By Peter Barrett
It’s Tuesday, and an hour before meeting up with restaurateur Chris Lucas for lunch at one of his nine venues, Lillian Brasserie, I send a text reminding him that The Age insists on picking up the tab. “No issue,” he fires back, “we need the income lol [laughing crying emoji].”
It’s funny because it’s the first time anyone has ever bought him lunch at his own restaurant, but it’s also on point for Lucas, a highly ambitious operator who is rumoured to have spent $15 million on what he later calls “probably the most significant [food & beverage] development of its time in Australian history”, his three-restaurant complex at 80 Collins Street.
The “we” in his response could easily mean the hospitality sector at large, too. Lucas has recently been a strident critic in the media of Victorian government lockdowns and their effect on small business.
When Lucas arrives he is looking smart but casual in his signature navy sports jacket and T-shirt. The diners opposite greet him warmly as he sits down at our elegant brown leather booth. Soon after, Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago drops by to say hello, leaving us both with a (delicious) 2002 Cellar Reserve Barossa Valley Grenache sample to remember him by.
Lucas takes interruptions like these in his stride. The restaurant floor may not be his office, but clearly it’s his stage. He’s had a hand in pretty much every design detail surrounding us, from the delicate, Austrian hand-blown glassware to the handmade-in-Melbourne timber table we’re about to eat lunch from.
“I’m a restaurateur that has his fingers in all the pies literally, excuse the pun,” he says. “There’s not a dish that doesn’t go on my menus that I don’t approve or taste … sometimes I write the menus myself.” On that note, I take his advice and settle on a couple of char grilled king prawns followed by the King George whiting. Lucas opts for kingfish and a Nicoise salad for mains.
While Lucas may still be best known for his 2011 game-changing, no-bookings Thai triumph in Flinders Lane, Chin Chin, he has steadily been opening venues ever since — think Baby, Hawker Hall, Kisume and Chin Chin (Sydney). Lillian, where we meet today, is one of four restaurants Lucas opened during the pandemic. If you haven’t heard of it, say the critics, it’s because it’s been overshadowed by its much-hyped sibling, Society.
Widely considered a coup for Melbourne, in 2018 Lucas was able to lure hospitality power couple Martin Benn (chef) and Vicki Wild (front of house) to leave Sydney and collaborate with him on this ambitious and luxurious fine dining restaurant. Lockdowns delayed Society’s opening by a year and, when it finally did open its doors in 2021, another had them shut within days. Benn and Wild walked away from the project around the same time and have not said much publicly about why.
“The lockdowns had an effect on them as well,” says Lucas. “It was traumatic, and nothing was normalised. I don’t hold anyone to account. People did what they had to do.”
With 500 staff at 80 Collins Street (including Society, Lillian and buzzy downstairs Japanese grill Yakimono) and nearly 1500 more at his other venues (Flinders Lane steakhouse Grill Americano opened in March), Lucas says over the past two pandemic years he often felt like the captain of struggling ship. He organised daily free meals for staff who needed them, employed two psychologists and paid the equivalent of JobKeeper to 120 foreign workers who didn’t qualify for government support.
“I felt a deep sense of obligation to people and that’s why under no circumstances could I accept losing any staff. Yes, we pivoted to takeaway, but we also, I think, went from being a restaurant business [to] sort of like a … multifaceted psychologist/social services business. Sixty per cent of the time we were dealing with human issues.”
On Melbourne hospitality’s nadir — a lockdown called just before Valentine’s Day in 2021 — Lucas says the local industry threw out $30 million in food. The stakes were high personally (the pandemic has cost him “millions”, he says) and for the wider industry, which explains why he appointed himself unofficial spokesperson for hospitality and small business in the media.
Isn’t there a danger, though, given the political divisions swirling around at the time, that some potential customers might have been left with a bad taste in their mouth?
“I think in life you’ve got to believe sometimes in things, and you’ve got to take a stand,” he says. “And you’ve got to cop the criticism that comes with it. I was prepared to do that because I was witnessing firsthand the destruction of everything that I knew near and dear.”
Lucas caught the hospitality bug growing up in a hotel run by his Greek immigrant father Con in Geelong. But his dad’s death when Lucas was only 15 set him on a different path. Honouring his late father’s wishes he went to Monash University, graduating with a science degree and majoring in pharmacology.
You can tell that his love for science is never far away by the way his eyes light up talking about innovations in genomics. “We are literally in the throes of curing a lot of very major long-term diseases like Alzheimer’s, hopefully MND, certainly lots of different cancers,” he says, “through the mapping of the human genome.”
After uni, computer behemoth IBM snapped him up and he spent several years working in marketing and IT. He lived and worked a stint in Silicon Valley (Steve Jobs is an idol) and later made a fortune from a telecommunications start-up.
It wasn’t until his mid-40s, in 1995, that he returned to hospitality, opening up Number One Fitzroy Street in St Kilda. The Botanical in South Yarra was next, which he sold in 2007 for a reported $16 million. Many restaurants have followed, and another Melbourne venue is in the planning stages even as you read this.
It begs the question: why so many?
“When you’re a creative person, there’s no off switch,” he says. “You know, I don’t even understand the concept of retirement. My father died on the job. I don’t want to use the nasty word – Rupert Murdoch – but he’s 90 years of age and he’s still going. Bob Hawke was still going at 70 years of age … If you look in the creative sphere, for instance, Spielberg is 70-something and still making amazing movies.”
But given how slim restaurant margins already are, and how precarious the hospitality industry has shown itself to be, isn’t there a danger his creative drive will ultimately end in financial ruin?
“Risk is built into a restaurateur’s life,” says Lucas. “We probably take more risks in business than anyone else — with the exception of people in the movie or the theatre business.”
The theatre analogy is interesting. Lucas may be a savvy businessman but he delights in the effect a well-designed experience can have on a customer, as a director might seeing their film become a box-office smash. You also get the sense that Lucas enjoys the minor celebrity status that comes with being a cultural influencer. He rubs shoulders with a coterie of interesting, wealthy and powerful people every day.
Outside the restaurant world, Lucas has two hobbies: fishing (whiting and snapper in Port Phillip Bay) and reading (he has subscriptions to The New York Times and The Economist and is currently enjoying a book about Stephen A. Schwartzman, the CEO and co-founder of US investment giant Blackstone). He is a passionate wine collector (a 1961 Chateau Latour magnum “worth $30 or $40 grand” takes pride of place in his cellar) and later in the week he’ll be travelling to Burgundy and Bordeaux with his fiancee, Sarah Lew, to visit suppliers and take a much-needed rest from business.
As we wind up our chat, Lucas is upbeat about Melbourne’s future. The crowds are back at the footy, he’s excited about the recent announcement of a new contemporary art gallery and he’s confident the city’s CBD will thrive once more, if it can entice more people to live here.
“I love this city. Nothing excites Melburnians more than a new restaurant, and to be able to go out to four new restaurants – it’s inspiring, I hope, other people in the industry to rebuild, reopen and do new things.”
THE BILL, PLEASE
Lillian Brasserie, 80 Collins Street, Mebourne VIC 3000, (03) 8618 8900, open for lunch and dinner 12-10pm, seven days a week.
Source: Thanks smh.com