James D Morgan

Ross and Sunny Lusted first started thinking about Woodcut in 2007. A multipronged process followed, unfolding over many years and just as many facets. While food and drink occupies the surface level of a restaurant, a slight etch can reveal so much more.

And that’s exactly what Ross and Sunny set out to do — create a restaurant that not only showcases food, but the vessel it is cooked in; a concept that allows customers to interact with chefs in the kitchen while observing an installation that hangs above their heads.

Woodcut in Crown Sydney is a restaurant that brings together some of the country’s most talented figures across myriad applications; culinary is just the beginning.

Ross and Sunny talk to Hospitality about the initial design process, finding and collaborating with new and old artists and artisans, transforming a large-scale restaurant into a series of intimate spaces and why they simply don’t know how to do it any other way.

Working across the build and design of Woodcut was never a question for Sunny and Ross Lusted, who collated their ideas for the restaurant into a 40-page book. “There’s no way you can open a restaurant like Woodcut without everything being considered and integrated — otherwise it feels like you have a procurement company who does one thing, a chef who does another and a restaurant manager who does something else,” says Ross. “Sunny and I in some respects make our jobs harder by curating every part of it, but it’s holistic.”

The approach is nothing new for the duo, who spent many years working for Aman Resorts where they made connections with small- and large-scale makers. The spirit of collaboration stuck, and it’s something that has formed the nucleus of the pair’s approach to creating a space.

Ross and Sunny envisioned a restaurant with multiple cooking stations and methods, which went on to form the foundation of Woodcut. “Once we started building from that, we set a clear brief for the architects so everyone was clear,” says Ross. “It was an initial brief document that was our anchor for every item we wanted to bring in. With the architect, it was, ‘What are the materials?’ We’re cooking in a wood oven with cast iron pans, so let’s make the walls out of hot rolled steel.”

Each element found within Woodcut is linked to its moniker, with everything from Kris Coad’s chandelier of porcelain leaves to Freehand Creations’ steak knives bouncing off each other.

The pieces from makers found within Woodcut’s walls are vast: Kenny Yong-soo Son from Studiokyss is behind the water jugs, with a one-off piece morphing into a design that could be replicated for a 260-seat restaurant. “We worked with him to refine it and make 60 jugs for the restaurant,” says Ross. “We then sketched a sugar bowl and milk jug and talked about how they sit with all the other pieces, which comes down to size and practicality. I always put pieces on a tabletop and it becomes evident what’s going to work or not as you start adding in pieces.”

After coming across Penelope Duke’s work on Instagram, Ross reached out to see if she would be interested in making Woodcut’s tabletop vases. “We wanted a minimal palette and residential style and also thought about what plants would be in the vases,” says Ross. “It took me a while to convince her and time is what’s challenging — these projects can take a year for smaller producers, and I understand that having studied ceramics and sculptures. It is a long process; the project is achievable the earlier we can work with the artisans.”

The restaurant’s handmade steak knives also came about by a chance encounter. Ross met an architect on a project who mentioned his son Ajax Fitton was interested in making a knife. “I blew it off and thought there’s no way he’s going to make 150 knives in a year, but he kept coming back to me and eventually a sample arrived in the mail. I was blown away and he did it. I was also talking to him about needing a leather handle for a cast-iron pan and his partner works with bespoke bags and she did a template. It seems people come across you.”

The story behind Woodcut’s cast-iron pans is also worthy of a mention. “We went to Oigen in Japan for the cast-iron pans,” says Ross. “They hadn’t made the pans since the ’60s and they brought the moulds out of storage. I think it took 12 months to convince them to make them for us.”

On the art front, the majority of pieces are from Australian artists with the exception of Eric Gushee; a Chicago-based creator who made a piece from woven steel and copper, which Sunny says references the rings of a tree.

“Everything we’ve looked at is a melding of what’s come before, but also new discoveries and new collaborations,” she says. “Some of the more obvious details like the artworks are very deeply appreciated and people spend a lot of time looking at them, walking over to them and really examining what they’re about and what they bring to the equation. Each artist we’ve worked with has brought something very unique, but also very Woodcut.”

Ross echoes the sentiment, and says each work contributes to a broader narrative: “When we did the art brief, it was about relating back to trees, the environment or wood,” says the chef. “Everything circles back to timber, even the charcoal ceiling; each piece relates to the tactility of the materials.”

Woodcut encompasses four open kitchens, with each showcasing a different cooking method (steam, smoke, fire, ice). The kitchens naturally form their own ‘mini’ dining experiences which are intersected by art pieces throughout the broader space that weaves Woodcut together.

“It’s a layered experience,” says Sunny. “Everything centres around the four kitchens which create theatre and engagement with chefs while also punctuating the room; you feel like you’re in one of a series of 30-seat restaurants.

“One of the favourite pieces is Coad’s chandelier of white porcelain leaves, which hangs over the chef’s table and has beautiful movement if there’s a little breeze. The golden clouds by Carly Scoufos are in our private dining rooms and so many people seek them out and spend time studying them. Amanda Dziedzic made a beautiful glass forest at our entry and Tracey Deep created a hemp sculpture for our Yellow Box dining area.”

Steel walls serve as Woodcut’s spine and are a nod to Richard Serra, whose work Ross and Sunny saw in New York. “Wayne Hammonds built all the walls and it’s an extraordinary amount of engineering,” adds Ross. “He knew exactly how the light was going to catch them when he selected the pieces.” Hammond’s core business is making mining buckets for Rio Tinto, but the maker’s varied skill set enabled him to also create the restaurant’s charcoal grill, ‘bricks’ for the brick chicken dish and fire tools. Such is the nature of collaboration.

When Ross and Sunny set out to construct Woodcut, they hoped to create an experience for diners that would slowly unfurl; not just during their initial time at the restaurant, but in their minds after their exit and eventual return.

“We wanted guests to visualise being at the counter on their next visit or think about celebrating in a private dining room,” says Sunny. “It’s been a beautiful unfolding for us and is one of the side effects that is very much supported by the layout; creating a vibe and connecting people to the chefs.”