It can’t be easy being Luke Mangan. With his signature Salt restaurants and wine bars now peppered across the Asia-Pacific region, the Australian chef has to be in eight places at once. That’s when he’s not keeping an eye on his moving feasts – three Salt grills are constantly floating around the globe on P&O cruiseliners; while his food is also served in the skies 24/7 on Virgin airlines.
Add in the frequent television appearances, book launches and gourmet retail product lines, and you begin to wonder how he keeps tabs on it all.
It’s the first question I ask him as we take our seats in his stylish Glass brasserie in Sydney, and it turns out that the answer is right under my nose.
“I just use this,” he says, pointing to his iPhone upon the white linen table cloth. “I wake up every morning and I’ve got a report from every restaurant: how many covers we’ve done, spend per head, any VIPs in, if a glass of wine was spilt over someone – everything. So I wake up to a lot of emails but that’s good because that’s how I keep in touch with all of my restaurants.”
That level of detail must be reassuring for Mangan, but do his staff ever feel like big brother is watching? “They should not be scared to tell me anything,” he says. “I’m very open and want them to communicate with me. I’m not the Gordon Ramsay type. We’ve got a little pact that if a customer sends a steak back that’s overcooked, my guys will always tell me. It’s only if I see a customer on the street and he tells me about it [without it first being reported to Mangan by staff], that’s when we have an issue.”
Whether it’s the Salt restaurant in Tokyo or the soon-to-open Salt grill in Jakarta, all Mangan’s venues have a head chef and a restaurant manager who operate fairly independently. “They’re important because I can’t be there all the time,” he says. “They’ve got to have their own autonomy. I see myself as a support for them. Tonight I’m flying up to the Gold Coast [to be at Salt grill in Surfer’s Paradise] and next week I’m in Singapore [at Salt tapas and bar and at Salt grill and Sky bar]. I just like working on the floor with my team and seeing the guests and all that sort of stuff. That’s important. It’s all part of the show.”
This hands-on approach makes for an exhausting schedule, but it’s nothing compared to where Mangan started. Having been kicked out of school at 15 (“I was terrible, disruptive. Didn’t do homework, couldn’t sit still”), he was plunged into life as a foodservice apprentice, with gruelling 60-70 hour working weeks in the renowned Melbourne restaurant Two Faces (“My first pay packet was $88, I remember it quite clearly”).
Mangan stayed five years, working under the tempestuous tutelage of Herman Schneider (“a prick of a boss but also a good boss. He taught me the discipline of cooking and that you have to work bloody hard. He was in the kitchen every day”). When Mangan packed up and moved to London, to work for Michel Roux in the three Michelin-starred Waterside Inn, the working week climbed to “80-90 hours”. But he was learning all the time. “Michel Roux taught me about technique, about modernising old-fashioned French food,” recalls Mangan.
“And he was a showman. He was out on the floor, then he would rush back into the kitchen, call an order, plate up, yell at a chef, then he’d be back on the floor kissing the girls.”
Mangan says he picked up a lot from Roux. “What’s the point of a chef, who’s got a brand name, being tied behind a stove? A restaurant is the package – from wine to lighting to music to service – it’s the whole lot. And I realised that I want to be part of the whole package, not just show how good my food was.”
Understanding this bigger picture might just have saved Mangan’s skin when he returned to Australia and opened his own restaurants. In Sydney alone it’s estimated that there are 20,000 cafes and restaurants; so a big-name chef does not guarantee success (just ask recent casualties like Justin North and Matthew Kemp). “Some chefs only think about the food that goes on the plate,” Mangan laments. “They forget about the linen bill of $5,000 a month, the electricity, rent, superannuation and tax. This is how restaurants go broke. Maybe the restaurants that have gone down could have used better advice.”
This is one reason that Mangan co-founded the Appetites For Excellence Awards, which promote the development of young chefs, waiters and restaurateurs in Australia. “It’s a hard business,” he says. “We’ve got a shortage of great chefs and great wait staff and we need to encourage them. Some of Australia’s very best chefs and restaurateurs are on the judging panel and all the kids who enter have access to them. They can pick up the phone, email and ask any questions.”
If Mangan himself ever has to reach for his iPhone to ask for advice, he’s got a friendly ear in Sir Richard Branson. The chef once spent two weeks cooking on the Virgin supremo’s Caribbean island, which he describes as a great experience but refuses to tell tales (“What happens on the island stays on the island,” is all he will say).
Branson is full of praise for the chef’s achievements, describing Mangan thus: “He’s an entrepreneur and you have to be more than just a chef to become a successful chef these days – you have to be media savvy, good on television. A lot of the job is promoting yourself and promoting your business and he does that well. But in the end you’re only as good as the product, so you can’t be all fluff and puff, you’ve got to have substance behind you, and he’s got substance. He’d be one of the best of his profession, and it’s a tough profession…”
Branson is right on all counts, including the last one. It is a tough profession. But somehow Luke Mangan is making it look easy.