Prior to being the restaurant manager and head sommelier at Arras, you were at Quay. What were some standout memories from your time there?
Choosing wine for U2; chasing Russian President Putin’s minders for an outstanding account of $17000 (which they paid in cash); having to justify the decor to guests – in one instance, a couple was so offended by the carpet that they refused to walk in. However, the highlight would have to be innocently turning a corner backstage at a Myer fashion show that was being held in the function room and being confronted with Jennifer Hawkins wearing only a smile.
The Arras menu leaves much to the imagination: past examples include “A Day At The Seaside”, “Ta, Jean”, “Life Gave Us Lemons And Limes And …” and “A Cinematic Souffle”. How hard is it to convey each mysteriously named dish to diners?
After many years, I feel I have a handle on taking complicated and extensive tasting notes and communicating the key elements in one or two sentences. What we do is take two-dimensional words on paper and build colour, taste and smell. Some guests get frustrated with our menu because we take control away from them – traditionally you receive a menu and you choose based on a list of items that sound appetising, however [chef] Adam [Humphrey]’s food is so layered and often conceptual that it requires verbal communication. The key is not to overload your descriptions and leave elements of surprise!
Have you had any memorable diner reactions?
You’re never going to please everyone every time! I remember one guest (who comes regularly now) pulling me aside at the end of his meal and telling me he had come on a recommendation from a friend who was a real foodie and that he was almost ready to walk out after being handed the menus because of the names of the dishes – he thought it was all a joke. I think we offer a different experience and even after three years most people are not fully prepared for the ride; most importantly, we have a lot of people smiling at the end and thanking us for the experience.
You maintain the wine list at Arras. How do you track down hard-to-source wines and how hard is it to keep “in the loop” and “well-researched” without taxing your liver too much?
My liver and I get along quite well nowadays, there have been times in the past where we weren’t on speaking terms. I am passionate about wine. You don’t need to drink a bottle to get a sense of what a wine is, just a mouthful will do which you generally spit out (not at the dinner table, of course). Tasting, reading and listening is the best way to find out what’s about, fortunately winemakers and wine reps usually come to me. It’s no different to any other profession, you have to stay on top of the subject – responsibly!
At the 2011 Good Food Awards, you were (deservedly!) honoured with the Silver Service Award. I think in your speech you mentioned that you’d recently had a baby. Was it a surprise to have won, and how tricky is to juggle restaurant life with everything else?
The award was a huge surprise. There is almost no avenue for recognition for front of house, so to receive this award is very humbling. There is only a very small amount of people who have received this honour, so it makes me think I’m doing something right. I have two beautiful boys Kai and Jethro, I do my best to balance work and home life as many fathers do; when I’m with my boys I’m with them 100 per cent, but it still bothers me that I’m only home two nights a week to put them to bed.
When you go out to dine, are you hyper-aware of service or do you like to “switch off”?
I am pretty relaxed when I dine out. I think initially when I sit down, I quickly take in the environment, meaning I look at how many staff members are on, are they in jeans or pants, the condition of the menus presented, small things that give me a picture of the level of service I should expect, then I just enjoy myself. My wife, on the other hand, has never worked in or near a restaurant in her entire life, but she loves analysing all the little things – she becomes the hyper-aware one!
And what is service like at home?
I only have two nights a week to eat with my wife and kids, so meal times are very important to me. I enjoy making dinner and exposing new foods and flavours to my boys.
Arras is one of my favourite restaurants in Sydney – it turns a simple mealtime into picturebook magic. Your table ends up filled with dishes that are hugely fun and stunning; the all-you-can-eat petits fours plate feels like a cash-in of all your childhood wishes and the service, headed by Alon, is brilliant. After relocating from Walsh Bay to the city, the latest incarnation of the restaurant opens today. I personally can not wait to try the new menu and see what the redesigned space is like.
Arras, 204 Clarence Street, Sydney NSW (02) 9283 1922, www.restaurant-arras.com.au
This interview originally appeared in my food zine, sadly now sold out. Photos courtesy of the restaurant