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?

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - AMY HAR­RIS re­ports

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”

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