Aubergine chef and co-owner Ben Willis has refined his menu to allow him to improve every dish on it to meet rising expectations. Photo: Melissa Adams
In the 4½ years since he took over Aubergine, Ben Willis has taken the small Griffith restaurant to the top of the pile in Canberra and, for the second year running, his is our Restaurant of the Year.
Willis's skill is in keeping excitement and interest on the plate in every dish. He is focused on the seasons and on sustainability, and constantly strives to introduce diners to new or unusual ingredients - tongue, or kohlrabi, eel, licorice or Jerusalem artichokes.
Braised lamb tongue, new season vegetables, parsley puree and saltbush. Photo: Graham Tidy
Willis said on Thursday he had shrunk his menu this year, so he could bring interest and seasonality to every dish - ''reading what the customers want, and us as curious chefs what we want to do as well, and honing in on simplifying things and not overworking things''.
In the years he had owned Aubergine, he said he had come to a better understanding of what customers were after. ''They really do like the fact that something is a little bit different, or it's a little bit challenging, but the core part of it is that it's good to eat,'' he said.
As his star had risen, Willis said it had become easier to attract and retain top staff, which, in turn, had helped push quality higher, and had also improved his own work-life balance. Willis, 37, owns the restaurant with his wife Andrea Collin, and family is on the horizon for them personally next year.
Professionally, he had had offers of other restaurants around the city, but had no immediate plans to expand. Also, as Aubergine attracted increasing attention, expectations from people coming in the door were high, so it was a question of ''needing and wanting to be here all the time''.
''We're constantly refining,'' he said. ''In a small restaurant doing what we do, each year we try to get better than the last year, and use the previous year's successes as a platform for the next level.''
Willis's successes this year include getting the gongs for NSW regional restaurant of the year and wine list of the year from The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.