Chris Lucas on the serious business of food

“The lockdowns had an effect on them as well,” says Lucas. “It was traumatic, and nothing was normalized. I don’t hold anyone to account. People did what they had to do. ”

With 500 staff at 80 Collins Street (including Society, Lillian and buzzy downstairs Japanese grill Yakimono) and nearly 1500 more at his other venues (Flinders Lane steakhouse Grill Americano opened in March), Lucas says over the past two pandemic years he often felt like the captain of struggling ship. He organized daily free meals for staff who needed them, employed two psychologists and paid the equivalent of JobKeeper to 120 foreign workers who didn’t qualify for government support.

'It was traumatic': Chris Lucas with Vicki Wild and Martin Benn at Society in May 2021.

‘It was traumatic’: Chris Lucas with Vicki Wild and Martin Benn at Society in May 2021.Credit:Kristoffer Paulsen

“I felt a deep sense of obligation to people and that’s why under no circumstances could I accept losing any staff. Yes, we pivoted to takeaway, but we also, I think, went from being a restaurant business [to] sort of like a… multifaceted psychologist / social services business. Sixty percent of the time we were dealing with human issues. ”

On Melbourne hospitality’s nadir – a lockdown called just before Valentine’s Day in 2021 – Lucas says the local industry threw out $ 30 million in food. The stakes were high personally (the pandemic has cost him “millions”, he says) and for the wider industry, which explains why he appointed himself an unofficial spokesperson for hospitality and small business in the media.

Isn’t there a danger, though, given the political divisions swirling around at the time, that some potential customers might have been left with a bad taste in their mouth?

The bill for two at Lillian Brasserie.

The bill for two at Lillian Brasserie.

“I think in life you’ve got to believe sometimes in things, and you’ve got to take a stand,” he says. “And you’ve got to cop the criticism that comes with it. I was prepared to do that because I was witnessing firsthand the destruction of everything that I knew near and dear. ”

Lucas caught the hospitality bug growing up in a hotel run by his Greek immigrant father Con in Geelong. But his dad’s death when Lucas was only 15 set him on a different path. Honoring his late father’s wishes he went to Monash University, graduating with a science degree and majoring in pharmacology.

You can tell that his love for science is never far away by the way his eyes light up talking about innovations in genomics. “We are literally in the throes of curing a lot of very major long-term diseases like Alzheimer’s, hopefully MND, certainly lots of different cancers,” he says, “through the mapping of the human genome.”

After uni, computer behemoth IBM snapped him up and he spent several years working in marketing and IT. He lived and worked a stint in Silicon Valley (Steve Jobs is an idol) and later made a fortune from a telecommunications start-up.

It wasn’t until his mid-40s, in 1995, that he returned to hospitality, opening up Number One Fitzroy Street in St Kilda. The Botanical in South Yarra was next, which he sold in 2007 for a reported $ 16 million. Many restaurants have followed, and another Melbourne venue is in the planning stages even as you read this.

It begs the question: why so many?

“When you’re a creative person, there’s no off switch,” he says. “You know, I don’t even understand the concept of retirement. My father died on the job. I don’t want to use the nasty word – Rupert Murdoch – but he’s 90 years of age and he’s still going. Bob Hawke was still going at 70 years of age… If you look in the creative sphere, for instance, Spielberg is 70-something and still making amazing movies. ”

But given how slim restaurant margins already are, and how precarious the hospitality industry has shown itself to be, isn’t there a danger his creative drive will ultimately end in financial ruin?

“Risk is built into a restaurateur’s life,” says Lucas. “We probably take more risks in business than anyone else – with the exception of people in the movie or theater business.”

The theater analogy is interesting. Lucas may be a savvy businessman but he delights in the effect a well-designed experience can have on a customer, as a director might see their film become a box-office smash. You also get the sense that Lucas enjoys the minor celebrity status that comes with being a cultural influencer. He rubs shoulders with a coterie of interesting, wealthy and powerful people every day.

Lillian Brasserie's crumbed King George whiting with gribiche sauce.

Lillian Brasserie’s crumbed King George whiting with gribiche sauce.Credit:Joe Armao

Outside the restaurant world, Lucas has two hobbies: fishing (whiting and snapper in Port Phillip Bay) and reading (he has subscriptions to The New York Times and The Economist and is currently enjoying a book about Stephen A. Schwartzman, the CEO and co-founder of US investment giant Blackstone). He is a passionate wine collector (a 1961 Chateau Latour magnum “worth $ 30 or $ 40 grand” takes pride of place in his cellar) and later in the week he’ll be traveling to Burgundy and Bordeaux with his fiancee, Sarah Lew, to visit suppliers and take a much-needed rest from business.

As we wind up our chat, Lucas is upbeat about Melbourne’s future. The crowds are back at the footy, he’s excited about the recent announcement of a new contemporary art gallery and he’s confident the city’s CBD will thrive once more, if it can entice more people to live here.

“I love this city. Nothing excites Melburnians more than a new restaurant, and to be able to go out to four new restaurants – it’s inspiring, I hope, other people in the industry to rebuild, reopen and do new things. ”

THE BILL, PLEASE

Lillian Brasserie, 80 Collins Street, Mebourne VIC 3000, (03) 8618 8900, open for lunch and dinner 12-10pm, seven days a week.

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