Adelaide’s golden pot of kitchen talent

A procession of Adelaide’s most important chefs all passed through a tiny Hyde Park kitchen — and its influence remains powerful.

For 19 years and through four significantly different incarnations, The Pot at Hyde Park has been a torchbearer for quality Adelaide dining — and provides a startlingly accurate barometer of the latest dining trends that influence international eateries of renown.

This has been no accident, as founder and co-owner Simon Kardachi based his vision for The Pot on travelling and distilling ideas from the best he has seen and eaten. Taking into account the sparkling alumni attached to The Pot’s kitchen — from current incumbent Emma McCaskill (whose name is now incorporated into the restaurant brand) to a range of prominent Adelaide owner/chefs including Jordan Theodoros (Peel Street), Andrew Davies (Press Food + Wine, Osteria Oggi), Adam Liston (Shobosho) and Quentin Whittle (Stone’s Throw) — it would be easy to say that Kardachi has simply chased the best chefs to ensure continued success and acclaim. Yet while kitchen talent has been an important element of The Pot’s enduring success, it was never the first building block in Kardachi’s plans.

“I build the vision for a restaurant around reading the dining market — finding a niche that isn’t being filled, and catering precisely for it,” Kardachi says. “My restaurants are never designed as a food concept or with a chef first; it’s about understanding how to fill that vacant niche. I’ve spent my life thinking about food and how best to enjoy it, right down to the cutlery you use. I dissect everything to figure out why things work. I try to build knowledge about what makes customers tick, and present that knowledge back to the kitchen.”

As a result, the proprietor has maintained a very strong say in the direction and core structure of menus throughout The Pot’s long life. It has led to a curious relationship between Kardachi and the restaurant’s chefs — not overly chummy, never short on blunt exchanges of ideas, but built on mutual respect.

“It’s a hard graft for good chefs — I know the hours they put in — but because of that they often don’t get out and travel as much as I do. So, I’m constantly assessing what the chefs do. My palate doesn’t lie, and they respect that. It’s another way of saying that I’m rarely wrong,” he adds before throwing his head back and roaring with laughter, amused at the pomposity of such a statement. “What I mean is that I’m constantly in this every day. I live and breathe food. It’s about doing everything to make the business right.”

An archival wine list cover from The Melting Pot designed by Tom Gleghorn

The journey began in 1999, when a young Kardachi stepped away from a Greek restaurant in Hyde Park, where he had worked for five years, to chase his own ideas. At that time, cafe culture ruled in Adelaide, with most premises owned by financiers and accountants with limited hospitality instincts. Beyond a few elite fine-dining establishments in the city or at leading wineries — The Grange at the Hilton Adelaide, Nediz Tu, Penfolds’ Magill Estate, Petaluma’s Bridgewater Mill — the prevailing style was casual informality, with laminated menus and orders placed at the counter. Kardachi sensed a need for something different in the suburbs, and designed The Melting Pot to echo the style of an elegant, classic bistro.

“It was created against Melbourne benchmarks,” he explains. “Carpets, linen tablecloths, upholstered chairs, a plush touch. It was a deliberate attempt to focus on the quality of the dining experience, built around respect for the diner. I felt that creating a more convivial space where people felt more comfortable would get them eating out more frequently, rather than just annual occasions.”

The Melting Pot’s first chef was English-born, French-trained Anil Marwaha, lured from Melbourne where he had been working with Michael Lambie at Stokehouse. “Anil brought a lot of discipline to the kitchen that I hadn’t seen before, and it really set us up in those first two years,” remembers Kardachi.

A strong team developed, including Ben Kelly, who eventually went to Melbourne but has returned to Adelaide and is now a business partner with Kardachi in Melt Henley, SeaSalt and Shobosho restaurants.

Also in the original Melting Pot kitchen was Michael Ryan, who has since become one of regional Victoria’s most esteemed chef/proprietors, running Provenance at Beechworth (“a very, very smart chef,” remembers Simon Kardachi), and Zac Curnow, who later ran the successful Two Brothers Catering for a decade with his brother Sam. Immediate success and a slew of awards fueled greater ambitions for The Melting Pot, and Kardachi again defied prevailing convention by offering a degustation-only menu — at that stage only embraced by the nation’s elite dining rooms, such as Shannon Bennett’s Vue de monde in Melbourne.

It brought an array of cooking talent through the doors — most notably Jordon Theodoros (crowned Adelaide Chef of the Year in 2005) for about three years, Sandor Palmai (ex-Landhaus and Bar Vinum) along with Quentin Whittle (Stone’s Throw), and then young and feisty dynamo Adam Liston for about three years — who went on to T8 in Shanghai, then to Melbourne, and is now back in cahoots with Kardachi as head chef/co-investor in Shobosho.

Jordan Theodoros at Peel St (Photo: Sia Duff)

However, while accolades for The Melting Pot were still ringing loudly, Kardachi noted that global diner preferences were veering away from a fine-dining setting.

“I could sense a shift in the market, so we closed for a fortnight, did a refit to create a kitchen bar, ripped up all the plushness and upholstery and put in a communal dining bench. It was a modern bistro/wine bar that over-delivered on the quality of food it was offering.”

First chef at the rebranded Pot Food & Wine was Rocky Oliveira (now cooking at Kardachi’s SeaSalt Fish and Chipper at Henley Beach), then Sam Worrall-Thompson (now at Fine and Fettle, Stepney), Andrew Davies for a brief stint, and Ben Fenwick (now at Bird in Hand winery restaurant).

“What The Pot presented as a shared-plate menu was not such a giant leap away from the degustation format. People still tasted many plates of food, which is always a more interesting and exhilarating way to dine because it offers a chance for chefs to play more with textures and technique. Think about how the Italians eat. Think about how Asians eat. There aren’t too many cultures bound to the rigidity of sitting down to an entrée, main course and dessert. Embracing this way of eating says a lot about us loosening up as a more cosmopolitan, multicultural society.”

Still, in time the energy and focus faded, so The Pot changed again, this time becoming the launching pad for Emma McCaskill to run her own kitchen. It signalled a moment of serendipity that both Kardachi and McCaskill were simultaneously looking for significant change. She carried one of the most impressive CVs of any chef in Adelaide — having cooked at Narisawa (Tokyo), Sat Bains (Nottingham, England), Tetsuya’s (Sydney), Ezard (Melbourne) and at Penfolds Magill Estate Restaurant beside her husband Scott Huggins — yet she had never written her own menu before. And her transition wasn’t easy; sweeping away all of the previous menu upset many locals who had been very loyal Pot diners for more than a decade. “We have both learned from that,” admits Kardachi. “There has been adaptation and understanding. Now, Emma is really delivering her best after an evolution.”

Emma McCaskill (Photo: Sia Duff)

Rather than remain stuck in a holding pattern, The Pot has boldly changed — and those involved have used the restaurant as a springboard for further opportunities; not only the various chefs, but also Kardachi as he continually expands an empire of restaurants (he has now opened 11 in Adelaide’s city and suburbs).

Through such a long journey, most owners would have lost faith or patience and moved away from their original restaurant site, but Kardachi still finds great merit in what The Pot offers to its customers.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for it,” he admits. “I grew up in the area. I like the size of it, its location, and I haven’t lost faith. The nature of the industry is always changing, and my challenge is to try to remain a step ahead of it. And at The Pot, I keep seeing possibilities.”

thepotfoodandwine.com.au

Header image: Founding Pot team, 1999 (Photo: supplied)

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.