Her hard work, intelligence, and immaculate connections have put her imprimatur all over the Melbourne hospitality scene, to say nothing of her work as an advocate for the rights of women, a social worker, a percussionist, a businessperson, philanthropist, and a board member of the Victorian Women’s Trust.
A second-generation Indian Malaysian, she came to Australia in 1962 to complete school education, before an open-ended suggestion from her husband a few years later led to a career of achievements most could only strive for. From a front-of-house role in a deeply influential Brunswick Street restaurant to opening venues across the city and being named the first woman president of the Victorian Restaurant and Catering Association, Duré Dara is one of our leading lights. She was awarded the Order of Australia in 1997 for services to the community, and to promotion and fundraising activities for women’s groups, and was inducted into the MFWF Legends Hall of Fame in 2001.
My first job in hospitality was working front-of-house at Stephanie’s. One of my dear friends, Jill Gibb, a painter, and we were chatting one day about how she wanted more time to paint but was also working in hospitality to pay the bills, so I said, “let’s share the job”. We were living on Brunswick Street at the time, where it was all brothels and gambling dens, but a woman by the name of Stephanie Alexander had opened a restaurant in the middle of all the fuss, and this is where my friend was working. It was small, smart room and the food was French with a fixe prix menu. People used to call out ‘fixed pricks!’ because of our neighbouring massage parlour. Stephanie was red-headed, intense, deeply shy, and cooked food unlike anyone I had met in Australia. I found all of it to be very awe-inspiring. She would speak the most perfect French, then would switch to a very plain Australian accent, and if she made a cassoulet, it was a proper cassoulet. When we served Chinese roasted duck, she learned how to cook it with respect and skill, and that was very satisfying to me. This was a place that gave me the opportunity to serve delicious food, presented in a dining room with the most relaxed and enabling comfort and care that we could imagine. To be offered a front-of-house opportunity to match Stephanie’s dedication and care in the kitchen was a dream. Together we built an amazing team and a superb experience.
I got into this industry on my husband’s recommendation. I was working as a social worker with adolescents, and he suggested that I should take some time to enjoy my life a bit more. Being a social worker is hard. It was reason enough for me, and it has led to so many wonderful things. That’s the story of how I found myself in the industry, and I never looked back.
The reason I stayed was because hospitality came very naturally to me. I came from middle-class Malaysia, and so was accustomed to carers, servers, and cooks. I knew what service was – that hospitality wasn’t just an industry but an offering of an experience, and it felt good to do it as a job. Some people don’t have the patience, empathy, or humour for hospitality, but for me, I realised I could never get enough of it. You always have to be on, anticipating what they want before they even think to ask for it. I thrive in the environment, and I still love its true essence. If somebody throws their fur coat in your face, you smile, hang it up, get them a nice table where they can settle in, and suck their bones and lick their fingers, and you let them return to their human form. You don’t put them under the light. Likewise, if someone comes in with the impression of being nervous or overwhelmed, you give them the best seat in the house and you make their day. Everybody is treated with the same level of service and respect – that’s what hospitality is and that’s why I love it. There are no autographs, no rushing across the room to make a fuss. At Stephanie’s, I was hooked, and it set me up on a future path as a career restaurateur and opened a lot of doors for other passions in my life.
The proudest moment in my career would be when we moved Stephanie’s into a beautiful Italian-style villa in Hawthorn, and I realised what a lovely, well-run restaurant that Stephanie’s was. It was very hard work, so the moment I could recognise that we were onto something – that triggered something in me. It seems like common sense but at that time common sense was not so common. People were looking to France to see how to arrange peas on plate, and Stephanie was cooking good hearty food, amazing, delicate salads, and gorgeous little tastes. I always took notes from her on what the food was about and shared that knowledge with our marvelous team, I hired people on whether they acted with respect and love, and I always explained the food to customers (without lecturing them on things like heritage tomatoes – you can never lecture a guest on what you are offering them). In that time at Stephanie’s, I initiated the opening of Donovans and opened Nudel Bar – a chance to share all the dishes that I loved from my childhood. I was doing what I loved, and when you can take a moment to recognise that you’re doing something that you love and you’re doing it well (if not the best), that calls for a moment of satisfaction.
The mistake that taught me the most was… I used to be very emotional and quick to overlook my reservations about people or ideas because I was too trusting and wanting to make ‘happy families.’ I allowed myself too often to be emotional and too trusting rather than just be rational. Sometimes in business, you just have to be rational, but it is far mor important to see the value of something rather than only the cost of it.
There have been many mentors in my life and that list continues to grow and change. In the Australian food world, that list includes Phillip Searle, Charmain Solomon, Marieke Brugman, Janni Karitsis, Stephanie Alexander, Gay Bilson, Michelle Garnaut, Andrew McConnell and many more. All good thinkers and doers.
The most exciting development in the Melbourne/Victorian hospitality industry in the last five years is the hard work and integrity coming out of the industry. There is such a huge contribution from our hospitality leaders. There has been a real shift in the industry, it’s more user-friendly, and I see people every day who work so hard to contribute not just to hospitality but towards the likes of food security, waste management, feeding those in need, conservation of things like ancient grains and working to reduce their impact on the planet. At this year’s Legends Awards, I observed the relationships forged between the older and younger members of our industry, and the affection and respect shared between everyone in the room. There is new common ground around wanting to be better and working together to get there.
My hope for the future of Victorian hospitality is that more people find common sense around food, eating and drinking, and I hope it’s achieved by collaboration and mutual support and connection. I also want more young people to choose hospitality as a career. There are so many different and exciting avenues to travel down, and when you have that youthful energy there’s no better place to channel it than here in hospitality.
My go-to for a bite to eat is wherever the best version of what I feel like being fed at that time is. I drive to Danny’s on Blackburn Road for char kuey teow, to CCWok in North Melbourne for curry puffs and pork pastries, to Mamak for satay, Alimentari or Green-On for salad surprises, to Cibi for a Japanese breakfast and then next door to Jour for the best hot chocolate. If I feel like a quiet meal with good cooking, I will walk to Bistro Gitan, but for Sri Lankan I’ll go to Citrus in Fitzroy North, and Three Idiots in Richmond for Indian (and their chai). If I want to get out of town, I’ll visit The Lakehouse in Daylesford or Tansy’s in Kyneton, and I recently visited Chae in Cockatoo where the whole meal was a like sweet and happy meditation. I adored Anchovy so I am looking forward to trying Jeow, and I just discovered the best chicken sandwiches are at Falco. Ask me where is good and I’ll tell you because I love that wherever you are in Melbourne or Victoria, there is somewhere nearby celebrating food.