John Fink: From party monster to three-hat restaurateur

John Fink realised at 40 that it was time to get a real job, so he set about transforming his family's restaurants.
John Fink realised at 40 that it was time to get a real job, so he set about transforming his family's restaurants. Photo: Jessica Hromas

 He runs some of the most successful restaurants in Australia today, but once upon a time, John Fink was a full-time party monster.

It was a tough gig, growing up John Fink. To start, there was the inescapable fact of having a filmmaker mother responsible for producing modern Australian classics such as My Brilliant Career, The Removalists and Candy. Margaret Fink was also a prominent member of The Sydney Push – the left-wing, anti-authoritarian movement of high-profile intellectuals and creatives that also included Germaine Greer, Clive James and Frank Moorhouse.

His father, Leon Fink, is a restaurant kingpin and industry powerhouse, a fringe Push member, and patron of the arts who at one point also ran Luna Park.

John Fink with his mother, film producer Margaret Fink, at the 1986 premier of her film 'For Love Alone'.
John Fink with his mother, film producer Margaret Fink, at the 1986 premier of her film 'For Love Alone'. Photo: Greg White

How does a person carve out a spot in the world with a coat of arms like that?

"Last century, there were three very famous people [in media and food] in Sydney," Fink says, "and two of them were mum and dad. I was desperate to be my own person [but] I couldn't escape the Leon and Margaret show."

The restaurateur spent two decades trying to stay as far out of the limelight as possible. If you dug through the archives for a look at John Fink's early resume, it'd read something like this: High school dropout. Stoner. Cafe waiter. Commis chef. Part-time filmmaker. Sometime artist. Occasional musician.

Back then, if you Googled Peter Gilmore, you'd get this really boring Satanist in the UK.

John Fink

Flash forward 20 years, and Fink has failed fantastically at being a failure. Despite trying not to be a Leon and Margaret Production, he's somehow split his time successfully between filmmaking and managing restaurants. His short film, Glottal Opera, was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010. Big Dreamers, a documentary about Australia's fascination with super-sized everyday objects (The Big Gumboot, Banana, Merino, Prawn, Pineapple et al), has screened on the ABC and at film festivals around the country.

He's also creative director of the Fink Group, managing Quay (three hats); Otto Ristorante (one hat); Firedoor (two hats), the Bridge Room (two hats), Bennelong (two hats) Otto Brisbane (one hat) and Beach, Byron Bay. The group employs around 400 people across the seven businesses. Between those restaurants, he's just about created a Justice League of food.

But really, it all started with smoking weed at Martin Sharp's house.

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Growing up among the Sydney intelligentsia, Fink's general outlook was always a little skewed. His teenage years were spent either wagging school to go surfing or going to get high at the late Sydney artist's house, next door to Cranbrook, the private school he was enrolled at but rarely attended.

Dinner parties at home would always feature famous faces (Germaine Greer was a regular guest), and hanging around at Sharp's house meant mixing with artists and photographers – Jon Lewis and William Yang both lived with Sharp – along with visiting musical superstars.

There was also Dave the homeless guitarist whose sole purpose at Sharp's house was to walk around Sharp's living room/studio playing Bob Dylan songs. "Dave was sitting there just strumming the guitar by the fireside one night," Fink says. "This dude comes up and goes, 'Oh, nice. Can I have a play?' They swap songs all night then  go to bed. The next day, Dave says to Martin, 'Who was that bloke?' He says, 'Oh, that was Eric Clapton.' 

"There came a point where I'd go to stay at a friend's house and we'd be sitting around the table having dinner and I was thinking, 'Where's the interesting person talking a lot who's on television?' It was then I thought, 'Oh, we're not normal. We're different'."

So, there was that. And Fink spent many years keeping that party going. But then he turned 40. He had two young kids. Something had to give. "Instead of going from bucket of money to bucket of money – which is the filmmaking life – I had to have regular income and be able to look after my kids. I was working a little bit in the family business and I thought, 'John, stop fooling yourself. You're not a filmmaker. You're not Quentin bloody Tarantino. Just go and get a real job'."

At the time, there were just two restaurants in the Fink Group – Otto and Quay. "There was so much that wasn't right about both businesses that they needed my full attention," he says. So he stopped making films for a while and put all his energy into bringing the two up to speed. "Back then, if you googled Peter Gilmore, you'd get this really boring Satanist in the UK. And I thought, "F---k that'."

Today, Quay is one of only six three-hat restaurants in the country, taking home the Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year gong at the SMH Good Food Guide 2017 Awards.

On April 1, the restaurant closed for three months for a massive overhaul, from menu to room to attitude to vibe.

While Fink remains tight-lipped about what to expect when Quay reopens, he says the intention is to build the biggest little restaurant in Australia. "Other than that, we're just throwing things at the wall and see what sticks."

That's pretty much the John Fink MO in action right there: aim low, deliver high and sweat the details quietly.

Quickfire corner

Music to cook to: David Bowie – the whole canon.

After-midnight snack: It'd probably be an omelette or something. Whatever's in the fridge, add an egg.

Work weapon of choice: A neat pair of shoes. If you've got good shoes on, everything else is fine.

Formative food moment: I had a cookbook when I was six years old called Weekend Cook and it was for kids. It taught how to make a toad in the hole where you cut a hole in the toast and you fry it. That was my defining moment.

Ninja skill: Playing music.