We’re profiling female cafe and restaurant owners over the next few months, thanks to the support of Uber Eats. These women are running incredible and innovative food businesses all over Australia, but many have been doing it tough due to the pandemic and in some areas the bushfires.
Here, we meet Amy Hamilton, owner of Liberté, one of regional Australia’s only critically acclaimed restaurants. She shares how she managed to turn all the negatives of COVID-19 into an opportunity to expand the business.
In the heart of Albany is an award-winning restaurant and bar owned by a woman who has sheer grit pumping through her veins.
Funnily enough, Amy Hamilton hadn’t always wanted to be in the restaurant business.
She actually started out studying arts at university after attending a private girls’ school in Perth where becoming a doctor or lawyer were perceived to be the only wise career paths.
Amy had developed a love of food and creativity from a young age but could they offer her a bright future?
“I have handwritten recipes from back when I was eight or nine,” she said.
“I’ve always enjoyed cooking but I just didn’t know that I could make a career out of it.”
In 2001, Amy began looking for a job to support her while she completed university.
She spotted a vacancy for a dishwasher at Russell Blaikie’s Must Winebar, which was just opening in Perth.
She had no experience, no qualifications and no background in hospitality but it ignited something in her.
In a handwritten letter to Russell, she made her case.
“I remember writing ‘there’s no dish pile too high or too dirty for me to clean’ [but] apparently he chucked it in the bin,” she said.
When Amy didn’t hear back for a couple of weeks, she reached out again to find out why.
“Not understanding anything about the restaurant industry, I rang up during the worst time, during service and this is a new restaurant, so they were flat out,” she said.
After several attempts without a response, Amy was finally put through to Russell.
“He said, ‘look Amy, you didn’t get the job’ and I said, ‘why not?’,” she said.
Amy’s defiance made Russell change his mind and he decided to give her a shot at washing dishes.
Her trial began the next day and as she walked through the commercial kitchen, Amy realised she’d found her calling.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” she said.
“What I loved about it was not only is it creative but it just seemed like this group of highly skilled people that are essentially maybe looked upon as society’s fringe dwellers or vagabonds.”
As she scrubbed away at the stacks of dirty dishes, Amy took a keen interest in how the kitchen ran.
Her sharp eye didn’t go unnoticed by the boss and when they were short one day of a chef, Amy was given a chance to step in.
“By this stage, my boss had realised I did have an eye for detail and did have some finesse that could translate in that profession,” she said.
She was soon offered an apprenticeship and Russell has remained a close mentor to this day.
“I remember very early on looking at my boss and thinking this is a guy [who] not only was a great chef but he was a great businessman,” she said.
“During that time, there was this whole Gordon Ramsay leading a kitchen ethos and I remember my boss Russell never raised his voice at us but yet he had such command of his staff.”
It was a lesson in leadership passed on from one of Russell’s former bosses, chef Anton Mosimann, and one that Amy’s hung on to ever since.
“He said Anton never yelled at us but he was a man that had immense power from what he didn’t say,” she said.
We are the little restaurant that can
After about a decade of working in some of Australia’s most exciting restaurants, Amy decided to take the leap and get her own one set up.
In 2014, she purchased Liberté, a rundown bar dating back to 1852 that was rumoured to be one of the first in Western Australia.
In the years to come she transformed the venue, which didn’t even have a commercial kitchen, into one of the trendiest places to wine and dine in the country.
Liberté was one of the few women-owned restaurants to be hatted by the Good Food Guide, it scored ‘2019 Bar of the Year’ at the Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Awards and Amy herself was recognised as one of FoodService’s ‘50 Next Generation Top Aussie Chefs’.
None of this had come easy but by 2020, Liberté had become one of regional Australia’s only critically acclaimed restaurants.
That’s when the pandemic hit.
It was very scary but Amy had been preparing for this her entire life.
Her combat training – from walking into a commercial kitchen with no experience and working at some of the most intense restaurants in Melbourne through to creating what Liberté is today while juggling life as a new mum and leaving a violent relationship with limited funds – was ready to kick in.
“I’ve done a lot of terrifying things in my life but there was nothing more terrifying than in the first six months of opening, not knowing when people were going to come in and how I was going to pay my staff,” she said.
“At some points, I’d be thinking I’ve got payday tomorrow and I have to find $15,000 and I don’t have it.
“When you have to deal with all of that, it conditions you as a business owner.”
To survive this year, Amy decided to hone in on the food delivery arm of their business which had been sitting quietly on the backburner.
In 2019, she said “LIBEREATS” made about $2000 for the business in the period from March to April.
In 2020, it raked in $60,000 in those months.
“When COVID happened, I was like let’s look at this as an opportunity to expand an area of the business,” she said.
“Now, 50 percent of sales are still coming from online takeaways.
“So for me, COVID-19 was quite positive.
“We are the little restaurant that can.
“There’s a level of bullheadedness or stubbornness that generates that kind of thinking.”
This series is made possible thanks to the support of Uber Eats.