I grew up on a farm in New South Wales, Australia and had a pretty typical Australian upbringing in those days when it came to food: meat and three vegetables and no sight of fish. I’m pretty sure my first restaurant meal was when I was fourteen and it was a pretty low-grade restaurant at that. My rural upbringing on the farm instilled a great work ethic in me, and a certain kind of toughness. As a kid, any spare time I had was spent helping out at the farm and I was given a lot of responsibility at a young age. The work was hard, but a lot of fun. At that early age I had a keen interest in butchery as we slaughtered our own meat and I also developed a real passion for farming that I still have to this day.
When I was about nine years old, we hit hard times and moved to Blacktown in Sydney’s western suburbs. Back then it was a pretty rough place to be. The best thing I can say about the experience is that my desperation to leave drove me to an early start in my career as a chef. People ask me all the time what got me into cooking and I’d like to say a passion for food. But the truth is I hated school and needed a way out. One day in 1985, aged 15, I saw an ad for a first year chef apprentice at a restaurant on Sydney’s upper north shore. I remember saying to Dad there wasn’t any point, it was an hour and a half commute and I felt I didn’t stand a chance. But he just said I’d made the appointment and bundled me into the car. I even borrowed his leather jacket to look halfway decent at the interview. Looking back, it turned out to be one of the most important days of my life.
I knew nothing about the restaurant, though it was one of the best in Sydney at the time. I pretty much begged for the job and managed to get a three-day trial. I had a few disastrous moments during it but miraculously, the head chef told me on day three that I could go to school on Monday and tell my teachers I was leaving. He offered me the job. I worked six days a week, fifteen hours a day for the next few years. Each day I couldn’t wait to get to work to learn new things and acquire new skills. Before the end of my apprenticeship I was Sous Chef and by the time I was eighteen I was Head Chef. To supplement my wage as an apprentice I started my own business on the side making tarts and cakes for local delicatessens. In October 1991 when I was 22 years old I had the opportunity to take over The Paddington Inn Bistro. It was my first sole venture as a restaurateur. It was a pretty steep learning curve because I discovered that running a restaurant entailed so much more than just cooking and looking after customers. I ran on adrenaline, starting the day at the fruit and veg market at 4am, worked all day, finished at midnight, played pool with mates afterward, slept for a few hours and then start all over again the next day. After 3 years of hard work I was delighted to receive a coveted Chef’s Hat in the Australian Good Food Guide. After three years of running the bistro I saw another opportunity in nearby Potts Point so I took it on and ran a café and restaurant in a dual space – it was the best of both worlds. I soon received Best New Restaurant and two Chefs Hats in the Australian Good Food Guide.
From there, I was asked if I’d be interested in taking on a restaurant space in a building at Circular Quay with views of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. It came with a lot of risk but from the moment I saw it I just knew it would be my next restaurant. I took it on, with a business partner, Bruce Solomon (who I still work with to this day) and named it Aria, which felt fitting given its proximity to the Opera House. As the business grew, and Aria’s reputation spread locally and internationally, it became the launching pad for many other fantastic opportunities, whether it was offers for other restaurant sites, or cooking at the James Beard Foundation in New York, or appearing on television programs and food festivals around the globe or writing the menu for Singapore Airlines, which I have done now for the past thirteen years. In the thirty years that I’ve been cooking, I’m now just as much a restaurateur as a chef. I’m joint owner of Solotel, one of Australia’s largest and most diverse hospitality groups with over thirty restaurants, pubs and bars.
What made you take the leap into entrepreneurship?
After working at some great places and being so inspired by some of my mentors, I think I just thought “why not!” It wasn’t easy and it’s hard work and long hours but utterly worth it. I feel luck that I genuinely love my job just as much as the day I started.
What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your business and how did you overcome them?
The initial hurdles were just understanding business in general and learning how to be a smart operator. Back in the early days of The Paddington Inn Bistro I remember thinking how good it was to have all this money in the bank, before realising I hadn’t paid any of my suppliers yet! Thankfully, I’ve learnt a thing or two since then.
Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your entrepreneurial pursuits?
How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight?
I wouldn’t do it any differently. I’m lucky that my Dad was always my biggest supporter. He was pretty worried about my wanting to leave school at such a young age but he stuck by me and really pushed me. I was never raised to feel like the world owed me anything so I was always of the understanding that I’d have to work hard to achieve in life. I do remember at school though, my teacher pulling me aside for an earful and telling me I’d never amount to anything. So I guess it was less about dealing with contention and more about learning how to back and believe in myself despite others’ doubts.
What would you say was the single most influential factor in your business success?
In the early days, self-belief, determination and hard work. Nowadays, it’s understanding my own strengths and weaknesses and surrounding myself with people who fill those gaps.
What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur?
Embrace mistakes and understand that they’re an inevitable part of the process. Everyone makes them and so long as you’re learning from them you’re always going to improve.
What advice would you give to an upcoming young and old entrepreneur locally and internationally?
Work hard, have a thick skin and persevere. I was a young kid with a simple upbringing on a farm, then a pretty wild teenager heading down the wrong side of the tracks. So if I can do it I’m sure anyone can. Also, make sure you love it. You have to genuinely love what you do, it’s not something you can fake.
Connect via web: www.mattmoran.com.au