Michelle Garnaut & her culinary empire

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Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance

Australian born Michelle Garnaut is one of the most respected and recognised restaurateurs in Asia, and was described by Time magazine as “an industry celebrity” as well as “the pioneer of China’s fashionable-dining scene”. With over 30 years’ experience covering every facet of the service industry, from dishwashing to cooking, from waiting tables to bartending, from marketing to management, Michelle founded the M Restaurant Group in Hong Kong in 1989 to represent her vision of the all-inclusive dining experience. 

Advance recently spoke to Michelle alongside executive chefs Gary Martin and Hamish Pollitt about their collective experiences working in the hospitality industry in China. 

How do you think Australians are influencing the hospitality sector – restaurants, cafés and hotels – around the world?

Hamish Pollitt: Speaking from a China perspective, we are seeing a strong Australian influence across the sector, whether it’s Australian restaurateurs, café and bar owners or the hundreds working in senior management positions, helping to shape and guide the industry.

Michelle Garnaut: I think the main influence Australia has is its image as a “clean” country. It has a reputation for clean air, clean food and a healthy lifestyle – a quality that’s attractive to international countries. Australia is known to have excellent farming practices, so people trust its produce, which is a huge drawcard – particularly for Chinese consumers. 

Gary Martin: I’m based in Beijing where Australia is considered a safe haven – known for having an abundance of healthy food and that ethos is spreading around the world.

Do you think there is any advantage to being known as an Australian run or influenced restaurant?

MG: I think there is a general image of straightforwardness and honesty in conducting international business with Australians. Australia is considered a very open, multicultural society and many Chinese have relatives there – so feel comfortable and familiar with the country.

HP: A few years ago, Tourism Australia created a campaign that “invited the world to dinner”, which promoted the food and restaurant experience in Australia. It resonated well with the world, particularly here in China. It has been a positive thing to associate Australian run restaurants with quality food.

GM: I think that the advantage lies in Australia being a clean country - chemical factories haven’t caused excessive pollution, like some areas in China and there are fewer environmental concerns.

Australia is quite spoilt in terms of accessibility to agricultural resources and fresh produce. How does it compare to China?

HP: We spend a lot of time sourcing produce for our restaurants – it’s really important to find suppliers you can trust and those who use best production practices. China has definitely become better with generating their own produce over the past 10 years, but there is still suspicion in the market – so knowing where things are coming from in Australia is a really good selling point.

It also depends what is available within Australia – there is a massive market for new products in China, but the procedures for importing food are extremely cumbersome, so it takes a lot of patience, research and groundwork to bring the best products to the table. 

MG: China produces an enormous amount of food, but there is a deep mistrust of production methods, and as much of it comes from small local suppliers, it's difficult to control. There have been food safety scares in the past, making many people very sceptical, so it’s paramount to find suppliers we trust.

GM: I think it’s especially important to know where fruit and vegetables are coming from. In China, many are sold based on weight and as a result, farmers use growth hormones to make them bigger & heavier.

Is there anything Australia restaurateurs can learn from China or vice versa?

MG: If you decide to come to China to open a restaurant, you need to be very hands-on to do it. Cultural differences can present big challenges, but being open to other cultures is a good place to start.

HP: From an operational point of view, I think that there’s quite a lot of micromanaging going on over here – but not in a negative way. All our processes are very systematic, and that works for us in trying to deliver a consistent product.

Describe the clientele for the M restaurants. Is it more local or expat?

MG: I would say our clientele is fairly mixed. We now see more local visitors than expats, which is a good thing for the long term of course. After all the local market is the key to success. Luckily for us, we also have many local expats and a slew of business people and tourists. But that's not how it was when we opened in 1999 - the market has changed beyond recognition.

HP: Shanghai is a very international city, and as a result, the restaurant scene is quite interesting. We are fortunate to get a good cross-section of the community, whether they are living here, are on a business trip or visiting for a holiday. I have noticed quite an increase over the last few years of the domestic traveller, and it seems that we get quite a lot of customers from other parts of China.

What is the scope for growth of Australians working in hospitality in China? 

GM: There is actually a lot of consultancy work available over here with restaurants, hotel groups, video & cooking shows, food media etc. – and that offers many opportunities.

MG: There have been many newcomers to the industry in recent years and that has propelled the growth of the entire hospitality industry. When we opened M on the Bund in 1999 there weren’t even a few thousand restaurants in Shanghai – now there are over 180,000. That is a staggering amount of growth in 17 years. I don't know how many TV cooking programs there were in the late 90s, my guess would be under a dozen, now there are hundreds. General interest in food, health, diets, food fads, organics etc. has also grown exponentially. And press and social media have of course spread these ideas like wildfire.

HP: I think that it’s only as of quite recently that China has “come on the radar” for Australians regarding opportunities in the hospitality industry. Traditionally, working a couple of years in kitchens in the UK was the ‘rite of passage’ for young chefs, but I think now, people are starting to take note of established brands over here and feel more confident in wanting to be a part of that.

What is the most important aspect of developing a successful hospitality brand? 

MG: Market Research! Marketing is expensive, but also essential – so you need to know what you’re doing. People know the M restaurants; we have brand awareness because we’ve been around for a really long time. But that's not enough – consistency and quality is paramount for us and ultimately I think they're essential factors for all brands.

In terms of finding the right location and product – it’s all about putting hard work in, and being on the ground before you make decisions.

In terms of logistics, there are no backdoor channels with import and export.

GM: To do due diligence exercises. Expats come looking for opportunities and potential suppliers; however, if they only come for one week – it’s just not enough time to do research. You have to know the place yourself to see the opportunities… and of course, you need a very good business plan.

What’s the biggest misconception about working in hospitality? 

MG: That it’s always fun! It is fun – it can be great fun – but it’s also very hard work, and one needs to remain professional. It’s long hours, and is definitely not all glamorous (although the customer shouldn’t see that!). Conversely, hospitality can be very rewarding – you’re mostly dealing with people in happy situations. 

HP: I think a lot of people enter the industry from different places. Whether it’s been a job to get them through university or a job they didn’t think they would be doing for very long, there are considerable opportunities towards developing a diverse and very rewarding career.

GM: We write menus that can take up to two months to complete, where some dishes need a four or five week lead time – curing, preserving, bottling, preparing – so planning ahead and collaboration are essential. We bounce ideas off other colleagues, which takes a lot of time, but when it comes together it's very rewarding.

If you could have one meal, at any restaurant, anywhere in the world, where would it be? 

MG: Restaurants aren’t just about food – it’s about who you’re with, where you are, the context of the meal – everything! I don’t have a particular restaurant, but right now I would love to be eating Turkish food on a beach somewhere. It’s the experiences you remember – it's always interesting to me that many people can’t remember what they ate somewhere, but they remember the place, the people and the experience. That said, I have been trying to get to San Sebastian for years and I’d take the boys with me!

GM: The Ledbury, in London. 

HP: The next meal I’m looking forward to is lunch at Clementine, a gorgeous restaurant in Yass, NSW.