For almost five decades, the historic Chesser Cellar served this city’s politicians, media identities and business personalities. The old school establishment was known for its long lunches, bu ffets and its owner, Primo Caon, who closed the restaurant’s doors in 2012. Renew Adelaide called out for expressions of interest in February of this year and invited former Royal Naval O fficer and suave English gent Max Mason to bid to become the historic building’s tenant.
Mason, who in 2014 closed his Big Bang restaurant in Oxford, England, has been an urbane presence in Adelaide’s food and wine scene ever since charming diners as host of Duncan Welgemoed’s infamous Lola’s Pergola dinners during the 2014 Adelaide Festival. Mason worked with Welgemoed at The Pot Kiln in Berkshire, England, and was instantly hooked by South Australia’s produce and food and wine culture.
Later, Mason had a bright idea for an Adelaide dining hotspot inspired by San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions – modern Australian dining served in a small dish concept, like yum cha or tapas. He experienced State Bird Provisions (which Mason says has been full since the day it opened) with Tess Footner, a front-of-house veteran of some of this city’s nest establishments including Bistro Dom, Africola and, more recently, Magill Estate Kitchen. Footner, along with Mason and former Bistro Dom chef Shane Wilson, are behind this project that Mason promises will open on Wednesday, June 1.
“It was something that struck my heart,” Mason says of State Bird Provisions. “When I moved to Australia, I noticed that yum cha is a format which is limited to Chinese food, yet degustation is a small-dish service served throughout the whole night. I came back [to Adelaide] and approached Shane almost immediately and said, ‘This is an amazing restaurant format. I’d love to open this one day. You serve such beautiful food in both small and large dishes; I would love you to be a part of it.’”
“It was something I had never even thought of before and when Max put the idea out there I thought it was a great one,” says Wilson, who admits this is a huge project when compared to Bistro Dom. “Max was helping us out at Dom at the time. I thought it was a great idea and then we didn’t speak about it again until three months ago.”
Mason points out that the food at the Henry Austin will not be Australian versions of yum cha favourites – so scratch any perceptions of native dim sum or emu’s feet. “We’re not going to be o ffering vegemite dumplings,” Mason says. “When you think of yum cha you think of Chinese food, but I think of the yum cha style of dining where you’ve got people roaming the floor selling different plates of food, everything’s in small plate format,” Wilson says. “Basically we want to adopt that dining style.”
In Wilson, Mason and Footner have one of this city’s finest low-profile chefs who had the unenviable task of following Duncan Welgemoed as head chef at Bistro Dom after serving as Lachlan Colwill’s sous chef at Hentley Farm. Though he received less press than the Africola head honcho, Wilson delivered beautiful contemporary and elegant food with a native and foraged flourish at Dom, which he left to take on this role. When pushed on Henry Austin’s menu, which includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and take-away, Mason and Wilson were tightlipped about what to expect.
“The menu’s being worked on at the moment but it will be a similar style of food to what you’ve eaten when you’ve come into Dom,” Wilson says. “I still want to get out and forage for stuff. I want to use as much local produce as possible and get into the native produce as well.”
The Henry Austin, which is named after the building, isn’t limited to a restaurant featuring this innovative dining concept. There will be a take-away service featuring tiffin tins, a bottle shop, a bar and a function room. Make no mistake, this is a massive project, which is recently rivalled by only the Electra House transformation, and Mason doesn’t have $10m on hand like the Electra House investors. Plus, he only has six weeks to get it ready for the opening on Wednesday, June 1.
“It’s nuts,” Mason admits. “It’s also an incredibly exciting process and to have people that have bought into it as much as Tess, Shane, the front-of-house staff and the suppliers is really exciting. It’s a good thing.”
Mason concedes it is an ambitious project.
“Hugely. And I’m hopefully not a fool. I spent 10 years as a Royal Naval Officer, 10 years as a self-employed restaurateur. I take on huge projects because I have a methodological approach to how I do it. I have brilliantly reliable people.”
It won’t be a soft opening, either. The Henry Austin project has been relentlessly covered by the media since it was announced.
“Chesser Cellar was the most important restaurant in Adelaide for maybe 30 of the last 40 years,” Mason says with a touch of hyperbole. “I would very much like to be having a quiet opening and building it from that. But John Lethlean [The Australian] has written about the place twice. People drop in and out every day saying, ‘We’ve heard about it, we’re excited about what you’re doing’. It is now beyond the time when we can have a small opening.
“A lot of people would take this premises and open a small bit at a time,” Mason says. “I think there’s only one chance to make a first impression.”
With the design, Mason says they will keep it close to what is there now.
“I don’t have the money to throw about modifying the place. I think one of the last proposed occupants of the space was planning on spending upwards of three million dollars. I’m spending maybe one percent of that. Maybe 10 percent if the worst-case scenario actually happens. But I don’t have the money to spend on it. This is one guy opening it with his limited savings and a very nice contribution from Renew Adelaide [that the Henry Austin has a rent-free agreement with]. The beautiful thing is, the more you realise what you have to work with, the more you realise how beautiful what is here actually is.”
Plus, it features what Mason calls a “wonderfully archaic licence”.
“We can’t have a discotheque. We can’t have any more than a three-piece band. We can’t have beer on tap … It allows us some handicaps that are actually quite fun. While we can’t have beer on tap, we will have wine and perhaps spirits on tap. While we can’t have a discotheque we can have a small jazz band that I plan on having; we can even have a DJ playing for one or two nights.”
Does Adelaide have a population that can sustain a project such as this?
“Adelaide is a city going somewhere very fast and I think it’s very ready,” Mason answers. “Oddly enough, I think it’s more ready than a city like Melbourne which has so much choice, and the population here is braver and more ready to give something like this a go.”
The Henry Austin
29-31 Chesser Street
Open Monday to Saturday from Wednesday, June 1
Photos: Andy Nowell
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