Christopher Adams

The Business Herald’s markets and banking reporter.

Prime chef has recipe for success

Award-winning city restaurateur fulfils his teen dream of mastering in food.

In Sean Connolly's stellar year Cuisine magazine named The Grill as its Restaurant of the Year and he also opened a Sydney restaurant. Photo / Richard Robinson
In Sean Connolly's stellar year Cuisine magazine named The Grill as its Restaurant of the Year and he also opened a Sydney restaurant. Photo / Richard Robinson

By the time Sean Connolly hit his teens there was only one place he wanted to be - in the kitchen.

The Sydney-based, British-born chef says he'd all but given up on school at the age of 13.

"I'm more creative than academic," says Connolly, who opened award-winning central Auckland eatery The Grill last year. "I just decided I wanted to be a chef and I didn't want to do anything else."

His father, an academic, realised his son's passion was food and lined him up some work experience at a Yorkshire hotel where he spent his Friday and Saturday nights working for free until he was 16.

After leaving school, Connolly worked at Huddersfield's Pennine Hilton and then the nearby Golden Cock restaurant under chef Peter Midwood, who died in 2004.

"Peter was like the Gordon Ramsay of Yorkshire," says Connolly, who's now 45. "If he didn't like you he'd tell you where to go."

Connolly's first year as a restaurateur has gone pretty well with Federal St's The Grill - a partnership with SkyCity, which contributed $4 million to the venture - being named Cuisine Restaurant of the Year in August.

And he opened another restaurant, central Sydney's The Morrison, named after 1960s icon Jim Morrison, three months ago.

But he admits that making the transition from chef to businessman hasn't been without its challenges.

"You've got to get the numbers right," says Connolly. "You've got to charge the right prices."

That might sound obvious, but he says it's an area where many chefs-cum-restaurateurs slip up.

"Chefs are notoriously bad at that stuff and I'm one of those people," says Connolly. "You've got to make sure your ratio of staff to customers is correct and your food costs come in on budget."

He says The Grill - part of a hub of Federal St restaurants run by well known culinary figures, including chefs Al Brown and Peter Gordon - is essentially "a vehicle for drinking good wine".

"The big driver for me, in any restaurant, is beverage sales - that's where you'll make your margins," Connolly says. "It's a challenge because it only takes one bloke to twist the bottle and give it to someone."

Pointing towards The Grill's kitchen, he adds, "I've got eight chefs cooking in there."

He says securing the best culinary talent is crucial to a restaurant's success."You get what you pay for," Connolly says. "I pay a premium for my head chefs because I need to know I'm surrounded by good people and when I walk away from the restaurant I've got the best people in the country cooking in that kitchen."

He uses butchers as informal transtasman recruitment agents.

"A butcher will tell you who's doing well and who's not doing well," Connolly says. "I've basically made sure I've got the best chefs there are."

He says TV3's Under The Grill , a documentary series about the weeks leading up to the The Grill's opening just before last year's Rugby World Cup, contributed to the restaurant's success.

So did the Cuisine award, which Connolly says he was "over the moon and surprised" to win.

"I think over the first six months we were struggling to get some traction in Auckland," Connolly says. "We were doing well, but we weren't as busy as I felt we should have been."

The Grill was supposed to open three weeks before the start of the Rugby World Cup, but building delays resulted in the opening just three days before the tournament began.

"It was a baptism of fire."

Connolly, who has lived in Australia since 1988, says the opportunity to open The Grill arose after he met SkyCity chief executive Nigel Morrison while he was running restaurants at Sydney's Star City casino and hotel.

"I was walking though the restaurant talking to people - that's my thing now, getting out and meeting the customers - and I had a quick chat with Nigel. He said, 'Can you cook this type of steak for me in New Zealand? It went from there, really, just conversations, and a year later we were opening up."


Restaurant opening Give it 20 months in these tough times

The average lifespan of a local hospitality business is just 20 months, according to the Restaurant Association of New Zealand.

"It's a tough environment," said association chief executive Marisa Bidois. "It's not cheap to operate a restaurant ... you've got to be very savvy with your costs and expenses."

She said less than buoyant economic conditions made it difficult to get new ventures up and running, but on the whole the industry was feeling optimistic.

"New restaurants continue to open up, and in fact we've had 1.6 per cent more restaurants open up in the past year than we saw in the previous year," Bidois said. "It's a minimal increase, but it's still an increase."

She said it put strain on existing businesses when new restaurants opened and took away customers.

"But that's the nature of the market, I guess."

She said chefs faced a number of challenges when they took the big step of opening their own restaurant.

"When you step into the owner role you're often times having to be the accountant and marketer and you also have to look after the IT and other aspects of the business," Bidois said. "That can be quite overwhelming."

- NZ Herald

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