Opening and sustaining a successful restaurant involves a lot more than just curating an outstanding menu. It requires navigating licences, bookwork, rostering, general operations and much more.
Dave Stewart has been through it all. The Gippsland-born chef opened Ascot Food Store in Melbourne’s Moonee Ponds in 2014. While his dream was to run a bistro, technicalities resulted in the launch of a café instead.
Rebranding brings operators a new set of challenges and an element of risk. But after hitting the refresh button, Stewart launched Ascot Food + Wine — a venue that teams European fare with a stellar wine selection.
The chef talks to Hospitality about growing up in Gippsland, receiving the keys to his first restaurant space and how he transformed the venue from a day-to-night concept.
The Victorian region of Gippsland is renowned for its incredible scenery, farms and produce. It has long been a source of inspiration for chefs across the country, including Dave Stewart, who spent much of his childhood with his grandparents in Yinnar.
“Without sounding too cliché about it all, it got me in touch with that whole ‘living off the land’ thing,” he says. “They had property with orchards and berries and my grandmother had a love for baking and cooking.”
Stewart would later move to Traralgon, a “bigger country town”, where he pulled some strings to get his first kitchen gig. “One of my cousins Jodie [Vogt] was a restaurateur,” he says. “She owned two pubs, a restaurant and a hotel. When I was at school, I was unsure of what I wanted to do, so I hit her up and asked if I could do some work experience and that was where it all began. I fell in love with cooking and the way the kitchen worked.”
It wasn’t long before the budding chef picked up a part-time job with his best mate who shared Stewart’s passion for home-grown ingredients. “His parents owned a big fruit and veg shop in Gippsland,” he says. “We used to spend a lot of time going up to the market buying produce and getting a real understanding of how [it all worked], which was exciting as a teenager.”
Stewart moved to Melbourne in 1999 to start his apprenticeship at Chris Lucas’ now-closed No. 1 Fitzroy Street in St Kilda. “I worked there for a while, but I wanted to get into the hotel scene because there was all this talk about cooking competitions,” he says. “Sofitel and Hilton were big on that sort of thing, so I applied for jobs in a few different hotels and ended up getting one at Hilton On The Park with Chefs Frank Burger and Stefano Veralio.”
Stewart was plunged into the fast-paced hotel kitchen environment, which meant the chef was cooking for a broad customer base. “Hotels are good because you have the restaurant, the catering and functions, so it opened my eyes to learn [about cooking] mass volumes,” he says.
The chef moved on from hotel dining and worked at a few different restaurants around the Arts Centre in Southbank until he was approached by Chef Chris Moraitis and seafood distributor Nick Frangoulis at age 23, who asked him to run Tender Trap in East Doncaster.
It was a tenure that spanned more then nine years before the chef departed to help open historic pub The Vincent in Albert Park. But the chef had kept an eye on a prime piece of restaurant real estate in Moonee Ponds.
“It was a Spanish deli my mates and I used to go and get sandwiches from,” says Stewart. “The owner’s name was Lewis. Every time I went in there I was like, ‘Let me know when you want to sell’. It had a lot of character and was in the middle of a residential area.”
Stewart’s persistence eventually paid off and led to a game-changing phone call that propelled him into the next phase of his career. “He rang me one day out of the blue and said, ‘Alright, I’m ready to sell’,” says the chef.
The space originally supposed to launch as a contemporary European bistro with a top-notch beverage selection, but the launch was halted due to delays in permits.
“It already had a bottle shop licence when I took it on, so I didn’t think getting a general consumption licence would be too difficult,” says Stewart. “We had a lot of issues and objections from a lot of neighbouring properties.”
A decision was made to pivot and open as a café instead. Ascot Food Store had a flying start when it launched in 2014 and it maintained its popularity over the years.
“In hindsight, it was sort of perfect for that time and it took off,” says Stewart. “I had never done a café before, so I had a restaurant approach and philosophy [when it came to the] dishes. It ended up becoming successful but, it wasn’t what I wanted it to be.”
Stewart never gave up on the idea of running dinner service, and the opportunity presented itself years later. “After six and a half years of going through council, court and jumping through all those hoops, we ended up getting our liquor licence approved with a lot of conditions,” says Stewart. “We started to put all the bits and pieces together to be able to operate until the end of the year with the prediction of opening in 2020, but then obviously Covid happened.”
The venue would close for almost two years while Stewart took a much-needed break and moved to Byron Bay to reignite his enthusiasm in the kitchen. “Towards the end of Ascot Food Store, I lost a lot of passion,” says the chef. “I ended up getting a job with Jason [Saxby] at Raes on Wategos. It was probably the best thing I did because I got to cook again without the stresses of business. When I came back, I felt like I was in a better place.”
Ascot Food Store reopened under the new name of Ascot Food + Wine in May last year with a refreshed interior and menu. “We couldn’t come back as the same business,” says Stewart. “We absorbed all these costs [from Covid] and I had to look at [growth prospects], so we decided to invest in relaunching and rebranding. The scary part for us was changing from a café to a restaurant.
Bidding farewell to Ascot Food Store felt like a step in the right direction for Stewart. “Everyone thought I was pretty crazy for wanting to kill a successful brand,” he says. “We needed a fresh start with a new look, fit out, brand and name.”
The restaurant’s European bistro offering sees Ascot run dinner Wednesday to Saturday, lunch Wednesday to Sunday as well as breakfast on weekends. The fare is inspired by some of Stewart’s culinary idols, namely Charlie Trotter and Marco Pierre White, with Stewart poring over books from both chefs.
“I’ve always loved classic, elegant, simple food that’s cooked really well,” says Stewart. “It’s just a little bit more approachable.”
Stewart also decided to hero his hometown of Gippsland by championing its produce throughout the menu. “A lot of stuff we’re using is sourced from Gippsland because that’s where I come from,” he says. “We source fruits and vegetables from Thorpdale.”
One dish that has stirred up plenty of attention is a modern take on vitello tonnato. “I turned it into a kingfish dish where we dry it and slice it the way you would with veal,” says the chef.
“We lightly cure the kingfish so it’s dry, then we use yellowfin tuna that is confit overnight with bonito vinegar, zucchini and oil, so you end up with a tart tuna mayonnaise served with mustard, fried capers and chives on top. It’s sour and creamy, but it’s one of those dishes where you can taste every single ingredient.”
The dinner menu at Ascot Food + Wine works harmoniously with the beverage selection, which has been curated by Co-Owner and Front of House Manager Shaun Hampson.
“A lot of the wine is European and there’s a nice range of French, German and Italian wines,” says Stewart. “We’ve got some beautiful Chablis and amazing Australian Chardonnay. It’s a nice blend of everything and a lot of research and tastings have gone into the list.”
Running a business has been a rewarding and challenging chapter in Stewart’s 20-year career. Transitioning Ascot from a café to a restaurant has been a welcome change for the chef who is keeping longevity front of mind.
“It’s a lot better as a business model and is what we set out to do,” he says. “We’ve been around for nearly 10 years now and we plan to stay around for a lot longer. I had to take my chef hat off and put my business hat on. You can’t be emotionally attached because there are so many decisions to make; everything has to be for the greater good of the business.”