Burned too bright

Kirsten Lawson
Jeremy Paul and Fiona Wright, owners of the collapsed Ten and a Half Catering, which owned Dieci e Mezzo.
Jeremy Paul and Fiona Wright, owners of the collapsed Ten and a Half Catering, which owned Dieci e Mezzo. Photo: Lyn Mills

The biggest news in the Canberra restaurant industry in 2012 was the collapse of two of the best – and paradoxically, both very good and pretty successful – restaurants.  Christian Hauberg was forced to put his Pulp Kitchen into liquidation early in the year to pay debts (related to a marriage split). The restaurant was snapped up by Daniel Giordani whose love of the place over years working as floor manager saw him work hard this year to keep things largely as they have always been (with Hauberg himself working a couple of nights a week for his former employee). That story has a happy ending, at least so far. It remains to be seen where Hauberg might direct his huge talent, but Pulp itself is well on track, with reviewer Catriona Jackson hands-down impressed at her most recent visit last month.

The other closure was more spectacular, when Fiona Wright’s empire went bust with debts of more than $4 million, mainly in unpaid superannuation and taxes, but also to a list of suppliers. This collapse meant the closure of Dieci e Mezzo just as it was cementing itself solidly among the best, and the transfer of the catering contract at the National Gallery to a new company, Melbourne’s Big Group. The list of creditors is an insight into where such places do their buying. Thermomix is owed $1950. Sydney-based Andrew’s Meats will be smarting from its $30,800 of unpaid bills, and Australia on a Plate is owed a similar amount. Clonakilla is owed $2000, having hosted a wine dinner at Dieci just before the collapse, Gallagher Wines $3400, and Nick O’Leary wines $5000.

It took no time at all for Wright’s senior staff to land new jobs, but just as Hauberg is still finding his feet, Wright herself was left in pieces by the collapse of her company and has a long road ahead as the liquidator works through her debts. She was expecting to lose her house, and is still reeling at the wreckage of her highly successful career at the high end of Canberra dining.

Former Pulp Kitchen owner Christian Hauberg.
Former Pulp Kitchen owner Christian Hauberg. Photo: Graham Tidy

As for the good news, I’ve written before that the action is in the Lonsdale Street precinct, with the Roasters opening a second venue up the road, the Gusto hole-in-the-wall pizza cafe next door, the plans by Italian and Sons for a second eatery, and the Ellacure crowd looking to open also.

But all of a sudden on the other side of town, the New Acton area is taking off. Mocan and Green Grout has a reputation for excellent coffee, a groovy set-up and seriously good food. Now it’s doing dinners Monday to Wednesday, it’s recruiting top chefs apace and things are looking very exciting.

With the collapse of Wright’s businesses, we had a bunch of top chefs and restaurateurs on the loose with their heads in the right space – contemporary produce-driven food, lots of local sourcing of ingredients. After very nearly heading back to Melbourne, Wright’s general manager Michael Gray, an excellent floor manager and sommelier, took on the job of heading food and beverage for the Molonglo Group, and Bernd Brademann, who headed catering at the gallery, is also on board. There are plans for a bunch of eateries and bars, including a reincarnation of the Parlour Wine Room. This is where the city’s food eyes are focused.

Next year with any luck, we’ll finally see Serif Kaya of Ottoman’s new Kingston eatery, a place he promises will be more casual, chef at hand, like the original Ottoman in Manuka. We’re also expecting to see the Trimboli family move ahead with a revamped, more casual Mezzalira, as well as their cucina-style eatery in Lonsdale Street selling the likes of salume and pasta. We’re hoping to see the development of the courtyard in the centre of the Melbourne building for some back-lane eating and drinking, although that looks to be caught up in irritating arguments about rubbish collection and business parking. First cab off the rank is the Laneway, from the hairdressing Cataldo family.

Ah, the Cataldo family. These guys show the way on simple Italian homecooking in their family lives: Emilio Cataldo makes his own wines in the cellar, his parents having made salami, and his wife Janine learning the traditional techniques for using cheap bits of meat to flavour tomato sauces, even limoncello emerging from the collective family knowhow.

These techniques, we’re convinced of it, are filtering through again to many parts of Australian society – Bryan Martin killed his first pig this year and turned it into cured and fresh meats (see his story on page 13), Matthew Evans released a book this year devoted entirely to curing and preserving, not only meat and fish, but vegetables, cheeses, yoghurts and other dairy (his is among our favourites on page 31). In my own house, I have a sourdough starter living happily in the fridge, not yet making good bread, but giving a spongier, denser, moist texture to my ordinary bread. The transformation has hit our local school canteen also, now serving homemade soups, butter chicken, spaghetti bolognese and salads (the challenge is getting the kids to eat this good food, and, on a tangent here, we’d love to see sit-down compulsory cooked school lunches, but that’s another story and another culture).

So on the homefront, good things continue to happen, but as Jack Waterford points out (on page 22), this food consciousness (he would possibly say ludicrous obsession) permeates just one sector of our society – in his words, the well-meaning members of the middle class who have idealised notions of families and circumstances and prudence and education, which they assume apply to everyone else. Fair enough.

Hope you enjoy our Food and Wine Annual edition.