that’s a no-go now!”
And who do you support?
“I’m all for supporting friends opening up new venues as opposed to going to the same place every time. Ben Shewry is an old friend and has a great creative concept but if I had to have a memorable experience then I guess Noma is one.”
“Also, I have great respect for Jason Atherton. He has the right vibe!”
Speaking of support, what about suppliers?
Andrew has a cracking relationship with suppliers, which is really no surprise!
“It’s critical. Melbourne is so close to farms and over the years, we’ve built a great relationship with the farmers to the point that we’re asked if we would like to them to grow anything in particular for us. You name it, a type of tomato, and they will do it.”
So what does it look like, your expanding empire?
“For me, it’s all about revisiting our venues and refreshing if need be. Working with what we have and keeping it real.”
Did you always think this was where you’d be?
“If you had said back in the day that I would have 4 venues, 350 staff and would be feeding 10,000 people per week, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Well, clearly he and the team have got the right ingredients going on!
And what about food critics…
“They are part of the community. Lots will say an unnecessary evil…”
Here he sighed and smiled before continuing.
“Wouldn’t it be good if we could all write our own reviews! Sometimes we have to just take the rough with the smooth and improve on the bad!”
“I’ve been thinking about this so much… I guess I’m blessed in doing what I love. If I ever hated it, I would get out of it.”
“…So I guess it’s being honest with yourself.”
Andrew McConnell—you are one of life’s winners!