My life in the culinary world started about 20 years ago with my then partner Francisco who is from the Canary Islands. He had an amazing mane of hair with long dreadlocks and his nickname was the Hairy Canary which I thought was funny and cute. One day I was looking for inspiration in my huge jazz and acid jazz collection and there was an album by Chick Corea called Eat Carrots and the title track was the Hairy Canary. It was a sign or fate - and so I named our first restaurant the ‘Hairy Canary’. We launched in 1995 from scratch, with an empty, derelict site and now we’re celebrating our 20th year.
We continued to pop out businesses like children! Permits, licenses, building, architects - some projects take enormous amounts of time and others come together quite quickly. There’s a massive investment involved, and looking back I can see that some of the more successful restaurateurs had a lot of backing from property developers and investment groups. But for us it was just Francisco and I against the world, and we created 12 businesses over the last 20 years.
I took the helm when our partnership split about three years ago, taking over three businesses on my own. I kept the Hairy Canary, renamed CH2 as Little Sista and took over a site in Chapel Street that we now call Yaya Chica. The other nine businesses have been sold. Some were just commercial spaces that we bought and sold but one of them was very dear to me and that was the very first certified organic restaurant in the southern hemisphere known as Zucchini - opening 15 years ago in Flinders Lane. It was a time when no one really understood organics – it wasn’t main stream. I had gone through a bit of a cancer scare myself and we travelled quite a bit and spent time in New York and London, and New York had this flourishing organics movement and it was something that was very close to me. We had a fantastic friend and wonderful chef Simon Beaton who came on board and everything we did was thoroughly researched. It was quoted as being ahead of its time, but most people thought organic meant hessian-wearing, hippy vegetarian. What we wanted to do was offer delicious food that was sustainable, organic and chemical free – the produce was expensive but worth it. We ran the business for about three years until the partnership with the chef split and then we rebirthed it as ‘Summer Summer’ with two of my best friends from Sydney, creating a hawker-style menu. ‘Summer Summer’ operated for a few years before we got a buy-out offer that was too good to refuse. It was the ideal time to let it go as I had just given birth to my first son Cooper, and it was time to simplify. We still had ‘Tiger Bar’ in Elwood, a patisserie in Doncaster, the Canary Club and a ski lodge in Mt Hotham.
They just come everywhere with me whenever possible and they’re my guinea pigs. I cook for them and play around with what they enjoy, and they have always been a part of everything I do. You always have to juggle, but every parent does that anyway whether they have their own businesses or not.
As a single mother, I try and structure my week so that I can spend as much time as possible with my boys (Cooper, 12 and Jai 9), and I make sure I am organised for their weekly routine. I have a wonderful nanny who takes care of them on the days I have to work late, picking them up from school, taking them to their sporting commitments and looking after them until I get home. I don’t need much sleep which is a blessing, because every morning we all have to get up and get going with the daily routine.
I love to challenge myself, doing the best that I can and interpreting my ideas , my service style and the way I like to show food. I want to my restaurants to feel like a homely affair. I want to bring my mother’s and my grandmother’s kitchen to my guests. The food on the menus has always been designed to be a shared meal, inspired by produce and freshness - light, zesty, zingy and crispy. I love texture in food that isn’t fussy – a hybrid between restaurant quality and well-sourced produce with a homely, comfortable cafe feel. I don’t like things that are overly fussy but I do love produce that is different, locally grown and seasonal.
My background was in advertising and design, so I understand how important it is to know your product and understand your USP (unique selling point). I have always done our advertising, marketing, promotions and PR in house. I currently have around 30 staff over the three venues. The infrastructure is made up of my casual staff, a wonderful part-time bookkeeper, a beautiful personal assistant and an accountant who is a delight, but who is forever chasing me to lodge paperwork. I’m paperwork phobic!
I can come across as easy going but I spend a huge amount of time fastidiously planning things out and teeing things up. Anyone who knows me knows I am constantly running late because I try and squeeze so many things into a day. I might not get everything done that’s on my list, but I still manage to achieve a lot. Maybe I’m too ambitious and maybe it’s too much but I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way. I always set the bar really high and I love challenging myself. I run at 100 miles an hour all the time, it’s just the way I am.
The Hairy Group of restaurants blends friendly service, a warm atmosphere and a fresh and unique shared-plate menu with fabulous coffee, cocktails and wine.
212 Collins Street, Melbourne.
Tel: 9654 2471
240 Little Collins Street, Melbourne
34 Chapel Street, Windsor
Copy: Melanie Quirk Photography: SomedaySomehowStudios
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