The rise of Matt Moran.
He was just a boy from Blacktown who used cooking as a way out of school. So how did Matt Moran become one of the most successful chefs in the country and head of his own food empire?
You would expect to meet him for lunch in a discreet location, away from the rubberneckers and camera phone-wielding selfie hunters. Yet here’s Matt Moran, waiting at the most visible spot, plonked down at a table in the middle of his restaurant, Chiswick, in Sydney’s well-heeled Woollahra.
The irony seems completely lost on him, that in a restaurant favoured by socialites, pollies and the garden-variety rich, everyone is gawking at Moran, the blue-collar kid and self-described “thug" from Blacktown. But he seems just fine with it. Then again Moran, who turns 48 this year but notes he is still 47, (“Don’t mix them up,” he deadpans), has never been averse to the spotlight since arriving on TV screens in 2004 as a judge on My Restaurant Rules. This week, Moran returns to judging duties, along with Maggie Beer, on Foxtel’s The Great Australian Bake Off.
His reputation as one of Australia’s leading chefs long predated his first TV gig. In the early ’90s, his culinary talents were first on display in the kitchen of The Paddington Inn. In 1995 he opened Moran’s to critical acclaim. But it was his flagship fine diner, ARIA, which solidified his star status when it debuted in 1999.
Maybe it’s the shaved head, the lazily disguised tattoos, the motorbike fetish or intense glare of someone not particularly interested in playing the game, but there’s no disputing Moran’s status as the original bad boy of Australian cooking.
“Well I don’t take any sh*t if that’s what you mean,” he says, laughing, oblivious to the mild hysteria around him as the lunch crowd slowly realise the “name above the door” is sipping chenin blanc nearby.
“I’m a bit OCD. I can be a handful in meetings. But it’s only because I’m a perfectionist and I know what I want.”
Now, after 30 years in the kitchen, Moran is making his biggest leap yet: from chef to business mogul.
Aside from plans to work a brief stint in the kitchen at ARIA, following the restaurant’s widely touted refurbishment to be unveiled on November 10, Moran’s days behind the burners are, for the most part, over.
Instead, he and business partner Bruce Solomon, the multimillionaire behind such behemoths as The Golden Sheaf and Opera Bar, are set to embark on one of the most ambitious hospitality empires since Justin Hemmes sailed into Sydney in his yellow Lamborghini.
Merging their two companies to operate under Solomon’s Solotel banner, the pair currently has five major venues in the pipeline, including a sprawling “Coogee Pavilion-type” mega-pub in Brisbane and a lavish fine diner at Sydney’s Barangaroo.
The group also recently outlaid just under $20 million for The Australian Hotel in Chippendale, with plans to transform it into one of the city’s dishiest gastro pubs by 2018.
“We’re also looking at a few other venues – both pubs and restaurants,” says Moran, who hints he might fulfil a lifelong dream to open an Italian eatery.
“There are so many things I want to do. We’re not putting a number on it. Basically, Bruce and I plan to take every opportunity as it comes.
“I love opening places and I think that’s just what we will do until we can’t anymore. When I was 15 my only goal was to move to the grill section, so I’ve never really been one to look too far ahead. And I’m not motivated by money. I just try to be motivated by projects that I love.”
With a deal that pushes him into the league of Australia’s top earners, it’s hard not to be impressed with Moran’s journey from Blacktown to the eastern suburbs, where he lives with wife Sarah and two kids Harry, 14, and Amelia, 11.
While his kids are enrolled in private schools, Moran dropped out of Grantham High School at 15. One of his best friends, he admits, is an ex-bikie, while two others are currently serving time, though he won’t go into detail.
He’s also circumspect about his early family life in Seven Hills, other than to say his relationship with his father Jim and brother Anthony remains strong.
“I’m not that close with my mother and sister,” he says. “My sister was older by seven years and she left home before I really got to know her.”
For Moran, his way out was via the kitchen, though he admits it had more to do with avoiding school and less to do with a burning love of food. “I went to high school in Seven Hills. Do you know what I mean?” he says. “It was one of the roughest schools in Australia. I hated it. I couldn’t wait to leave.”
Perhaps sensing his son’s feelings, Moran’s father threw his support behind his decision to quit school. When Moran started an apprenticeship at the French restaurant La Belle Helene in Roseville, Jim would drive the 60km round trip to drop off and pick up his son every day.
“To keep an eye on me probably,” Moran says, smiling. “But I remember one night he said to me, ‘Is this really what you want to do?’ And I said, ‘It is. I really love it.’ And he was on board after that.”
Solomon has played a major role in the chef’s burgeoning career, with the pair first crossing paths at The Paddington Inn where a 22-year-old Moran took up as sous chef under Stefano Manfredi. “The reviews were incredible from day one,” says Solomon, who still owns the pub.
“I remember Matt came in and started sending things out like duck livers with sweet potato puree and prosciutto. Back then dishes like that were just unheard of. It was groundbreaking stuff and it was such an exciting time because it set the standard for pub food and, in a lot of ways, the tone for the way we eat now.”
The pair became good friends and, in 1999, Solomon helped bankroll ARIA at Circular Quay, the first of seven ventures that would lead to their high-profile merger in May this year.
Fittingly, it is ARIA that has returned to the top of the pair’s priorities with a multimillion dollar makeover under way that Moran hopes will reposition the restaurant back to its heyday.
“Back then it was the most talkedabout place in the country. I want to get back to that,” says Moran, with the energy and confidence of someone willing to put in the hard yards to excel at whatever they do.
Perhaps it’s his perfectionism that is responsible for his success, or perhaps it’s the work ethic born from his bluecollar beginnings, but whatever Moran has cooking, it’s bound to be sweet. The Great Australian Bake Off starts 8.30pm, October 11, on Foxtel.
“I’m a bit OCD. I can be a handful … but it’s only because I’m a perfectionist and I know what I want”