It’s a Friday night in 2009, and no one wants to come for dinner at Muse Restaurant. Granted, this new fine-dining addition to Hunter Valley Wine Country has only just opened, so no one really knows about it … yet. The recent Global Financial Crisis is not helping either, as its shady aftershocks have begun to ripple throughout the region. Right now, it’s affecting Megan Rhoades-Brown’s ambitions for her and her husband’s first foray into the volatile and often transient world of hospitality.
“The first three months we opened, Friday nights were completely empty,” says Megan Rhoades-Brown, co-owner and front of house general manager of Muse Restaurant, Pokolbin. “I remember standing up at the front of the restaurant and looking out through the glass doors, watching the cars drive by. I said to one of the girls, ‘I wonder where they’re going for dinner…’”
In the subsequent years, Muse Restaurant has unquestionably emerged as the Hunter Valley’s finest dining room, thanks to the combined culinary talents of Megan’s husband, chef Troy Rhoades-Brown, and the passion, enthusiasm and dedication that Megan has for hospitality.
“Fine dining is my passion. When you go to a restaurant, you want to feel looked after, to feel like you’re being cared for throughout the whole dining experience,” explains Megan. “There’s standards and procedures in fine dining, and an attention to detail that I absolutely love.”
Growing up in Cessnock, Megan’s exposure to fine dining wasn’t exactly prolific, which is not to say it didn’t exist. After finishing her HSC, Megan applied for a job at Robert’s Restaurant, owned by living legends, Robert and Sally Molines.
“I started working at Robert’s straight out of high school, where I took up a hospitality traineeship. It was 12-months full time,” explains Megan. “Robert and Sally scared the crap out of me, but I loved working there. They are so inspiring.”
Sally Molines recalls Rhoades-Brown was “always incredibly neat and efficient” and an enthusiastic learner.
“It was a bit of a revelation for us to have someone so dedicated to the job. It’s been wonderful to see her progress and achieve success in her own right,” she observes.
Like so many chefs in the Hunter Region, Robert and Sally Molines became the catalyst for a professional career in hospitality for Megan.
“I fell in love with hospitality and fine dining at Robert’s,” explains Megan. “I mean, I became obsessed by it, and decided that it was what I wanted to do for a career.
“I remember saying to my Dad that I was going to open my own restaurant one day,” she continues. “He said, ‘No, go to uni’, and, of course, I understood why he was telling me to go down that path, but I already knew that hospitality was what I wanted to do,” Megan says.
In order to realise her dream of opening her own restaurant one day, Megan knew she needed to learn all of the ins and outs of hospitality. She took the job as restaurant manager for Garth Ashford’s restaurant Lime, (now Talulah), in the Junction. It was there Megan learnt all she knows about operating a successful hospitality business.
“Garth Ashford is the best boss I’ve ever had,” says Megan. “He knew my goal to open my own restaurant and he invited me right into his business, right into the back of house. He opened his books and showed me how everything worked. He even had me sitting in on accountant meetings to really show me just how a restaurant is run.”
Garth recalls Megan knowing exactly what she wanted. “She committed herself, pushed, and really went over and above what was required,” he says. “I just tried to encourage her to always be herself, trust herself, and work from her soul.”
For that, she remains indebted: “I thought at Molines I knew how a restaurant was run, but in reality, I had no idea.”
Fine Dining is a Dying Art makes for a good headline, and may well be may true given the recent trend of convenience ordering just about any type of food, almost anywhere you like, with just the tap of an app. But where’s the pleasure in that?
“Fine dining is so rare these days,” says Megan. “For me, it’s all about the experience. It’s about impressing people with food and the skill of service but also meeting and exceeding their expectations.”
To achieve this, Megan remains committed to an uncompromising standard of excellence, even when it comes to coffee.
“The staff know that if they use the coffee machine then I do not want anything left sitting out, wipe it all down when you’re done. Sometimes they’ll be making me a coffee and they’ll catch me looking at the machine and they’ll say, ‘I know, I’m coming straight back!’,” Megan explains, laughing.
“I know I’m shocking sometimes but I’m a perfectionist. I can be OCD. But, in this industry, attention to detail is paramount.”
Megan understands that working in fine dining is not for everyone, especially with the type of “extreme” service procedures that Muse has. However, as she explains, fine dining is about aiming for the next level, both in the kitchen and out on the floor. This applies to staff as well. Megan believes investment in people is crucial to running a successful and sustainable business.
“They are an investment in our customer’s experience, which is itself an investment into the success of our business,” Megan says. “A few girls on the floor of the restaurant have been with us since we opened.”
In hospitality, long-term staff retention is typically the exception rather than the rule.
“Megan doesn’t cut corners, she pushes until it is right, always asking the question, ‘How can this be improved, how can we be better’,” Muse Restaurant sommelier, Stephane Pommier explains. “She surrounds herself with great people so dedicated to what they do, which, I think, is a testament to her passion and dedication to hospitality.”
In 2011, Megan and Troy opened Muse Kitchen, a sister dining space to Muse Restaurant; intended to be more relaxed and provincial while still maintaining that impeccable level of professionalism. It was a bold move, just two years after opening Muse Restaurant, but all was not well.
“I remember our accountant turning up at the door saying we needed to talk about when were we going to wrap this all up, because we were in trouble,” says Megan.
I know I’m shocking sometimes but I’m a perfectionist. I can be OCD. But, in this industry, attention to detail is paramount.Megan Rhoades-Brown
Muse Restaurant was both Megan and Troy’s first restaurant together. It was their first foray into the rigorously precise world of fine dining, which included the accompanying reviews from the pious food critics that could either make or break such a restaurant’s chance at success.
“Troy said, hold off… let’s just hold off and just see if we get a hat. I think things will turn around for us if we can just get into the guide with a hat, and then our name will get out there a little bit,” says Megan.
A few months later in 2011, an email invitation to attend the awards for the Good Food Guide arrived for Megan and Troy while the couple were taking a short skiing holiday.
“I could see Troy jumping up and down on the bottom of the hill like a lunatic. He said we got an invite to the awards, so we knew that we’d finally got our first hat,” recalls Megan.
Muse Restaurant maintained its One Hat rating for four consecutive years. In 2015, it earnt its second hat, which it has kept for the last three years. Muse Kitchen earnt its first hat in 2013 and has held it ever since.
“We knew we had to hang on, because … I mean, what would we do otherwise? This is who we are, it’s what we do,” Megan reasons.
Beyond her formative traineeship, encouraging bosses, excellent staff and partnership with husband Troy, it is Megan Rhoades-Brown’s own intuition, energy and uncompromising belief in the virtues of the fine dining experience that has made her a woman of influence in the world of hospitality. Yet, it wasn’t that long ago when the week nights were still so quiet.
“People said we shouldn’t open a fine dining restaurant, especially around the time of the GFC,” says Megan. “But if you love something this much, you have to do it your way, because you can’t do it your way if you’re working for someone else.”
“Life’s too short to not do what you love.”