IN 2009, during the global financial crisis, 24-year-old chef Troy Rhoades-Brown and wife Megan made the bold decision to open their own fine-dining establishment, Pokolbin’s Muse Restaurant.
Despite having few savings, no financial backer and limited business, the couple were buoyed by a passion for food.
The chef’s experience was also in their favour: he worked in the Hunter Valley for acclaimed chef Robert Molines before going on to win the prestigious Brett Graham Award in 2005, which took him to the kitchens of Europe, before returning to the Hunter as head chef at Robert’s Restaurant.
The couple’s perseverance paid off and, five years later, Muse Restaurant has earned coveted chefs’ hats in TheSydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide for four years running, while sister establishment Muse Kitchen has also earned a hat for the past two years.
This week Rhoades-Brown shares his journey with Good Taste – in his own words.
"My wife and I had a dream of opening a regional fine dining restaurant in the middle of the global financial crisis with little savings and no financial backer. That might seem a little far-fetched to most, but with limited business knowledge and an abundance of passion and youth on our side, we jumped in.
"We were an emotional cocktail of passion, stress, fear and drive, which made the first 18 months seem like one big weekend bender. It was the most stressful time of our lives. We were trying to lead, motivate and inspire a new team; pay suppliers and wages every week; and push forward with the food. We implemented procedures and focused on creating our own style, while making unforseen business mistakes. We were smashed with breakdowns, taxes and a quiet restaurant.
"In hindsight, we probably weren't ready to open such a big operation at the tender age of 24, but I believe it was the smile on our faces and our understanding of the value of hospitality that pulled us out the other end.
"Some people's view of a successful restaurant is clouded. Success in our industry shouldn't be judged by the biggest net profit percentage - which may only mean you have created an unsustainable business with a questionable future, unhappy staff and poor values. The secret lies within the bones of the restaurant. It starts at the top. We must be passionate, humble, hard and nurturing. This balance must be contagious, from your senior staff to your apprentices. This will help ensure the progression and longevity of your restaurant.
"Our definition of a successful restaurant is paying suppliers and staff correctly, maintaining a profitable, busy restaurant with happy customers, and having enough time to squeeze family and a little lifestyle into the mix.
"Along with our work ethic, our commitment to training and retaining quality front-of-house staff has been instrumental to Muse's succuss. Front-of-house positions are often passed off as intermission jobs on the road to bigger and better things. This couldn't be further from the truth. The skill set required of a section waiter at Muse is far more demanding of knowledge than other potential career paths which carry a higher social status.
"The challenge restaurant wait staff face at every service is a mixed bag of mystery diners in the room. Each has different needs, palates, knowledge, expectations and dietary requirements. We rely on the experience and intuition of our wait staff to tailor a unique experience for every customer, and make them feel special. This skill alone is not easily acquired.
"In the kitchen, we focus on serving food that is seasonal and approachable, but we still make sure our personality is on the plate. Just before opening Muse Restaurant in 2009, I emailed Brett Graham [noted Novocastrian chef at the helm of Michelin two-star London restaurant The Ledbury] to ask for some advice. He told me, "Always maintain common flavours and cook for your customers", which a lot of young chefs can forget. Be creative and unique with your food, but always maintain an approachable tone that resonates with your clientele.
"Focusing on running a seasonal menu is fantastic for so many reasons. The produce is not only at its best, but is often cheaper. You find yourself being so much more in touch with the food. Anticipating the fig and tomato season, and always trying to serve and pair these ingredients better than you did the year before, promotes natural progression.
"Being a regional restaurant, naturally we try and source as much as possible locally, although this is subject to conditions. Just because it is local doesn't mean it is a superior product. We need something that is consistent, can meet supply and demand, and above all it must be delicious. If this means roaming a little further, then we will. Dairy, cheese, game, olive oil, honeycomb, leafy greens, shoots and edible flowers all come from the Hunter Valley. We look a little further to Armidale and Orange for lamb and venison.
"Despite the hard work and stress over the past five years of being a chef/owner, the most rewarding part remains the same. I am a chef that has the opportunity to serve the food I love and deliver it to guests in our ideal dining experience."