Hospitality speaks with the Lana chef on Italian–Asian, dialling up the snack game and spearheading a restaurant that will shake up Sydney’s French bistro landscape.

Where were you cooking before joining House Made Hospitality?
I completed an apprenticeship and then started my professional career doing Italian food at A Tavola before moving to Russo & Russo, where I delved into contemporary Italian flavours. After the first lockdown, I was approached by House Made to open Lana and that was pretty much it. Stephen [Seckold, House Made director] had lunch at Russo and wanted someone to do something similar at Lana. I had seen posts on social media about Hinchcliff House and they had just opened Grana. I also knew Stephen and his background working at Flying Fish, but I didn’t know they had such big plans to open so many venues.

What was the brief you were given for Lana?
When I was hired, it was pretty much, ‘We have a space ready for you and this is what we want to do’. The brief was Italian-ish — kind of like what I was doing at Russo. It had to be fun, have an Asian element, lean towards Italian cuisine and focus on Australian seafood. I was excited about that because I hadn’t worked at a restaurant that focused on just seafood. When we first opened, there was a lot of seafood, but we have pulled back a bit to suit our customers, so now the menu is around 60–70 per cent seafood.

Steve Woodburn.

Lana runs à la carte and set menu options — how did you settle on a hybrid format?We had a tough start at the beginning and couldn’t figure out whether to do a set menu or à la carte. But lockdown gave us a lot of time to think and refine. It was a blessing in disguise being able to reopen better and stronger. We did a set menu for a while, but now now it’s semi à la carte which works great.

Semi à la carte has individual snacks and then you choose entrée, main and dessert, but 90 per cent of people choose to share. You can also add dishes from the playlist, which changes quite often. There could be marron spaghetti or a fried potato
bite with caviar and sea urchin. You can choose your own adventure and not be closed in with a stiff menu. We have a base of regular customers now who come in once or twice a week, and I pinch myself because I didn’t think we would grow so quickly.

How would you describe the dynamic in the kitchen?
We have been lucky this year with staff. I’ve worked with half of the team before at previous jobs and I brought them in. We have a lot of fun in the kitchen, but when it comes to service, they know when to be serious. We all work very well together, and I treat them like family. I encourage them to help me with dishes and give them incentives to push harder.

What are some of the dishes you’re most proud of?
There’s a steamed coral trout with bonito butter, Jervis Bay mussels and fioretto, which is one of my highlights. We also have a roast flounder with ginger and shallot butter and capers which I’ve moved around a bit across the menu in the last year or so. We make a salsa verde with ginger and shallots and add it to a beurre blanc-type sauce with dashi and fish stock. I love snacks and am trying to ramp up the snack game on the playlist. It’s one thing I push for and I get the team involved in it, too. If I could open a bar and just serve snacks … that’s my dream.

Steve Woodburn.

You’re heading up Club Martinez as executive chef. How would you describe the culinary direction of the new restaurant?
Club Martinez is focusing on food from Southern France, so I’ve been researching Nice, Corsica and Monaco and working on a menu with my head chef that’s simple and tasty. A lot of Provençal dishes are similar to Italian and are very old school, leaning towards parsley, garlic and lemon, so I’m using that as inspiration. It’s light, fresh and there’s a lot of olive oil, herbs, anchovies and seafood. I’ll throw in some Asian umami too, so expect it to be a surprise. Everything is still in the works, but I’m thinking of doing a baked pilaf rice with abalone. We’re trying to be different to all the other French restaurants in Sydney and some of the dishes would have never been seen before in a French bistro.

How do you plan on juggling Lana with the opening of Club Martinez?
It’s a massive venue and I have faith in this project, so I think it will go smoothly. There will be head chefs in both venues, and I’m confident the Lana team will keep things running while I focus on Martinez. Obviously, I will be there to guide them and I’m hoping to divide my time evenly between the two restaurants. I am also hoping staffing will get better this year, but I am still being sent CVs. I am trying to push for a four-day work week for my chefs, which will possibly start at Martinez and move across to
Lana. It’s how I prefer to work.