It’s 9am on weekday at Grossi Florentino, the refinement of the Mural Room is a serene counterpoint to the madness of the morning rush outside. Four sharply dressed individuals are having espresso and pastries. They look like they’re about to rush off to their careers as corporate high flyers – HR managers or bankers, perhaps – but the reality is far more interesting.
Carlo Grossi, Edouard Reymond, Larissa Wolf-Tasker and Jason Lui are the members of an exclusive club. They’re the next generation of Melbourne (and Victoria’s) great restaurant families. They’re also long-time friends and confidants who live and breathe the industry, sharing its highs and lows with each other – and with The Weekly Review’s food edition.
First, let’s debunk a myth. They’re in competition but they’re not competitors. Not on your life. “It’s good to have a bunch of people who understand the business,” says Grossi, 29, maitre d’ at Florentino, whose chef father Guy is the immediately recognisable figurehead of an Italian empire that stretches across that august institution’s lofty heights to the recently opened laneway bar Arlechin. “We get together; we swap war stories. The four of us do have different backgrounds but it’s definitely something [that means] you end up with a lot in common. It’s about having a shoulder to cry on, a source of advice.”
It’s not an easy business, as any eavesdropper can tell with the chat about payroll tax and wage costs, power prices, superannuation and the perennial staff shortage. They know the glamour is veneer-thin and behind it lies long hours, uncertain profits and sheer hard slog. All four had in fact envisaged other futures but found themselves being sucked into the hospitality vortex. So why did they choose to join the family firm?
“It’s literally all I’ve ever known,” says Wolf-Tasker, 36, who was four when her parents, Alla and Allan, opened Lake House on the shores of Lake Daylesford, which has since grown into a restaurant and accommodation regional hot spot. “I grew up sitting in the corner playing this new game called peeling the carrots. It wasn’t a hardship – it’s what you did to be around your family, doing fun stuff in the kitchen.”
Wolf-Tasker, brand manager at Lake House with responsibility for 120 staff, remembers finishing year 12 and having industry doyen Ronnie Di Stasio ask if she was going to follow in her parents’ footsteps. “I said ‘no way, I am going to be a marine biologist’,” she recalls. “His response was, ‘no you won’t. You’ll go into restaurants; of course you will’.”
For Lui, 40, the unflappable maitre d’ at Flower Drum and a man apparently born in a three-piece suit, it was the necessity of being babysat as a young child that saw him spend his time outside of school folding napkins, “being paid in mints and cashews”.
His was heading down the corporate path, studying marketing and finance at university, until his father, Flower Drum executive chef and co-owner Anthony Lui, hauled him onto the floor.
“Dad said, ‘well, you’re not working yet, so get in here’. One shift a week turned into two, then three, and here I am.”
The cooking of Lui the elder is a masterclass in why Cantonese food is arguably the world’s finest, but it’s his son – the winner of The Age Good Food Guide’s award for service – who has brought the 30-plus-year-old institution into the modern dining age. Similarly, Edouard Reymond, 33, son of legendary chef Jacques Reymond, has found his flair on the restaurant floor rather than the kitchen.
The co-owner of South Yarra’s Bistro Gitan and Prahran’s L’Hotel Gitan with his brother Antoine (sister Nathalie does the books; other sister Joanna runs a PR agency specialising in – you guessed it – restaurants) worked in his father’s eponymous restaurant throughout university but graduated in horticulture and was working in that field before a trip at age 21 changed his perspective. “I wasn’t at all interested in restaurants even though I’d grown up in them; then, on this trip, all I could think about was getting home and opening my own,” he says. “It really could be in the blood; you fall into it.”
The take-home message from all four is quite simple: resistance is futile.
You’d love to be a fly on the wall at their epic catch-up lunches held a few times a year. Long and boozy affairs, they usually choose neutral ground (the last time it was a moveable feast: Stokehouse followed by France-Soir) where the problems of the business are discussed over many bottles of wine. They’re emblematic of a town in which restaurants have transcended the functional act of feeding people to become a form of entertainment. They’re tacticians, accountants and strategists and as well as consummate charm-pots. And while it’s telling that they didn’t become chefs (“there’s only room for one chef in the family!” says Wolf-Tasker), they’ve spent a lifetime internalising the rigours and rituals of the restaurant game.
Grossi toyed with the idea of going into politics but conceded his fate early on. “It’s because of the depth of experience, you tend to be more agile in the business,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean you’re immune from working 14 days straight. It’s a job with high-highs and low-lows but, at the end of the day, it’s a privilege to serve other people.”
They all embrace the growing dynastic nature of restaurants in Australia. “There are real dynasties in Europe,” says Wolf-Tasker, who goes by the social media handle Little Wolf. “There’s just a small handful of them in Australia but it’s growing.”
Are they planning for family-business succession with their own future children? Reymond, who recently became a father for the first time a few weeks ago with the arrival of baby Claudia, speaks for the group when he says, “if it’s what they want to do, you have to support that.”
Then they scatter to their respective corners of the restaurant globe. It’s 11am and time to get ready for another lunch service.
“I would have laughed if you told me where I’d wind up when I was a teenager,” says Reymond, “but it’s just a happy place to be.”