Matt Moran: the straight-talking chef

Sydney's Matt Moran tells Andy McLean about his unconventional start as a chef, and how he never stops learning


Foodservice consultants beware. Sydney may seem like a welcoming, fun-loving city – but the locals are incredibly fickle. Fads and fashions blow in and out on the Pacific breeze, so that today’s ‘must see’ restaurant fast becomes tomorrow’s ‘been there, done that’. Attracting the punters is one thing. Keeping them is quite another. To survive, you’ve got to be tough enough to withstand the winds of change; and few chefs are tougher than Matt Moran.

It is impossible to miss Moran when he bulldozes through the glass-fronted doors of his ARIA restaurant set beside Sydney Harbour. He is shaven headed and muscular, with a voice that’s pure gravel. He looks me square in the eye, shakes my hand firmly and squeezes himself into a plush leather seat. During our conversation he is straight talking and direct, exactly what you would expect from a bloke who spent his formative years living on a farm before seeing out his childhood on the mean streets of Blacktown, in Sydney’s western suburbs.

In many ways, he’s the antithesis of Sydney’s flight-of-fancy diners, but somehow he’s been wowing them for three decades now. His empire includes iconic venues in Sydney (Aria, Chiswick and Opera Bar) plus two fine dining restaurants in Brisbane (Aria and Riverbar) and a consulting role for Singapore Airlines business class and first class dining. He has also built a formidable media profile through television shows such as Masterchef and My Restaurant Rules. So, how did this boy from the wrong side of the tracks end up here? “I don’t have the romantic story of having a grandmother who I used to bake with, or a mother who used to cook amazingly on the farm,” Moran admits. “I don’t think I actually had a decent meal until I started cooking myself.”

Moran’s first forays in the kitchen came in his early teens, when he and a mate signed up for a home economics class at school. “It wasn’t the most stupid idea. I was one of only two boys with 28 girls in the class – plus you got to eat something,” he grins. “I was a bit of a bad boy at school, with the attention span of a retarded flea, but food offered me an escape route.”

Hard grafter

In 1985, Moran started applying for kitchen apprenticeships. “It was really hard to get jobs back then, especially for a big boofy boy from Blacktown, just 15 years of age,” he recalls. “I went for 20-odd interviews before I got a job. I don’t know how I did it, but I just sort of convinced this guy, Michael De Laurence [owner and head chef of La Belle Helene restaurant], that if he gave me a go he wouldn’t be sorry. Little did I know that this was one of the top restaurants in the country.

“Back then, Sydney was very different,” says Moran. “There wasn’t the variety of food or ingredients around that there is now. La Belle Helene was very French and what we did was incredibly detailed. Michael taught me the basics of cooking. For any chef, that’s really important: to learn how to fry, roast, poach, make sauces and all that sort of thing.”

“I was doing 100 hours a week, working six days, and whenever I had the chance I would be there and I would learn,” he says. “During any time off, I would work in other restaurants to try to learn more. I was really obsessed and lost my teenage years in the process. One year I only had three days off.”

Moran’s dedication paid off. By the age of 18, he was appointed head chef of La Belle Helene and two years later he was poached to become head chef at The Restaurant Manfredi, a renowned Italian fine dining venue. “Stefano Manfredi had a massive influence on me,” he says. “He taught me about ingredients at a time when there was an explosion of new ingredients in Sydney. Things like Coffin Bay scallops, King George whiting, fresh squid, zucchini flowers.

“That’s what made me, I think.”

The Restaurant Manfredi prospered under Moran’s stewardship, before Moran decided to strike out and open his own restaurant at the age of 24. This might sound young but Moran had almost a decade of foodservice experience under his belt by then, so he was tough enough to take the hits when they came his way.

He built Moran’s, but became a victim of his own success when he decided to put it on the market: “You try selling a restaurant with your name on the front door,” he says with a rueful smile. Then there was the Quattro restaurant venture with INXS musician Kirk Pengilly, which fell flat. “Yeah, I would never do it again,” he says. “That was purely an investment for me and I didn’t have control of it.”

Moran is now fiercely determined to keep all his restaurants owner-operated. “Unless you have the bottom line control you just lose focus on it and if someone else is pulling the strings it doesn’t work,” he says firmly. “Eventually it hurts your brand. And my brand is everything to me; something I’ve worked 28 years to keep.”

Outside advice

That said, Moran is smart enough to know when to call consultants for outside help. “You want to know how to cook a leg of lamb, you talk to me. You want to build a house, you talk to a builder,” he says. “One of my successes is that I’ve brought a lot of [external] people into the fold over the years; people who are better than me at certain things. And I learn from them because I’m a sponge. I am a cook but I’m also a restaurateur.”

Working with consultants, Moran adopts a collaborative style. “An architect would love to design a restaurant as an architect would, but it’s got to have the logistics of an operating restaurant, which architects don’t know,” he explains. “So you have to brief them clearly. You’ve always got to be part of that design concept.” This is where Moran’s direct approach is invaluable: consultants are never in any doubt about what he wants.

Equally, Moran has no doubts about his ability to keep attracting Sydney’s fickle diners. “I think positive. And I’m not one to avoid the hard decisions,” he says.

“I’ve never proclaimed that we cook the best food, but we cook pretty solidly and we always try to improve. Year on year, my goal is to make each restaurant better than it was before.”

It’s an approach that is straightforward and effective. Much like Moran himself.

Andy McLean