In the era of COVID-19, remote work and Zoom meetings hardly raise an eyebrow, but what if you’re running one of the country’s most anticipated restaurants and your boss, one of the world’s greatest chefs, happens to be stuck overseas? Meet Alan Stuart, the man tasked with heading Oncore, the booked-out fine-diner at Crown Sydney bringing the food of Clare Smyth – three-Michelin-star chef of London’s Core – to the harbour city.
A day in the life of 30-year-old Stuart might revolve around coordinating a team of 60 to deliver the kind of precision experience expected of such a high-profile restaurant opening, but typically it’ll end debriefing with Smyth over WhatsApp.
“We’re constantly talking to her – I call her after service, talk about how the service has been, and we’ve set up a meeting at the start of every week,” says Stuart. “Clare will mention small things that we need to work on, how to speed the service up, how to make the plating cleaner. The only way she’s able to see photos of the food at the moment is online, so if she notices something she lets me know and then we work on it.”
It’s been a long haul for the young chef, who’s spent months prepping for a launch that was delayed twice, but his persistence has seemingly paid off: Oncore is full until February, and after a week of service, he feels confident. “The fact we’ve actually managed to replicate what we do in London so successfully already, one week after opening is, I think, a testament to how great this team is.”
Stuart should know the standards. He and Smyth have worked together since 2012, when the New Zealander joined Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London and worked directly under her. “I’ve known Alan for a long, long time,” says Smyth. “And I’ve worked with him over a couple of periods of time: at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, then we stayed in touch whilst he was at Eleven Madison Park [in New York] and then went on to France, and then again when he came back to Core. He’s one of the most passionate young people I’ve ever worked with.”
So it is that Stuart has a deep understanding of very personal dishes, one combining Southern Highlands potato, roe and beurre blanc, for example, that taps into Smyth’s Northern Irish roots; or another that presents like an apple, but when cut reveals vanilla mousse around a centre of caramelised fruit. “It kind of reminds me of the similar relationship Gordon and I had,” says Smyth, who is set to travel to Australia to work side by side with Stuart in February. “You just know exactly what’s expected – you know the flavour, you know the identity.”
If negotiating time differences and up to four combined services a day to discuss just a single dish sounds tedious, consider that in these high-stakes venues meals can be managed right down to the second; in an ideal world, Smyth would be scrutinising every preparation and handling every plate of Oncore’s $300 seven-course tasting menu ($490 with matched wines).
The reality is, despite listing mainly classics, Stuart has dishes on the menu that Smyth has never even tasted – a raw kingfish and smoked seaweed broth starter, for example. “We do the tastings as a team, and I have enough people around me to support me and tell me where they think things are wrong,” says Stuart. “If we all agree, then we make a decision to make changes.”
One of those people is restaurant manager Michael Stoddart, who’s tasked with setting a tone that matches Core’s warmth with the kind of elevated edge you would expect. Like Stuart, Stoddart will consult with Smyth and her team regularly. “Clare’s put her own DNA into the restaurants, from the fingerprints on the plates to the style at the end; she’s curated the playlist from start to finish,” says Stoddart. “We just want everyone to feel relaxed, warm and welcome.”
As for whether any of his own picks will join AC/DC and Fleetwood Mac on the playlist? Smyth maintains the same level of scrutiny. “I’ve been told I’m allowed to present a couple of songs here and there,” Stoddart says. “But Clare’s got to have the final approval on that.”
The Good Food Guide 2022 magazine will be published November 30 with presenting partners Citi and Vittoria Coffee, and free with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Also on sale from December 7 in newsagents and supermarkets.