Neue Luxury spoke to chef Shannon Bennett and architect Callum Fraser about creating a sensory dining experience.
Over the past decade Australia’s dining landscape has changed beyond the imaginable. Composed as a perfect gastronomic double helix of sorts with adventurous, educated and demanding consumers forming one structure while intelligent, entrepreneurial and inventive chefs provide a dynamic counterpoint. Binding the two are growing teams of sensory nucleotides such as architects, advertisers and marketers. Neue Luxury spoke to chef Shannon Bennett (Vue de Monde) and architect, Callum Fraser (Elenberg Fraser) about the evolution of Vue de Monde and their new theatre of experience. To borrow from the French, it would appear that ‘bonne renommée vaut mieux que ceinture dorée’ (A good reputation is better than riches).
Neue Luxury: Let’s rewind a little to begin with, how did the relationship between yourself and Callum begin?
Shannon Bennett: Callum was dining in Vue de Monde and came up and asked for a discount. No, Callum came in and dined. That’s how it all started.
NL: Obviously the vision for Vue de Monde has changed over the years, so what was the brief for this particular site?
SB: I started out by asking Callum to visit, that we have something that could be very tacky. The view is something that makes it pretty tacky, but at the same time, it’s one of the reasons we wanted to be here. We wanted Vue de Monde to finally have a view. The next phase of that would be looking backwards actually, looking back in history.
NL: Obviously for you Callum, the notion of site and place was important? Callum Fraser: This is obviously the second restaurant with Shannon. We’ve also completed a couple of cafes over the past ten years. We’ve come to an understanding about what Vue de Monde is and how it’s much bigger that just a restaurant. This place is an idea. It has many connotations and many aspects to it, which are difficult to define. The engagement with contemporary art, with single sourced very specific suppliers. The instances of how this restaurant comes together in an atmospheric sense is very different to most other restaurants where you know exactly what you’re going to get when you turn up at the door. The idea at Vue de Monde is sort of the reverse if you like. You never get the same thing. You always have a new and different experience. So we came to the project with that understanding. It seemed to me that this is a logical destination for the restaurant as its name means ‘view of the world’.
NL: How did you reconcile the ideas found within the food, the place and the architecture?
CF: Well, place is inescapable in all things. When Shannon talks about the history of food and dining and doing new things with old techniques, I think we tried to find a similar role for the architecture within the restaurant. The first thing we came to was exactly where we are, which is pre-civilization. The Yarra River is a kind of logjam directly out the front of the restaurant, which separates the salt water and the fresh water. It’s a very important spiritual place and it’s a place people come to catch their food, to eat their food, to celebrate together. We try to bring something of that back in contemporary sense. Using what it was in pre-civilization to try to liberate the themes of the restaurant today. That’s why it looks very closely at the river estuary, its materiality and its ritual. For instance, when we come up through the lifts and break through the reeds we appear at the billabong and then move through to the grasslands. It puts together an understanding of landscape and place within an orchestrated, ritualistic composition.
NL: A theatre of experience? CF:
Well, that, and how you take someone through that journey. It’s one thing from an architectural point of view to try and imbue those notions, to make them sometimes visible and sometimes not. It’s one thing to have architectural intent and then another to transfer that intent down to the customer.
SB: It’s important that we don’t force feed people knowledge. The architecture always had an intent. It has several different layers to it and we wanted customers to discover it. If they want more knowledge behind the scenes all our team are trained extensively. I remember in the final presentation before we went into construction drawings our management team had a presentation within Callum’s office. It was important for the whole team to be there so they knew the philosophy from day one.
NL: So it’s really about a serendipitous exchange of knowledge?
SB: Well, for the first time you come here, I think it’s all about the view. And when you come here for the second time, it’s all about what’s inside. The first time, you don’t want to overwhelm people. They come here, they enjoy themselves, they may only come for the bar. They only see a small part of what we’ve done. You just need them to be consumed by the whole atmosphere.
CF: The other thing that we’re all conscious of, is a lot of recent restaurant design has put design in the way of the experience and we really tried to avoid that and take quite a different path. Our cue was actually the sensory nature of the food that’s presented and the way that it affects the palate. It’s very interactive and engaging with the chefs delivering the food and explaining what they’re doing and where things are from. But overwhelmingly for me, what was at stake was this idea of sensory dining. So if the restaurant could actually amplify these ideas, really make you ready to receive the message of the food, then it would complement what the restaurant is rather than getting in the way of the restaurant.
NL: So did the menu change along the way as a result of the design process?
SB: The menu continuously changed throughout the process. Like the design of the table changed from saying, ‘No, actually, we’ve got something there that we may want to do in the future. Where we may plate a dessert straight up on the table.’
NL: It sounds like there’s a back-story there?
SB: There’s many little things like that, but we also wanted the dining room and the bar to have a sense of heritage without having to force it on people. If a customer wanted to enquire about a detail we’re more than happy to sit there for 15 minutes and tell them about our ideas. The design is being created in such a way that we can actually add to what we’re doing over time.
NL: Have you witnessed a change in the customer in recent times? In terms of their level of knowledge and what they’re expecting from a dining experience?
SB: I think every time you dine in a restaurant, your second experience is always going to be much more difficult to meet expectations.
NL: Like a second date?
SB: A second date with a supermodel.
NL: Luxury has always had a relationship to materials and I’m curious about how the curation of materials, whether it be the raw brick or the kangaroo hide or…
CF: Or the Chesterfield latex…
NL: Or the Chesterfield latex… How have you managed that relationship between materials?
CF: When I think about what luxury is personally, it’s actually about the experience and interaction. I think we’re trying to amplify the sensory nature of design and the dining experience.
SB: I think the other component to luxury is uniqueness. Luxury no longer is something materialistic. It’s got to be something that’s completely unique. We have tried to achieve that uniqueness through design materiality. Our mission statement for Vue de Monde is to always try to create something you cannot create at home. That’s a continuously shifting bar, and design is something, like using kangaroo leather, that creates a sense of luxury.
NL: It sounds like you are liberating the fine dining experience from its historical shackles.
SB: In a sense it is. Fine dining and the basics of fine dining have not changed in so long, I think it’s about time it does. Why do we really have a tablecloth? In certain eras there were practical reasons for having table clothes, tables were used in different functions. Obviously they’re all scuffed and marked up and used for one purpose during the day, and then at night they were used for dining. We don’t need that anymore. We’ve got people who care for our tables, boot makers who make and service our tables for us. They make our tables feel organic and luxurious. You look at them and you say, ‘What are they? Why isn’t the leather just one stretched piece across the top? There were these little curious design problems that in the end revealed a unique set of luxuries.
NL: What about the notion of time? Obviously, time plays a critical factor in the reading and the delivery of the experience. How have you managed that notion of time in the restaurant?
SB: We want you to be lost in the moment and to not think about time.
NL: Was that something for you Callum in terms of the narrative and design of the space?
CF: Yes, definitely. I think the restaurant is not a single, one-shot gesture. It’s actually something that layers up and is activated by the people within it. Upon arrival, you’re taken through a very arranged ritual to get to your table, it doesn’t stop when you actually arrive there. Things unfold around you, and the room takes on many different aspects throughout the night, which is the great thing about restaurants, isn’t it? Pure phenomenon. Pure ritual.
NL: Did you work on the experience together?
SB: When Callum designed the last space, we always had that in mind.
NL: So it’s almost an accumulative process, the relationship between architect and restaurateur?
SB: Absolutely. That’s why it baffles me when a restaurateur will use a different architect on each new restaurant that they establish. Your architect can only progress with the knowledge they have accumulated over time. It should be an evolution.
NL: Almost episodal?
SB: Pretty much—you don’t know where the future lies, but you look at where we are now and I always felt that the space Vue de Monde occupied in Normanby Chambers was only ever a stepping-stone. It was available at the time and it served the purpose. But we always fought against a lack of space in that design.
CF: I think that’s key, because when people work together in a serial relationship, it can sort of go two ways. They can either predict what they think the other person is actually after, continuing the same kind of language and story, or it can be a genuine interaction. I think with this place, it required a suspension of disbelief to begin with because when you arrived in the old observation deck, it was a nightmare. There are many stories of restaurants going to the tops of the world and become tacky, touristy experiences. So having suspended belief actually gave us the opportunity to reinvent something from first principles. I think what you see here in the restaurant is unlike any other restaurant. It’s a brand new palette and completely different method of service and delivery. The restaurant’s been thinned out to forty-eight seats. It got smaller, not bigger. There are a whole series of crazy inversions.
NL: Shannon, in terms of the evolution of Vue de Monde is it as important to discard experiences as much as it is to accumulate them?
SB: There are layers of the old restaurant in here, and that’s one of the things about time, you just learn. We made mistakes in the last design and there are mistakes you live with, but at the time they weren’t mistakes. It’s very hard to give an architect a brief, everything is always related back to produce, plates, screaming at other chefs.
NL: You obviously really enjoy the process though?
SB: I enjoy the learning process. It’s always a new experience, designing something. And you get better at certain points of it, but one thing about design is it never stops. There’s always something new, something new to learn. It can get very, very addictive. Vue de Monde will continue to evolve. There will be elements that will become stronger the longer we stay here and some parts of the design will no doubt speak to us and say, ‘don’t ever change’.
NL: What is it that you hope people will take away from an exchange with Vue de Monde?
SB: Well, hopefully they get the story. In the end ignore the view, look at what’s on the table, look at what’s around you and ask yourself if you get a sense of place and occasion, of being in Melbourne. If you don’t get that then it’s back to the drawing board.
For more visit www.vuedemonde.com.au