Mid-week dinner, and chef Shannon Bennett is in his famed restaurant, Vue de monde. No surprises there, but Bennett’s not in the kitchen, manning the pans.
The wunderkind of Melbourne’s fine dining scene is sitting alone in the opulent dining room, systematically ordering and eating his way through the menu. If other diners spot the tousle-haired chef chewing busily at a back table, they don’t react.
“I was worried about the sweetness in some of the food,” Bennett said, explaining his shift from chef to customer. “I tried to hide on the chef’s table so I didn’t distract the other guests.”
For the record, no problem was discovered with the sweetness in the food. But it’s typical of Bennett’s hands-on approach to put himself in the shoes of his guests.
The 35-year-old presides over an empire that employs 240 people – or team members, as he calls them. He’s in the middle of a $7.5 million project to relocate his restaurant to a super-sexy location on the 55th floor of the Rialto Tower. He’s got two new cookbooks and his partner, gorgeous actor Madeleine West, gave birth to their third child, Xascha, eight months ago.
He opened a new café in Melbourne’s international airport terminal in December, and runs two cafés, one on St Kilda Road and another at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Bulleen.
And along with mate Adam Garrisson, he’s planning to spend $20 million restoring the faded 1980s icon the Burnham Beeches, in the Dandenongs, to a six-star hotel and restaurant.
But despite having so much on his proverbial plate, he’s optimistic and cheerful as he chats to The Weekly Review, citing modern technology, super-efficient staff and forgone sleep as the reason he can operate so consistently at such a high level.
“It all just comes together really,” he said.
And he still makes sure he’s cooking at Vue de monde at least three nights a week, never forgetting where it all began.
The Shannon Bennett story is one of Melbourne’s favourites – the precocious culinary talent, whose first job was as a teenager at McDonald’s, and who opened a revolutionary restaurant in Carlton when he was just 24. Fast-forward 11 years and he’s embarked on a hugely ambitious expansion plan, not least being the vision for the Burnham Beeches Estate.
“It’s amazing up there,” Bennett said, full of enthusiasm for a once-great hotel, which was at its peak when he was still a star home economics student at Essendon Grammar.
Located on Sherbrooke Forest Road in Ferny Creek, the hotel was first built as a luxury home for Aspro-brand millionaire Alfred Nicholas in the 1930s. It was later developed into a hotel and resort, reaching the peak of its popularity in the ’80s when wealthy guests made the journey up into the Dandenongs to enjoy its gorgeous art-deco lines and tranquil gardens. But in 1993 it was put in mothballs and despite several attempts to remake it, it has never got off the ground. Garrisson and Bennett bought it a few months ago – the price has not been revealed but is thought to be several million dollars. They plan to spend another $20 million over the next five years to restore the 57-room hotel to six-star standard and establish a fine-dining restaurant.
Garrisson, a former owner of Melbourne’s grand old dame The Windsor and current co-owner of charity restaurant Fifteen with celebrity chef Tobie Puttock, is driving the Burnham Beeches redevelopment.
“Adam approached me originally and said let’s put a tender in,” Bennett said.
The pair wanted to develop the hotel, and take over the 23-hectare gardens, which have been maintained despite the building being put on ice 18 years ago.
“The same caretaker’s been there for 22 years, it’s quite amazing really,” Bennett said. “Adam said let’s restore it to its former glory. The hotel’s been mothballed, it’s just a concrete shell. It has 11 buildings including the hotel and 57 acres and it will cost at least $20 million to bring it back up to scratch.”
Bennett said he’d had no difficulties convincing West, or his bankers, to support the project.
“I took Madeleine and Simon the banker up there with some lunchboxes – but only after I knew we’d won the tender,” he said.
He was well aware that other, successful operators had tried to make a go of the Burnham Beeches before.
“There’s been an amazing list of people who have had the same vision we had and not been able to follow through with it for a variety of reasons,” he said.
Bennett plans to make the most of the gardens at Burnham Beeches, and has already planted a truffle farm, but won’t get to harvest for another seven years. He’s itching to build a wood-fired bread oven on the estate to supply his entire business operation, and wants an interactive garden similar to the one at Heide. But before all that, he has to pull off his most daring move yet. Can he transport the success of Vue de monde, with his trademark radical interpretations of modern French cuisine, out of the lovely Normanby Chambers in Little Collins Street, where it’s been luring well-heeled guests for six years, to a new, larger venue atop a tower?
And what of the theory that restaurants with views don’t know how to produce fine food?
Bennett wants to dispel what he says is a myth about scenically located restaurants. “It’s always been an ambition of mine to have Vue with a view,” he said. “They say restaurants with a view or that rotate are no good. I want to prove that wrong.”
The current Café Vue, next door to the up-market Bistro Vue, will expand into the space left behind when Vue moves to the Rialto in early June. The landmark Rialto Towers are jointly owned by Melbourne’s legendary construction family, the Grollos, and a company called St Martins, which is owned by the Kuwaiti government, which in turn is closely linked to the Kuwaiti royal family.
Bennett first got to know the Grollo family when they began dining in his restaurant: he liked them and admired their vision for Melbourne. So when Rino and Lorenz Grollo started badgering him to move Vue de monde to the Rialto’s 55th floor, it was hard to say no. The Grollos have also lured two other famous Melbourne food icons, Guy Grossi and Raymond Capaldi, into the ground floor as part of their massive makeover of the Rialto, which opened in 1986 and had been showing its age.
“They’ve been trying to convince me for a while now,” Bennett said. “I know the Grollo family really well by serving them and I know how supportive they are. That’s part of the reason why I decided to do it.”
The Rialto is funding about half of the cost of the fit-out, and Bennett is funding the rest. He said he was “trying to limit” the cost of the fit-out to $7.5 million. That’s right, a staggering $7.5 million spent transforming the 1000 square-metre observation deck into a cutting-edge restaurant and dining experience with no linen drapery, a fully-open kitchen, and not a piece of stainless steel in sight. The hit to Bennett’s hip pocket will be about $4.6 million.
Asked if that kind of financial commitment kept him awake at night, Bennett laughed, and said: “It gives me a newly refound energy.
“I’ve got the full support of Mrs Madeleine,” he said cheerfully. “And my long-term bankers have been fantastic. Actually Simon and Rob, my bankers, are real foodies; they’re very supportive. And we put up the house for remortgage.”
Bennett said the base work at the Rialto was now under way, high above the city streets, where the demolished materials were being taken out one load at a time through the goods lift that services the 55th floor.
“It’s taken longer than we thought it might mainly because there’s only one goods lift up there,” he said. “We’re trying not to upset our future customers, the 6000 occupants who are already in the building.”
The new Vue with a view will seat only 48 people in the main dining room, and Bennett wants to treat them to a top-notch dining experience. He’s also opening a bar for the first time, and four chef’s tables, as well as a function room that can cater for up to 140 people. The restaurant will be operated on sustainable principles – and that includes being profitable – with plans being explored to power the restaurant using trigeneration plants in the Rialto’s basement. They’ll also use electrolysed water (which provides hospital-grade sanitation without using chemicals) and a state-of-the-art recording system for monitoring food safety.
Recycled materials are being used where possible, and local suppliers and manufacturers have been favoured. The kitchen will be twice the size of the one at Vue’s current site.
“The kitchen will be completely open and I don’t want any stainless steel in the kitchen at all,” Bennett said.
“Something we’ve started doing is kitchen tours, so the guests can meet the chefs after their meal.
“We’re going to be using cold kitchen technology so there’ll be no naked gas flames in the kitchen.”
There’ll be no roaring exhaust fans either, just high-tech fans that will pinpoint heat and steam and discreetly whirr them away through the ceiling. The Rialto is undergoing a $100 million renovation to make it more environmentally sustainable and more attractive. The Grollos have also expressed a desire to rejuvenate the western side of the city, and luring names such as Bennett, Grossi and Capaldi are all part of that.
Bennett is enthusiastic about helping to revitalise the area around King Street, currently known for its strip bars, street violence, and not much else.
“Without being a vigilante about it, I’m keen to see Melbourne as a city that is as liveable as possible,” he said.
“It needs to be safe, enjoyable and comfortable for the tenants.
“I ran into the chairman of Lonely Planet (Tony Wheeler) in the street the other day and he told me that the Rialto is to Melbourne what Ayers Rock is to Alice Springs. It’s in every picture; it’s part of the landscape.
“We will fix up that area. We’re providing for the people of the Rialto itself.”
Away from his business, Bennett says life is just as exhilarating. Baby girl Xascha born eight months ago, joins 2½-year-old brother Hendrix and 5-year-old daughter Phoenix in making for a noisy dinnertime at the Bennett/West household in North Melbourne. (Xascha, pronounced “Sarsha” is a Russian name the pair liked).
“It’s great fun. I get all the good bits with the kids,” Bennett said of fatherhood. “They think daddy’s worth his weight in gold because I get to play with them and take them to the park and do the fun stuff.”
Bennett praised West, saying she did the heavy lifting in the parenting stakes. “It’s hats off to Madeleine, she’s amazing,” he said, adding it might be time to formalise their seven-year-old partnership with a wedding. “I’ve always promised Madeleine we’d get around to it.”
In December, Bennett opened his fourth Café Vue in Melbourne Airport’s renovated international terminal. That quirky idea arose because he wanted to offer a fresh, healthy, delicious alternative to the refrigerated egg sandwiches, reheated pizza slices and nuts offered to passengers in the terminal and on board planes.
“My brother’s a Virgin Airlines pilot and he tells me what he eats. I’m like ‘You’re given lasagne at 10am? That’s not healthy’,” he said.
There is one arm of the Bennett empire that may have to be wound back, and that’s the restaurant Bennett runs for Sultan Qaboos, the ruler of Oman, in the swish Al Bustan Palace Hotel in Oman’s capital, Muscat. Vue by Shannon Bennett is the hotel’s flagship restaurant, but Bennett thinks he will wind down his commitment and focus of continuing to mentor and train young Omani chefs and hospitality staff.
“The contract at the Al Bustan is due for renewal soon and we probably won’t renew,” he said. “It’s a real killer on the family and on me. I love it there and we get along brilliantly, but I would nearly have to semi-live in Muscat.”
There are two new books taking readers on culinary adventures throughout regional France and the streets of New York. The books are similar to Shannon Bennett’s Paris: A Personal Guide to the City’s Best.
“New York is a place where you can find such incredible, amazing food but you’d never know where to find it. You need someone to show you,” he said.
“That is out now through Melbourne University Press. And in the same format is one on the whole of France. I got to go back through my old notes in the real country areas, it was fantastic.”
With all this ahead of him, Bennett has just one more goal. “I’m trying to work out how to get Sundays off,” he said.
That’s a goal he’s unlikely to reach any time soon.
» SHANNON BENNETT’S NEW YORK
by Shannon Bennett $39.95 (MUP)
Vue de monde Bistro Vue and Café Vue, Little Collins Street
Café Vue 401 St Kilda Road.
Café Vue Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen
Café Vue Melbourne International Airport
Vue by Shannon Bennett Al Bustan Palace Hotel, Muscat, Oman
Burnham Beeches Estate Ferny Creek