Guilt-free dining used to be about free-range eggs and local produce but a new Adelaide precinct is shining a light on the oft-forgotten human side of the equation.
“Why do we need to sell our souls?” asks Brendan Wessells, head chef of the new fine-dining experience, Aurora, on Light Square.
Aurora is the brainchild of Nick and Sophie Dunstone, whose not-for-profit Light Adelaide precinct aims to reinvent the hospitality industry and support South Australia’s creative sector. Heading their flagship restaurant, Aurora, is former d’Arenberg Cube and Leonard’s Mill head chef, Brendan Wessells.
Wessells came on board with the Light Adelaide project when it was “still a building site,” affording him “the pleasure of designing the restaurant and the kitchen; the whole workspace, and watching the whole transformation take place.
“Our kitchen is front and centre of the restaurant. As soon as you walk into the restaurant, that’s the site that you’re greeted with – the kitchen and the chefs, and it’s very deliberate. We want that engagement. We want people to come up and feel happy to ask us questions.”
Even the staffing complement has been well considered.
“We have a brigade system. We want people to spend time as a commi [junior chef], learn how to be the best commi, then move on to a demi [assistant chef], train people to be a demi…etc. The way people are trained in other parts of the world, the institutional pressures means we over-promote people when they’re not ready to occupy that position, that’s why the failure rate is so high. We have a bigger team than other places so one person doesn’t have to cover more than one shift. One person, one position and they get paid accordingly.”
Wessells calls Aurora his “anti-ego project”, referring to the toxicity that is rife in the hospitality industry.
“The wage costs in this country are very high,” he says, “so chefs don’t have the time they used to have to train their personnel the way they deserve. Our profit margins are so slim, and you’ve got the owners above you trying to squeeze out everything that you possibly can. That’s understandable, but with those pressures come a lot of bad habits.”
Wessell’s aim is to turn that around, offering a supportive, positive workplace that can provide proper training and opportunities to his staff.
“It’s an R&D [research and development] project. We want to be able to hand over all our combined efforts and research and data, methodologies and say ‘Guys, you can do this. You can treat your staff kindly, you can pay them correctly, you can create a motivating, positive environment, and this is how we’ve learnt how to do it.’ It is an investment in the next generation.”
The profits from the restaurant not only go back into training junior staff, but in supporting the local arts community.
“The two industries that got hit most [by COVID] and became immediately redundant were the arts community and the hospitality industry. These are two industries that pamper sycophantically to our clients. We bend over backwards to please people and then in one foul swoop, we were made redundant. How did that happen? We need to find processes where we can make ourselves sustainable.”
And his process, says Wessells, is simple: the food he makes “has to be super yummy. Done. End of story. I care about seasonality. I care about sustainability. I care about the ethics behind the [farming] practices. And I really care about the flavour.
“Every time you dine here, every meal you have contributes to our ability to host an artist. By eating in Aurora, you contribute significantly to our artistic and hospitality communities.”
While some of Wessells’ menu may be influenced by his South African heritage, it’s not exclusively so.
“We are fortunate enough – myself and some of our other chefs – that we’ve worked internationally and are very fortunate to have experienced so many different flavours. There’s an entire world out there for us to explore so we try to tap into as much as we possibly can. If it’s from South East Asia or Japanese or South African or Central Europe… it doesn’t matter to me.”
To ensure a culture of excellence, every single component of every single dish is tasted and recorded.
“We teach our staff how to be hyper-critical when it comes to their palette. We teach them those nuances and fluctuations within ingredients and how that changes the dish. We want a brigade of thinking chefs, intelligent chefs that really put a lot of energy into the food that they’re preparing.”
As an inclusive environment, Aurora aims to foster creativity amongst everyone, from their commi [junior] up to their sous chef. Staff are often chased to create their own dish which they have to research and present to the senior staff for feedback.
“We’ll talk them through it,” explains Wessells. “We’ll say, ‘Right, let’s look at your flavour constructs, let’s look at your pairings, where are the top notes, etc etc’ and we help them massage the dish. It’s not always going to make it on the menu but the process is as valuable as the outcome. That’s how you learn.
“We also have a food truck. It’s a brilliant, brilliant eating concept just outside. We want to be able to encourage our younger staff to come up with a dining concept. We teach them how to do the costings, the ordering, work out the logistics, the staffing… basically we teach them all the aspects of running a business. Once we’ve gone through that with them, we want to put them out there as a pop-up event that they can run for a week. Chefs can cook but so many of us fail because we’re not trained how to run a business. So we want to be able to teach them how to succeed in the business world as well.”
As the colder weather sets in, heartier and saucier dishes are set to begin appearing on Aurora’s menu.
“We are in a beautiful transition period from summer into autumn. The root vegetables that are coming in at the moment, the kales that are coming in at the moment… the vegetables are the most exciting. But we’re [also] looking at putting a venison dish on the menu, and we’ve got lovely steaks over the braai, which is like a BBQ only ten times better, cooked over coals. Peri Peri Poussin – I want it known as the best in Australia. That’s my ambition. The best peri peri chicken!”
Alongside their à la carte and tasting menus, Aurora is also indulging in lazy weekend lunches and considering other new ideas. Their Sunday Long Lunch capitalises on the concept of the longer, relaxed Sunday lunch, opening up the venue for that extended experience.
“We’ll have live musicians, supporting that tie-in with the restaurant and arts community. Recently, we had a solo cellist. Magnificent! We’re just exploring different options and opportunities, and having fun while we’re doing it. We’re surrounded by office blocks so what we also want to be able to do is offer more of a cichetti [bar food] style for when people finish work. That would a late afternoon to early evening offering – come and sit at the bar and just have some local cheeses and wine, and disengage from your work day.”
So, fine dining, sustainable practices and a philanthropic ethos that ensures all profits go back into training staff and supporting artists? Is such a place too good to be true?
“I would like people to know we are sincere. We are different for the right reasons,” says Wessells. “There is a larger purpose to our existence than restaurant profits. There’s a far greater purpose to what we are trying to achieve for our industries and our community. I’d really like people to know that about us. We’re proud of the quality of food we are producing and the quality of the service we offer.”
Indeed, the quality is par excellence, as is the philosophy of the whole Light Adelaide precinct. Find out more from the Aurora website, or better, make a booking to treat yourself to superb, guilt-free dining.
Aurora is located at 63 Light Square, Adelaide, open for lunch and dinner on selected days.
Interview by Rod Lewis