Image credit: Jason Loucas

It’s all too common to associate a restaurant with the chef — and only the chef. But the faux pas has never been the case when it comes to Momofuku Seiobo. It’s rare to think of the Sydney fine diner without Kylie Javier Ashton springing to mind.

The general manager spent nearly 10 years culminating a workplace culture where the notion of teamwork was on display via chefs serving guests water and front of house plating up dishes in the kitchen.

Seiobo closed its doors just before Sydney’s last lockdown commenced, and with it came the end of a career-defining chapter; but more importantly, the chance to reflect and forge a new path in the industry.

Javier Ashton talks to Hospitality about the final months of Seiobo, how the 2020 lockdown led to the restaurant running at its peak and her plans for the future — they’re simply to dye for.

When Kylie Javier Ashton started at Momofuku Seiobo in 2012 as a restaurant manager, it looked very different to the venue that just closed. For one, there was no Paul Carmichael in the kitchen; Ben Greeno was the executive chef and Su Wong, the general manager.

2015 was the year everything changed. Carmichael arrived and Javier Ashton was appointed GM, marking the start of a powerhouse pair that stuck together until the restaurant’s final service in June.

The front-of-house professional was still finding her place at Seiobo when Carmichael took over, and his support and commitment to creating a collaborative workplace was present from the get-go.

“I worked with Ben for about four years and it felt like his restaurant because I was the second manager there,” says Javier Ashton. “When Paul got there, and because I was more established, I felt confident and he really pushed me forward.

“He was always like, ‘Kylie is a huge part of this’ whenever he did media and that was key in people realising that it wasn’t just the chef. I’m really grateful for that; you need those advocates in the kitchen who say, ‘It’s not all about me — we have our managers, too’. It was really nice to feel like I was heard.”

Carmichael spearheaded a completely new culinary direction at Seiobo which saw Caribbean cuisine capture the Sydney dining public’s attention in a big way. Despite his six-year tenure at Seiobo, some people thought the restaurant was Japanese — even in its final weeks.

“We had a family come in who had no idea what we were — they thought everything was really spicy and didn’t tell us at any point,” says Javier Ashton. “Most people don’t understand what Caribbean food is, fair enough, but it’s spicy. People would commit to the $220 and be like, ‘Oh, I had no idea what that was going to be’.

Diner nuances aside, Javier Ashton compares Seiobo’s last months to being on a John Farnham tour. The restaurant announced its closure in March and almost instantly booked out every service. “It was nice to finish everything on our own terms and have such a huge celebration; we had four months of craziness every night,” says Javier Ashton.

“People were having the time of their lives and it forced everybody to be in the moment; you’re never going to have this again, so just have fun with it and enjoy it. It was so lovely. But emotionally, I was exhausted at the end of every week trying to make it really special for everybody.

“Paul and I had this conversation and he was like, ‘Kylie, you just need to do your job and that’s enough — you don’t need to give your left arm to someone and give them everything because they might not like it or you think that’s what you have to do for it to be special’. It was good to have that realisation — I needed to stop trying so hard.”

Seiobo’s last service was brought forward by one day due to the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions in New South Wales. But in a way, it was a good thing. Javier Ashton likens it to ripping off a band aid — short, relatively painless and adrenaline-fuelled.

“For me personally, it was a blessing in disguise,” she says. “The whole casino complex closed at midnight and they wanted everyone off the property at 10:00pm because they had to shut it all down. We knew heaps of people were going to drop by, and while that’s nice, you still have to clean and pack down the restaurant.”

The team adjusted some bookings and ran a whirlwind service over two sittings. “It was fast and furious — at 10pm we put down bills, got people to pay and were like, ‘You guys have to go!’ It was this high, intense-energy service and then everyone just left — we had the opportunity to be with our team and clean.

“If we hadn’t been able to open, it would have been cut short. So it was really nice to do our last service; it just sucks for the people who booked on the last night, but they were mostly regulars who had experienced the restaurant and they were really understanding. It was a good finish to the restaurant.”

When Seiobo reopened after the 2020 lockdown, it returned as an elevated entity that broke down barriers and emulated fluidity. Rolling reservation times were gone; instead, there were two sittings at 5:45pm and 8:30pm across four days. “We were closed for four months and it gave us so much time to think about the best thing for the restaurant reopening,” says Javier Ashton.

“We needed to model so we could be sustainable based on creating the same experience and vibe with half the amount of guests and staff. We wanted to be able to condense the days and give the team time to recover. As an industry, we have to realise that more does not mean more. It’s about what’s manageable and making it really good.”

The restaurant ran with a smaller team of 11 staff; three of which were front of house (FOH). Not that you would know it. Javier Ashton and her husband Luke Ashton tie-dyed the Seiobo uniforms, which were worn by all staff. “We changed our uniform so it was all the same — we were one team,” says Javier Ashton. “It was great for the guys because it gave them a sense of equality and empowerment.”

The GM also set about rejigging the service structure, leading to chefs being equipped with a whole new skillset. “We taught all of our chefs how to do front of house,” says Javier Ashton. “They set, they cleared, they did water, they did bills — they pretty much functioned as FOH as well.

“It was incredible for me to be able to teach a whole team of chefs how to be waiters; it was probably one of my biggest achievements. Paul was a huge part of that; he would open the door and was basically the host and people were so blown away. He would polish glasses in the bar every night.

Anybody in the restaurant could jump in and help at any point. It’s probably one of our biggest achievements to knock down the foundations, break those rules and make it work. If there are no boundaries and those lines are blurred, you become a more efficient business.

“I’m really proud of the restaurant we reopened. We did what we thought was right and it was the restaurant we always wanted to run. But we never knew how to get there because you’re just keeping something alive; it’s hard to change direction.”

Image credit: Nikki To

After the buzz subsides, reflection almost always follows; especially after a major life event. Javier Ashton has been a driving force within the industry when it comes to championing front of house — whether it’s fostering in-house talent or participating in initiatives such as Appetite for Excellence.

It’s a change that’s absolutely still in motion, but one she has no doubt been a key player in. “I think it’s so important to show people and FOH that what we do in a restaurant is really important,” says Javier Ashton.

“Sommeliers and bartenders are amazing at promoting each other as professionals, but if you’re FOH or a GM and your focus isn’t 100 per cent on wine, you’re at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to the hierarchy of people who are seen in a restaurant. It’s great to represent FOH in that way and bring attention to that part of the industry and people are paying more attention.”

The work is something she hopes to build on now Seiobo has closed, but some timeout and breathing space away from restaurants is also on the cards. Javier Ashton admits she can’t help but give 110 per cent to everything, and with unwavering passion comes a few hurdles.

“I think you can get a little bit blinded because you’re so close to it all and invest everything; it can take some of the shine away,” she says. “By not working in a restaurant, I can fall in love with the industry a bit more and in a different way, which I’m really excited about.”

Javier Ashton is still employed by The Star and is working with the food and beverage department. She’s not in a rush to lock in her next move and is well overdue to move into cruise mode for a while.

“Seiobo was such a huge part of me, it was like being in a relationship, so I’m not ready to be in another restaurant right now,” she says. “It’s nice to have a job where it’s more of a job and that’s what I’m trying to do, but knowing me, things are never like that. I want to have some more time to give back to the industry and be involved in things in a different capacity and not feel like it’s an extra thing I need to do.”

She’s also taken up tie-dying, a 2020 lockdown activity that has resulted in the launch of KJ.LA; a brand that’s now selling hand-dyed capsule collections of napkins, cushions, aprons and more.

“We [Luke Ashton] started doing tie-dying as a creative project last lockdown and I’ve started my own brand,” says Javier Ashton. “People started asking if they could buy things and it’s become a side hustle.”

Doing the same thing for close to a decade leads to a level of routine, comfort and familiarity. Putting the security blanket away naturally results in a level of uncertainty, but more importantly, it provides opportunity.

“When you’ve done a job for nine years, you know what’s expected of you,” says Javier Ashton. “Even when it’s hard and scary, you’re with your people and you’re in control of your destiny to a certain degree.

“It can become unhealthy when you don’t feel like you have an identity outside of your job and that’s something I’ve been working on the past year; to not define myself by what I do for work and to be comfortable in myself regardless of whether or not I’m the GM of Seiobo.

“I need to be able to stand on my own two feet and feel confident without the restaurant as a crutch. I don’t think I’m there yet; it’s going to be a journey over the next few months to get there. It’s nice to find out who I am again outside of Seiobo. Now it’s done, it was really good, but I need to move on.”