Walking into Lûmé, I was immediately struck by the atmosphere of calm efficiency. It’s the afternoon and the team are preparing for service; quietly going about their tasks. I’m welcomed warmly, the decor is cosy; it’s as though I have walked into someone’s house. This is a well-oiled machine, but a personable one, one that has the guest at its centre. I doubt Shaun Quade gets any sleep. His brain is sparking in all directions. This was a wonderful conversation.
Hi Shaun. I’ve been reading through your menus and I’ve just read your reply to John Lethlean’s critique of your pre-ticketing through Tock where you explain that when people make a booking you are already preparing a week out for their visit, there is obviously a lot of time and effort going into dinner at Lûmé.
Basically the whole premise of the restaurant is detail. Everything is considered and thought of before people come here because we ask people for a lot of money to come here and we have the ticketing system. I was nervous about switching that on but it has revolutionised how we do things. We were losing about $3000 a week in no-shows. It was crazy. I had to do something about it.
In this day and age people are so willing to brush things off, even on a personal level, there seem to be a lot more people nowadays who don’t do what they say they are going to do or go to events they have committed to. Buying a non-refundable ticket beforehand is a good lesson in commitment. But you’re not alone in using that system. Other restaurants have to use it as well. I was talking to Peter Gunn at Ides and he has a small place and asks for money in advance. If people don’t turn up, you’re losing money you budget for. You will have created food for that table and then there’s no recourse if they don’t turn up.
Exactly. We’re a 50-seat restaurant. All it takes is for one table to not show up and then everyone is working for free. The profit margins are really slim, as they are in most places. We are big believers in evolution and changing things. The industry, to me is a bit backwards sometimes. People do things that were done in restaurants 200 years ago. Things have changed since then. There is a lot of technology and other avenues we can use that aren’t necessarily hospitality focused but there’s no reason we can’t use them here. The general public gets used to treating restaurants like shit.
Lûmé is a complex concept. It’s interesting to me because, quite apart from the food, you’re trying out new things, like virtual reality. You mention both ‘considered food’ in the profile on your Instagram account and in your interview with Marque chef, Mark Best, you talk about ‘the simple act of sharing food’ but it’s not really that simple, is it?
For me the biggest thing is that we are in hospitality. We serve people. I think where a lot of restaurateurs go wrong is that they become so insular in their business and they don’t think about the people who are coming here, which should be the whole reason they started their restaurant. Anything we do here is always to benefit the customers. If it benefits us and in the long run benefits customers, that’s what we’ll do.
Tock is a perfect example. That’s made out lives much easier. It means we don’t have to have someone sitting on the phone all day answering calls, which is what happens. That way we can spend more time working on stuff and streamlining the process and thinking of new ways of pleasing the people that come in. It’s not like we’re trying to scalp money from everyone Everything we do here, whether it’s simple or it’s something which people might say is a bit weird – I hate that word – it’s always to give that better guest experience. That’s what I mean when I say it’s ‘considered dining’. Literally everything in this building, the way we talk to people on email, the way we receive guests when they arrive, all that, we’ve had discussions about. It’s not just, ‘hey mate, you’ve got a booking,’ everything is scripted, everything has been talked about and decided on and that’s how we do things here. That’s what I mean when I say it’s considered. We want people to come in and have fun and enjoy what we do.
There’s a theatre to it.
Exactly. I see this as a restaurant but it’s very closely tied to theatre. We have show time each day, everyone has their role to play. Even the way we sell tickets to the event now. We don’t do very much marketing but the way we put things through on Instagram and Facebook, we want people to understand how much we put into the consideration of what we do here. That’s why we ask people to pay up front because it’s a contract, or agreement. We’re going to go to go to all this effort to prepare this for you. All you need to do is turn up and enjoy yourself. It’s pretty easy from a customer point of view but sometimes they can’t even manage that so that’s why we have ticketing.
It is very niche as a restaurant, isn’t it? All of this consideration will only appeal to a certain demographic. But then why not? Because they are the ones who will appreciate it and enjoy it.
Exactly. Everything has a demographic. Chin Chin couldn’t do ticketing because it’s not their business model but it works for us.
Did you always see yourself in this kind of context? Well I suppose I should ask first, did you always want to be a chef?
Yes, from pretty early on. I finished Year 12 and was in a few bands for a while. I was thinking about doing sound engineering but had a look into it and realised it was actually really boring and very hard to get into. I’d always liked food and cooking and creating stuff so it drew me in that way.
So, right back from the start, did you always want to push it as far as you could go?
Even in my apprenticeship I was always trying to do things my own way.
How did that go?
Well, I annoyed every single chef I’ve ever worked under, they were always, ‘just follow the recipe please,’ but I always wanted to change things and try things out. I recognise I would have been a pain in the arse to employ. Even before my apprenticeship, my first job was at McDonalds as a 14 year old. In hindsight, it was perfect training for someone going into hospitality. Not so much the food, but their systems are amazing. If you can get a kitchen full of 14 year olds to function then you must be doing something right. The first thing they teach you is clean as you go and I still say that to everyone. Even there I’d be trying out new burger combinations, so I guess I’ve always had that creative instinct. Now with a restaurant, where I’m not just responsible for the food – that’s about a quarter of my job, that’s probably the easiest part – everything else that comes with it; applying that same mindset to everything. So I always question why we do things certain ways and we often find completely new ways of doing things that work for us.
Are there people here who are like you were as an apprenticeship and pushing boundaries?
I have a few people like that who I recognise will only be here for a limited amount of time because they want more than what we do here.
What could be more than what you do here? What comes after somewhere like Lûmé?
Everyone has their own style and way of doing things. I encourage my team to look outside and see what’s going on. The media loves putting things in boxes, which is necessary for them to be able to write about it. I don’t like being judged as doing weird shit because it’s different to what other people are doing.
What about when you first opened and there were announcements of wanting to be the best in the world? Is that still a goal?
That was funny because first of all, it was a massive misquote. The sentiment was the same but the way it came across was really arrogant and I’m not like that at all. Basically what I wanted to say was, ‘that’s what we are aiming for.’ We were making our intentions clear. We’re not going to just open a restaurant and say ‘hopefully you guys will like it.’ saying something like that had its pros and cons because from the first day we opened, we were booked out because people just wanted to come and see if we lived up to the hype. We also had a lot of negative press about it. I don’t regret the sentiments behind what I said. It was about having a goal. We take what we do here very seriously, we’re all professionals. Everyone who works here has chosen to work here and is fully behind everything we do.
Getting two hats must feel good, as would any accolades you receive. But I guess, as in the theatre analogy, you’re faced with an audience every night and you’d get much more immediate feedback from them.
The last six months have been very busy, which is good. We don’t really do any marketing so it has all been word of mouth. Our main point of contact is probably Instagram or social media.
There’s such a good feeling as soon as you enter Lûmé.
When we took over the building, it was a cabaret club and it looked a lot different. I hate going to high end restaurants and feeling as though you can’t touch anything. We based it on some Scandinavian and Japanese influences. We wanted it to be as though someone has opened up their house. I like the juxtaposition between the food we do which can be a little confronting sometimes because it’s different but then having people in an environment where they are totally relaxed and having fun talking and drinking makes them more perceptive and open to new things.
You’ve said that some of your dishes are confronting and I’ve read various comments around that. Is flavour still the most important thing to you or is it more important to be confronting? What comes first when you’re creating these dishes?
For me, the produce is always the first thing. We are actually super seasonal. We don’t use things that are out of season. We work with four different farms now to get all our fruit and vegetables. Two farms grow specifically for us. It’s really important to me that when I create a dish, it tastes delicious and is nourishing and then I put a texture in or serve it in a surprising way. I definitely don’t create something just to be provocative. The evolution and constantly doing new things is really important.
Is it exhausting?
Yes it is. We’ve had stuff on the menu and everyone loves it and then I think, right, it’s time for that to come off now. You get to a point were you’re sick of making it and it’s important to me that the staff are inspired. I remember going to the Fat Duck when it was here in Melbourne and it was a fantastic meal, but we were there for six hours and every single dish we had, I knew all the components and I knew what they’d taste like because I’ve got the Fat Duck recipe book at home and they’ve been on the menu for 10 years. There’s no surprise left.
I was going to ask you whether you are still surprised by food. Where you can go to be surprised by food.
I get surprised all the time. For me, it’s not just the food; it’s the whole experience. It’s not so much a technique; it’s more looking at the menu or the booking system or how did they respond to the fact that my girlfriend is a type 1 diabetic so she has a diabetic assistance dog. Whenever we go out to a restaurant we have a little poodle sitting next to us. It’s always interesting to see how people handle that.
Food-wise, I tend not to pay attention to what everyone else is doing. Whatever tastes nice and is in season. I try not to take inspiration from within the industry. It’s always from outside; a particular artist or song. You can get something out of everything. You have to constantly have your eyes open to what’s happening around you in the world. I like to filter that back into the restaurant. That’s the way I work. I can’t remember the last time I bought a cookbook.
Are you able to enjoy going out to other restaurants?
I can. But I think any chef or restaurateur has a certain part which doesn’t shut off. But actually it helps me appreciate it more because I know the effort they’ve gone to. That’s something we’ve tried to channel through to people through social media; that glimpse behind the scenes. Hundreds of people go into the making of a dinner; the farmers and winemakers and growers and truck drivers. Not just the people at the restaurant but everyone else involved in getting that produce to us. We try and showcase some of that as well.
What we do here is fairly unique. To answer your question, we don’t just do things to shock people. We do use liquid nitrogen and we have a freeze dryer and we have a rotary evaporator, there’s all that side of things but we make our own miso and vinegars and we make our own pickles and air dry our own meat. There’s a nice mix of thousands of years old techniques and super new things.
That’s why I say I don’t like to be put in a box. Because there’s so much more to it. I think the media and the way they write, it’s really hard for the general public to get a clear honest review, an understanding of what a restaurant does without going there.
I think that everyone who writes about food now has an agenda; whether it’s their publisher’s agenda or they get paid for it. But that’s a whole other story.
It is fraught these days. You don’t eve have to be qualified. I’m a French teacher so that totally qualifies me to write about food and talk to chefs…!
It depends what you’re into and what your intentions are. I don’t think you’re trying to make a million dollars off your blog.
Well, I don’t make anything.
Literally every day we get contacted by a blogger or a journalist who just wants a sound bite or a free meal. They’re playing off our reputation. It’s frustrating.
I just like the back story. There’s a lot of hype about food and I hope to get to the heart of things.
There is a lot of hype. Some places have more hype than others. Some of it’s deserved and some of it isn’t. I can’t talk because we spun a lot of bullshit to get this place open and that was purely a tactic to get people in here. It worked. It’s a massive game everyone plays.
Well, I guess, it’s what I say to students, it really has to be intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic motivation. It has to be the feeling you get from the service and not from the accolades.
You mentioned the two hats before and I’m not going to lie, there’s a part of me that’s all, yeah! Do I really care about one person’s rating? No. But I recognise that she has a lot of readers who base their opinion on what she says. I base my opinion on the customers coming through the door and how happy they are. That’s what makes me happy. It’s not getting two hats or three hats. Yeah we want three hats, but that’s to get more people here. That’s how I see the whole mechanism working.
226 Coventry Street, South Melbourne