Why The Continental Sorrento is chef Scott Pickett's biggest play yet (plus a first look at fine diner Audrey's)

Chef Scott Pickett in Audrey's restaurant at the Continental Hotel in Sorrento.
Chef Scott Pickett in Audrey's restaurant at the Continental Hotel in Sorrento. Photo: Wayne Taylor

With the opening of the Continental Sorrento scheduled for April 1, Paul Best asks if Scott Pickett can juggle it all.

Scott Pickett is chasing his fourth coffee with his third ciggie, waiting out front of The Continental Sorrento, at the end of the main drag of the well-heeled seaside town, on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula.

Lobster and caviar tartlets to be served at Audrey's.
Lobster and caviar tartlets to be served at Audrey's. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Ten days out from reopening, the 147-year-old landmark hotel – nearing completion after a two-year $120 million redevelopment – is still a construction site: safety fencing and bollards ring the property and there's a swirling sea of hard hats.

In his own hard hat and orange fluoro vest slipped over a black Foo Fighters tee, Pickett could be one of the 150-plus tradies racing the clock to have the joint ready for a staggered opening from this Friday. (The project was due to open last year, but COVID-19 has continually pushed the open date around.)

The 46-year-old celebrity chef-cum-restaurateur-turned-entrepreneur is a man on a mission and a vital cog in the success of the project. He has charge of all the menus (and a few hundred staff) across the several food and drink venues spanning the luxury resort, which includes a new 108-room five-star InterContinental hotel, pool deck, event spaces and wellness centre.

I have an addictive, obsessive nature. I wish I could be that bloke who could have a couple of beers and go home. But I never was.

Scott Pickett

"It's a monster," he says of the sprawling hotel complex as he skips me through its labyrinth of corridors, staircases and multiple dining and entertainment spaces – including half-a-dozen kitchens – across six levels. "People don't understand the size and scale of the operation."

Once inside, you see what he means. It's massive, no longer the local corner pub, known affectionately to locals as "the Conti", of years gone by.

Downstairs alone, there are four venues serviced by two kitchens, including an impressive marble-topped show kitchen as you walk through the main doors; kerbside Promenade, picking up passing foot traffic, the Public Bar and adjoining glass-roofed beer garden (both part of the original hotel), serving a mix of pub classics, dry-aged steaks and Thai favourites; and Barlow, the speakeasy-style nightclub with plush booths and copper-fronted cocktail bar.

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Upstairs are the light-filled all-day dining room Atrium, with a menu erring on the side of lighter, healthier meals, Coppins Lounge and the site's showpiece , seafood-forward fine-diner Audrey's, named after Pickett's grandmother. And up again, four function spaces, including the Grand Ballroom and Sunset Terrace.

Pickett, though, is more than just a hired gun, casting a creative eye over what we'll be supping on. He has plenty of skin in the game, having teamed up with the founder of hospitality group Kickon, Craig Shearer – who sounded out Pickett's interest two years ago – and Trenerry Property, a key member of the consortium with the Victor Smorgon and Kanat groups behind the overall development (and which recently purchased historic guesthouse Burnham Beeches in the Yarra Ranges).

Importantly, too, The Continental adds another venture – by far his biggest to date – to his burgeoning hospitality stable, a daunting prospect on which Pickett well knows his fortunes could sink or swim.

The Continental Sorrento kitchen team (from left)  Tony Panetta, Gil Zamudio, Dan Poyner and Nick Deligiannis.
The Continental Sorrento kitchen team (from left) Tony Panetta, Gil Zamudio, Dan Poyner and Nick Deligiannis. Photo: Supplied

In just a few years, Pickett has overseen a string of new openings and relaunches, including Matilda in 2018; Pastore in Chadstone and Pickett's Deli and Rotisserie at Melbourne Airport (2019); Longrain/Longsong and Chancery Lane in the CBD at the height of the pandemic in 2020; Le Shoppe (2021); and, on Valentine's Day this year, the multi-level Smith St Bistrot (replacing Italian diner Lupo, his short-lived 2019 launch).

Now his renamed Scott Pickett Group (SPG) finds itself suddenly rubbing shoulders with some of the city's hospitality heavy-hitters, including Chris Lucas's restaurants, Andrew McConnell's Trader House Restaurants and HQ Group, the team behind Arbory and mega-venue Her.

So what do people in the industry make of him?

Pickett on the pass at Matilda in South Yarra.
Pickett on the pass at Matilda in South Yarra. Photo: Simon Schluter

"He is a very talented chef but also has proved himself a canny restaurateur and businessman," says food writer and critic Michael Harden.

"He takes joy in the business process from the ground up, from inception all the way through," says SPG executive chef Stuart McVeigh, who joined Pickett six years ago.

Pickett is a hard-bitten, curse-laden old-school chef who continues to put his food and kitchen to the fore. This has meant him keeping up a punishing pace. Just listening to him outline a normal day is exhausting.

Locals will barely recognise the hotel affectionately known as "The Conti".
Locals will barely recognise the hotel affectionately known as "The Conti". Photo: Marina Oliphant

Mornings are spent on restaurant group business, dealing with day-to-day operational issues, sorting out problems that have cropped up, ringing around his team of executive and head chefs to talk through needs. Then by early afternoon, he gets to whichever restaurant he's in that night, checking the kitchen, bookings and briefing staff, before working the pass until 11pm.

After that, it's back to his office for an hour or two more before turning in. He maintains this schedule six – sometimes seven – days a week. "My last day off was Australia Day," he says.

This past month, evenings have been spent at Smith St Bistrot. "We've been doing 80, 90 (covers) each night," he enthuses. "It's going nuts."

Pickett at Estelle in Northcote.
Pickett at Estelle in Northcote. Photo: Simon Schluter

The comment reflects outsiders' perceptions of Pickett – that he's something of an all-or-nothing, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy; "a straight shooter", "no bullshit", "no filter".

"He's an incredibly hard worker," says renowned chef Philippe Mouchel, who worked with Pickett at Paul Bocuse Restaurant and Langton's during the 1990s and shares an affiliation with the highly respected international culinary competition the Bocuse d'Or.

It has been like that from the get-go. Pickett says he was a hyperactive kid, growing up in Melbourne then moving with his mother, stepfather and brother to a small beef farm at Kangarilla in South Australia. "I have an addictive, obsessive nature," confesses Pickett. "I wish I could be that bloke who could have a couple of beers and go home. But I never was."

Reading over his CV, he's been constantly on the move, always looking to get better, go bigger: from South Australia, here he cut his teeth at Jarmer's in Adelaide and The Salopian Inn in McLaren Vale, to Melbourne – ticking off some of the city's plummest gigs at Hotel Windsor's Grand Dining Room, Paul Bocuse and Langton's – then onto London.

In London, he found a new gear at Phil Howard's double-Michelin-starred The Square (where he first worked with McVeigh) after initial try-outs with Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White. When he came back, he brought new knowledge, skills and ambition.

"He gave us a lot of insight into what was going on in London," recalls chef Philippa Sibley, who employed Pickett at Ondine, the CBD restaurant she ran with her then-husband, Donovan Cooke, in the early 2000s. "I remember him showing us a different way of skinning a salmon. Still use it to this day."

For Pickett, though, these were wild, heady years, plagued by heavy drinking, partying, drugs and bad behaviour, something he doesn't shy from.

As Howard wrote in the foreword to his first book, Scott Pickett, A Cook's Story: "This is a man who only knows the fast lane, who cooks like a demon … He had demons, too."

Pickett wrestled with alcohol addiction since his teens through to 2012, when finally his out-of-control drinking forced him into rehab. These days, he abstains. "If I hadn't come off the booze, I wouldn't be here today talking to you," he says. "I'd be burnt out."

In the late-2000s, working at The Point under Rabih Yanni (who now owns The Botanical, next door to Pickett's Matilda), Pickett began to see the restaurant business beyond the kitchen. "Sharing an office with Rabih was the best business management course I could have done," Pickett writes in his first book.

It was at Estelle – opened in partnership with chef Ryan Flaherty in 2011 – and Collingwood's Saint Crispin, two years later, with Joe Grbac – that Pickett began to adopt a more hard-headed approach. He learned the importance of brand, menu, signage, PR and crunching numbers, like average customer spend. And being part of a team.

"He also discovered a love for restaurant design," notes Harden, something that grew from the launch of Estelle by Scott Pickett in 2015 and continued from there.

Over the past several years, Pickett has steadily built his brand and media profile through books (his second book, Marriage of Flavours, came out in 2019), social media and television. In 2015, he hosted TV show The Hotplate alongside British food critic Tom Parker Bowles, and last year co-anchored the family-fuzzy Snackmasters with Poh Ling Yeow.

He has also taken a leading role in training and coaching Australian chefs for the Bocuse d'Or cooking competition after competing himself in 2005, placing 14th internationally. While his involvement has a lot to do with giving back to an industry he's passionate about, he acknowledges it's also good for his brand.

It helps that Pickett has a certain blokey, knock-about affability and gift of the gab. But there are detractors. "He could talk a glass eye to sleep" is one barb. "Total wanker" and "blunderbuss" are others.

Regardless, he has built a network of fans and backers. Of great intrigue in industry circles is how Pickett has managed to expand his empire and so quickly. And who's bankrolling him?

Pickett keeps his cards close to his chest. All he offers is that he has "great support and people around me who believe in me", hinting that each of his ventures under the group umbrella involves a deal brokered with a particular party or parties.

"There's like several parts to (the portfolio of businesses)," he volunteers. "It goes into multiple companies, multiple directorships, multiple shareholders, lots of bits and pieces."

He also says there's no shortage of people dishing up opportunities – investor offers, sell-outs, cash-ins, partnerships. "I'm always eying something off," he grins. "I get bored easily. I like challenges."

All the while, his restaurants continue to serve up well-thought-out, flavour-driven food the punters want. "Network all you like but your product has to stand up on the plate," says Yanni of Pickett's ongoing success as he wrestles with the transition from chef to businessman.

But Pickett is equally conscious that at some point, as the business grows, he'll need to juggle less and relinquish more control of the kitchens – especially if, as he hopes, he is to springboard overseas.

Leading me through the big empty spaces of The Continental, some of it still awaiting new soft furnishings, all of it awaiting diners, you can't help wonder whether he will pull it all off or whether he is overextending.

Pickett makes it clear he has laid everything on the line – both with this project and his restaurant group. He has sold and mortgaged properties to get his restaurants up in the past, so risking it all is familiar ground.

"Balls deep, I call it," he says candidly of the debt load he's carrying. "I have to be comfortable and accept you could possibly lose it all. But I back myself, my product, my vision and the hard work me and the team put in every day."

The BBQ abalone, bonito Coopers Island oysters and finger lime mignoette (centre) served at Audrey's restaurant at the Continental Hotel in Sorrento.  Picture by Wayne Taylor 18th March 2022

The BBQ abalone to be served at Audrey's. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Summer holidays prove an inspiration for Audrey's

Scott Pickett spent early childhood summer holidays on the Mornington Peninsula, where he fished with his maternal grandmother, Audrey, who taught him about ingredients and imbued in him a love of cooking.

"Half cray or fisherman's basket," Pickett says is what she would order for her birthday on Anzac Day every year.

So it is fitting Pickett has named The Continental Sorrento's new seafood-centric flagship restaurant Audrey's.

But the restaurant is also a celebration of Pickett's own love of local, seasonal and flavoursome food, which will be presented as "choice" and "set" menus.

The former will offer a few snacks – such as barbecue abalone with bonito and malt-glazed eel on Melba toast – followed by an entree, main and dessert.

Entrees may be local squid in shiitake XO sauce or spanner crab; mains a John Dory with tuna marrow bordelaise or duck in fermented gold plum; and Audrey's vacherin of rhubarb, apple and ginger for dessert.

The set menu rolls out five tasting courses, plus snacks and supplementary courses. Dishes may include a lobster and caviar tartlet, tuna bresaola, King George whiting and Meyer lemon and eucalyptus jelly.

In charge of the kitchen – under the watchful eye of Pickett and executive chef Tony Panetta – is head chef Nick Deligiannis, who has worked previously at Frederic in Richmond as well as stints at London's Pollen Street Social and The Glasshouse. Andrew Murch is head sommelier.

On an upper level, guests enter through an arched doorway. The main dining room seats 120, plus a marble chef's table for 24, and includes a curved catch-of-the-day-styled seafood bar. In addition, there is a private dining area overlooking the principal kitchen, with extra seating at the pass.

Even though the restaurant is upmarket, there's a relaxed beachy thrum to the interiors, designed by architects Woods Bagot. The feel is bright and natural, with timber boards, original limestone and exposed brickwork.

Bookings are now available for Audrey's, which opens this Friday. The whole venue will open by April 1. thecontinentalsorrento.com.au