As the General Manager of Momofuku Seiōbo, Kylie Javier Ashton has arguably one of the coolest gigs in Australian hospitality. To whet your appetite for the ‘The Bottom Line at the Frontline’ session at the inaugural FRONT event, which Kylie joins as a Featured Speaker, we sat down with her to learn about Australia’s evolving hospitality scene, the relationship between food and theatre, and why fancy tablecloths are on the decline.
Read more interviews in this series here.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your current role, how did you end up in it, and what does your average day at work look like?
Kylie Javier Ashton: I started in hospitality 12 years ago. I started off in bars and my first job in a restaurant was at Tetsuya’s [Restaurant Sydney], which was pretty daunting, but as soon as I started working there I loved it. I’ve always loved food but because I never wanted to be a chef I didn’t really think about the service side as a career. But once I started working there I just fell in love – it was an amazing place to work and learn and be around food and that creativity. I’m a pretty creative person; so seeing all those elements coming together was really exciting for me.
I worked at Tetsuya’s for a few years, and then I went to work at Bentley Restaurant and Bar so I could learn more about wine and drinks. I then went on to open a restaurant called Duke Bistro, which used to be on top of the Flinders [Hotel] in Surry Hills. That was my first role as a manager and a big learning curve.
From there, I started at Momofuku Seiōbo. I’ve now been General Manager (GM) for going on six years. Originally it wasn’t my intention to stay – it was the most exciting place to open in Sydney in so long that I just wanted to be part of it, and when the opportunity came up to take over as the manager I was really lucky to land that job. I’m still here because it’s such a great place to work.
When a restaurant is six years old, to reimagine and bring all those elements together… it takes on a life of its own.
In my role as GM, there’s a lot of admin and the backend of working a restaurant. But as I said, I’m a fairly creative person, and I work closely with Paul [Carmichael, Momofuku Seiōbo Executive Chef] to make sure that his vision is represented in the service aspect and in everything else down to menus and menu design. Recently, we worked on our rebranding with a girl who used to be our assistant manager and is also an artist. That was a really fun project to work on.
When a restaurant is six years old, to reimagine and bring all those elements together… it takes on a life of its own. The restaurant has really evolved from what it was six years ago, and trying to reset and think about where we are now with our current chef and what our vision for the restaurant is was a really fun project. I’m also part of service, which is like theatre: that’s the really fun part, and being part of that keeps me really connected to the restaurant.
In terms of that level of involvement with the reimagining and rebranding, is there always that much scope for creativity in GM roles, or is that something that’s unique to your role at Momofuku?
To be honest, I don’t really know. I think that it depends on where you are. I’ve always put my hand up and really pushed to be a part of things because I have a lot of ideas and I’ve always been given lots of opportunities to be part of creative processes, which I’ve always been grateful for. When I was working at Bentley, I had the opportunity to write the cookbook and putting Brent [Savage, Chef of Bentley Restaurant + Bar]’s ideas into words that people could understand. Sometimes chefs don’t necessarily think like that.
For me, creativity is about problem-solving.
For me, creativity is about problem-solving. It’s only been in the last three years that Momofuku has really given Paul and I a lot more responsibility with the restaurant and taking it to where we want our vision to go, and that’s been really exciting. I walked into a restaurant that had already been built – so I didn’t necessarily get a say in design elements – but as it has evolved I’ve become more of a part of it and it’s become more “mine”.
Over the 12 years of your career so far, what are the biggest changes that you’ve seen within the sector?
I think there’s been a real shift towards casual dining. When I started there was Rockpool, Quay, Tetsuya’s – they were the big institutions of our dining scene – and then, on the other hand, there was your cheap and cheerful local. There wasn’t necessarily a big market in the middle.
But over the last 10 years, that part of the market has really filled out now to the point that fine dining has… it hasn’t really lost its relevance, but it’s becoming less important for people to have white tablecloths and this amazing view. I think that the food and the people behind restaurants are much more front and centre and they’re more accessible to diners, which I think is fantastic.
It hasn’t really lost its relevance, but it’s becoming less important for people to have white tablecloths and this amazing view.
Another thing that has really changed is that we’re starting to really embrace our Australian identity and culture and our own food scene, whereas 10 years ago everyone was going overseas: if you were serious about working in restaurants you had to go work in Europe or North America. Now, people are coming to Australia and doing their work experience here. For a long time we said that Australia didn’t have a food identity, which I think was true to a certain degree, but now we’re starting to embrace Indigenous cultures and foods and really understanding that Australia being a melting pot is a big part of our identity.
You note that things like fancy tablecloths or good views are becoming less essential to diners. What elements do you think are essential in creating exciting, attractive hospitality spaces?
The food has to be delicious! But again, I think it’s the people. People want to know who chefs are: the whole Masterchef revolution has seeped into restaurants in a good way, because it’s no longer acceptable to just have a beautiful plate without somebody behind it. I think that is really essential. It’s love, a particular point of view, and care that give something meaning, and I think that’s what everyone’s searching for. So I think that’s really important.
People want to know who chefs are: the whole Masterchef revolution has seeped into restaurants in a good way, because it’s no longer acceptable to just have a beautiful plate without somebody behind it.
Also, the dining population is getting younger and they want something that’s going to suit them more. I think there’s really a time and place for fancy tablecloths and that really refined dining and I love that, but where I work, Momofuku has always been known to strip away all the frills so it’s just what’s on your plate and who is serving it to you. If anything, this really exposes you because there’s nothing to distract from what’s on your plate.
It’s more of a raw and real experience. It’s like in design: some of the most beautiful things are the simplest things, but when they are simple they have to be perfect. When you strip away the unnecessary things you really get down to the nitty-gritty and you see it for what it is.
What’s been your most memorable hospitality experience – either as a diner or a manager –and why?
In 2016, we were part of a big collaboration called the Gelinaz Shuffle, where you buy a ticket and you don’t know who is going to be cooking at the restaurant until the night of the dinner. It featured chefs from all around the world including Rene Redzepi (of Copenhagen’s acclaimed noma restaurant), all those top guys. We hosted in 2016, and our chef Paul went away to France it was just me with the rest of the team. When one of your big leaders is gone, it exposes you, and I felt a lot of responsibility on my end.
The restaurant has a completely open kitchen, so there’s nowhere to hide at all. For the event, we needed to create some kind of suspense – it kind of takes away from the experience when you see the guy standing in the kitchen straight away. So we covered the whole kitchen in black plastic bags, and it created this suspense as part of the dining experience.
There was a lot of theatre involved, because once everyone was seated we turned off the lights, the chef started speaking from the kitchen, and we pulled up the garbage bags to do this big reveal. Seeing all those elements come together, seeing our team work through problems and come together to create this amazing dinner… it was really special to be a part of that.
What are things that you would like to see more of in the hospitality sector in future?
More open kitchens would be great. It’s hard to strike a balance between kitchen and front of house: often there’s such a big divide, but when you break down those barriers physically, you break down those barriers on a more emotional level too.
I also think we need more women in the industry. We’re really lucky [at Momofuku Seiōbo] to have a 50/50 balance, but more kitchens need to promote better working spaces for women. Gone are the days that people just get yelled at and it’s all about ego in the kitchen. That’s definitely changing, but we can definitely work harder – both in kitchen and front of house – to make sure that we’re not working in a way that’s not necessarily a great environment not just for women, but people in general, just because it’s what we’re used to.
…hospitality is a great way to combine a lot of things that I love: food, creativity, theatre.
We also need better promotion of our industry as a viable career. I think seeing the path that I’ve taken, hospitality is a great way to combine a lot of things that I love: food, creativity, theatre. I studied performing arts, and even though I didn’t want to be an actor I love the idea of entertaining people.
I never had the right outlet, and I think that when I found restaurants it all came together. There’s an opportunity to really earn a decent salary and work in a place that creates special experiences, so I think that really pushing the front of house and service as a viable career option is an important thing going forward.
We’re expecting a lot of interstate visitors for FRONT, which is taking place at Carriageworks. What are your top recommendations for visitors looking for somewhere to eat or drink in Sydney?
Tonnes of places in Chippendale are great, but one of my favourite locals is ACME in Rushcutters Bay. Just in terms of what they are doing, and their design as well is great. Luchetti Krelle – who also did the fit-out for our restaurant – they won a Restaurant & Bar Design Award for the fit-out in 2015. ACME is definitely worth visiting if you like to be in a nice place. Saint Peter is also delicious, and you won’t get anything like that anywhere else.
Join Kylie Javier Ashton and other industry pioneers at FRONT this 9-10 August for more incisive insights into Australian workspace design and where it’s headed to next.
Kylie will be speaking as part of the “The Bottom Line at the Frontline” session on Friday, 10 August. Register for the session and inaugural FRONT event here.