Seven years ago, on September 21, Emerson Rodriguez opened a restaurant with just enough cash to keep it afloat for three months.
Emerson’s Cafe and Restaurant at Adina Vineyard on Lovedale Road, Lovedale, is still going strong today.
Its success is a testament to the talented chef’s work ethic and commitment. Rodriguez is “hands on” and chooses to spend most of his time in the kitchen. If he has a day off you’re likely to find him on a boat out at sea or making pottery to use in the restaurant.
He still pinches himself sometimes.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would own a restaurant that is still going strong after seven years, let alone own a restaurant,” he tells Weekender.
“I am very proud, too, because the average life expectancy of a restaurant these days is six to 12 months. When I opened Emerson’s I only had enough money for three months and I thought I’d give it a go and if that didn’t work out I’d start all over again.
“You have to be committed to it. I’ve been cooking for 22 years and I really love what I’m doing and have never looked back.”
Rodriguez attended Francis Greenway High School at Beresfield and completed his apprenticeship at a seafood restaurant at Broadmeadow. He worked for Peppers Group for six years and was executive chef at Peppers Guest House, Peppers Convent and Hope Estate Winery.
“I always put in the long hours and always treated any workplace that I was at as my own business,” he explains. “I think that’s why it was an easy transition for me to go from working for someone else to opening my own restaurant.
“To tell you the truth it doesn’t feel like I own a restaurant because I’ve gone from working flat out to working flat out. I was working 80 to 90 hours a week already, and three or four weeks in a row without a day off, so I thought I might as well do it for myself.”
Rodriguez had a few boxes to tick before opening his restaurant. For starters, it had to be in the Hunter Valley, not Newcastle.
“I had spent a lot of time in the Valley and knew how it worked with the tourist traffic. In Newcastle you’re relying more on locals,” he explains.
“There was less competition, too. At the time there would have been just 60 restaurants in the Valley.”
Consistency was another factor. “I wanted to make sure everything I did was consistent, from the food to the service. It’s the key to having a successful restaurant,” he says.
“As an executive chef at hotels I learned about percentages and making sure you stick to a monthly target and budget. Tuesday is when I make orders, pay suppliers and plan ahead. You need to keep on top of it all, it doesn’t stop.”
He reckons Emerson’s is on track to being the restaurant he had always dreamed about but then adds: “Food-wise, though, I am still learning and evolving”.
That may be the case but his food has been praised by Herald critics for its attention to detail, clever handling of, and respect for, ingredients and its generous serves.
Rodriguez knows his customers and it shows.
“Eighty-five per cent of our diners are from Sydney and for them, an eight-course degustation dinner for $105 is very reasonable,” he says.
“Lunch is very different. Diners are wine tasting and they want something quick.”
Rodriguez describes his dinner menu as “modern and contemporary” and his lunch menu as “a bit more bistro and modern Australian”. His new lunch menu is surprisingly reasonable in price for food of this calibre – it includes a five-course banquet menu for $65 per person ($85 with wine).
Breakfasts do a roaring trade on Saturdays and Sunday, 8am to 11am. “People tend to sleep in on a Saturday morning so they’ll come in about 9am and then we’ve got about an hour-and-a-half until lunch. With 70 to 90 people for breakfast, it gets a bit crazy.”
Comraderie among fellow Hunter Valley chefs is strong and Rodriguez counts Robert Molines, Troy Rhoades-Brown, Frank Fawkner and Andy Wright as close friends and inspirations.
“We are all doing the same thing and we recommend each other to diners. It’s different from Sydney in that regard,” he says.
“If you look at Restaurant Mason, Chris Thornton is the chef and owner. He’s there all the time. In the Valley we’re all owners. It’s not like we’ll open a restaurant and then get someone else to run it. In that case you’re not invested in it.
“Troy, even Robert – he’s 65 years old and he still lives in the kitchen. Frank’s the same, too. We’re all 110 per cent in there. We know what’s going on in the restaurant, we know how the service is going. It’s not a hobby.”
Rodriguez has trained several rising chefs – Garreth Robbs, for instance, was his apprentice for four years.
“It’s really hard to find good chefs these days. I get a lot of kids coming from school and they see these cooking shows on television and look, they’re good in that they’ve promoted the industry, but the kids just don’t understand the pressure of working in a kitchen.
“I ask them to come along and have a look before making a decision, to see if they like the environment and the people.
“One time this kid was bothering me for four weeks’ straight, ringing me up every day and telling me he wanted to be a chef. So I put him on, it was a Friday night and right in the middle of service he went missing. We were flat out, too. We never saw him again.”
BEYOND THE KITCHEN
In an attempt to achieve some semblance of a work-life balance, Rodriguez has been making his own pottery. He’s good at it, too. Diners have actually stolen his cups.
To tell you the truth it doesn’t feel like I own a restaurant because I’ve gone from working flat out to working flat out.Emerson Rodriguez
His other hobby is fishing, which he doesn’t get to do often enough for his liking.
“I get out once or twice every three months with a mate who works in the coal mines. I really enjoy it. I catch the fish and give them away to family and friends.
“I don’t bring them back to the restaurant. Fishing is for me.”