It takes two
Anthony Truong & Yong Kim, Chilli Orange
Yong Kim’s husband has a rule that more than a few women would be happy to abide by. “He never lets me in the kitchen, ” she says with a chuckle. Kim is pretty pleased that her husband of almost 22 years does all the cooking — and so are the loyal customers of their stylish two-year-old North Perth restaurant, Chilli Orange.
Anthony doesn’t like to limit his creativity by putting a label on his exciting food. “I know a lot of cuisines so I don’t really stick to one because it’s boring, it’s not much flexibility, ” he explains. “I’m passionate about different food so I’m very interested in combining them together. I take my favourites from each cuisine and I combine them and I feel good about it. People ask ‘Well, what kind of food do you do’, ” he says, before his wife chimes in: “So we just tell people it’s modern Asian.”
Anthony and Kim started their first restaurant, Korea House, opposite the Brisbane Hotel in 1994. “At that time we weren’t very experienced, ” Kim admits.
In 2000 they opened the hugely popular Infusion Noodle Bar on Beaufort Street in Mt Lawley, before selling up and starting Koinonia next door to Balshaw’s Florist. Anthony says each restaurant was an important part of the journey to creating Chilli Orange. “My experience is like tuning the radio station, until you get the right channel where you want to listen.”
It seems the punters who book the place out most nights are happy to listen — so is food editor Rob Broadfield: he recently scored the restaurant 14.5 out of 20 in West Weekend and raved that it was “a terrific offering from a chef who knows his stuff”.
Anthony and Kim have known each other since they were teenagers. “We used to hang out when we were young but we weren’t dating then, he had a different girlfriend and I had a different boyfriend, ” Kim says.
When the couple finally got together in 1993, Anthony wasted no time, proposing just a couple of weeks later on Valentine’s Day. They were married in December the same year and have two daughters, Rachel, 18, and Rebecca, 21.
Kim is a cheerful front-of-house manager who loves a chat. “Mostly I enjoy talking to customers, ” she says. “I also enjoy food so I always tell people I am the quality control person. And they’re like ‘Oh, that’s a good job’. Yes, it is a good job!”
Anthony runs back from the kitchen, where he was taking his famous ginger creme brulees from the oven. He says spending so much time together has never been a problem for them. “We get along very well, we sleep in the same bed, we go to work together, we have lunch every day together; we hang out together.” Kim says they hardly ever clash. “Very rarely do I get upset; it would take a lot for me to get angry so it’s good being with someone creative because a creative person can be tricky at times. I can’t get angry at him, not even for one minute. We get along very well.”
On the odd occasion he needs a bit of personal time, Anthony heads out for some meditative fishing, while Kim uses her free time for her bible study fellowship.
Like so many people, especially those in the hospitality industry, Sundays are sacred. “Because we’ve always been in the hospitality industry, we always make sure Sunday is family time for us so that’s the time we take the kids out for lunch and dinner and try something new. We enjoy food, we love trying different things. ”
David & Kareen Coomer, Pata Negra
When David Coomer’s three children were young, it wasn’t unusual for them to endure a whole week without seeing their father. So Jeremiah, Maddie and Issy’s mum, Kareen, made sure Sundays were set aside for some especially relaxing Daddy time — so relaxing, in fact, that Daddy rarely could stay awake.
“By Sunday I was just rooted, ” David, who was running celebrated Shenton Park fine-diner Star Anise, recalls now. “I used to fall asleep on the side of the football oval, I used to fall asleep at everything. I’d take them to the movies, get home, and Kareen would ask ‘Did Dad fall asleep’ and the kids would be like ‘Yeah’. I look back on it now and think my priorities were completely wrong.”
But loyal wife Kareen knows their resilient children haven’t suffered as a result of those tough early years — in fact it seems to have given them a taste for it. “They missed him terribly … but I look at our 22-year-old who comes in here and kitchen-hands for Dad and Maddie is coming back to work with her dad and you go, well, it can’t have had that big an impact.”
The well-known restaurateurs have made plenty of sacrifices over the years to make sure their children — and their businesses — get all the love and attention they need to thrive. Their recipe for success seems to be plenty of passion, hard work and mutual respect — in all corners of their lives.
Like so many industry couples, the Coomers, who have just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, met on the job. Perth girl Kareen, who had been working in geology, was waitressing at The Orient Hotel in Sydney while she saved up to go backpacking. Ambitious young chef David had just returned from a stint honing his skills in Europe. “My first night there I met David and about six weeks later we went out, two weeks after that we were engaged, a year after that we were married, ” she says, smiling. “Now 25 years later: three kids, a couple of restaurants, a shop, a farm, dogs.”
They got hitched on a tempestuous Sydney day at Monte Sant’ Angelo church and had a reception at historic Vaucluse House, where David had begun cooking. He did the food for his own wedding, including some roast duck one relative maintains is the best chicken he’s ever eaten. “We didn’t have much money, so we had no option, ” David says flatly.
In 1991, they moved to Perth and, despite having made a name for himself in the big smoke, David struggled to find work. He spent time at The Left Bank, before jagging a job at Phil Sexton’s game-changing 44 King Street. “If King Street didn’t come up we probably would have gone back to Sydney, ” David says.
He says his roles at the cafe alternated depending on his and Kareen’s “breeding cycle”. Kareen remembers how tough it was trying to manage babies while ferrying her husband to and from work. Meanwhile, he was working his way up the industry ranks, spending time in the kitchens of Universal, the Duxton Hotel and the Indiana Teahouse.
“Then we found this little Asian restaurant in Shenton Park. We signed on the line for Star Anise the day I was in hospital having Issy, ” Kareen recalls. It was June 1998.
Looking back, David is still stunned by their youthful audacity. “I don’t know how we even got the money to do it, ” he says. “We even had to refinance our car to pay for the air-conditioning unit!”
Kareen, too, laughs at their gamble. “God knows what we were thinking: three babies, a mortgage and a restaurant with no customers. I still remember being in there painting the walls with Issy in a capsule or feeding Issy sitting on a milk crate.”
Star Anise is when David and Kareen’s now-famous partnership really hit its straps. While he created rave-worthy, haute cuisine in the kitchen, Kareen would run the front of house with pizzazz. But it was hard. “David would be there at 10 o’clock in the morning, I’d get up with the kids, at 4 o’clock my mum would come over, I’d put on my make-up and my dress and set the tables, work all night, go home at night with your feet screaming, soaking all your serviettes because you couldn’t afford the laundry. But you just did it. You didn’t even think about it because you had to do it.”
Still, David looks back fondly upon those days working with his wife. “What was really nice was that we were both in it together, we were both putting in massive amounts of effort. I’m sure there were times when we were both really f…ing tired and over it but you’ve still got to keep pushing on.” “Yeah, ” Kareen agrees with a chuckle, “It was never like ‘Oh, I’m more tired than you are’.”
Kareen kept working at Star Anise for a couple of years before business picked up to the point they could afford to hire a manager and she could go back to care for the kids, by then at school. “I still remember Jeremiah holding on to the car and crying ‘No! Don’t go, don’t go!’ He had my mum there and my mum was probably a better mum than I was but … it was more the fact that David was always at work, so they really needed one of us to be a bit more hands on with them.”
Bucking the traditional husband/wife roles, Kareen rarely enters the kitchen but looks after the finance side of the business. “Kareen does a job that I could never do. I wouldn’t even know how to go to the bank, ” David says. “Any of that side of it I have no understanding of, and have had no need to understand it, so if she died tomorrow I’d be completely rooted. I’d have to go and marry someone who is a bookkeeper.” A half-smile confirms the chef with the bone-dry wit is joking. His gregarious wife is vaguely amused and only slightly concerned. “Maybe you could just hire someone to do the books rather than remarry straight away, darling?”
Although the hardworking couple now run Pata Negra in Nedlands, they are making up for that lost family time by getting away to their Manjimup property as often as possible. The farm, which they bought with money left to them by David’s grandmother, is slowly moving into truffle production. “I think one of the best things was getting the farm when we did, ” Kareen says. Her husband doesn’t care if they never holiday anywhere else again: “As soon as I get a break I’m straight down there.” Including this Australia Day, when they managed to get some rare time alone to celebrate their anniversary. “We just spent it watching Game of Thrones, ” Kareen says. “Do you think that’s really romantic?”
Hazel & Scott O’Sullivan, Red Cabbage
Young newlyweds Hazel and Scott O’Sullivan wished for something very unusual during their week-long tropical honeymoon in 2008: “We were hoping to get kidnapped, ” Hazel says. They’d opened their ambitious South Perth restaurant the year before and they were in it up to their necks. “We had no money in the bank, ” Scott says. “Talk about pressure.”
Then, just a few months later, Rob Broadfield popped in for dinner. The resulting review in this magazine gave Red Cabbage a staggering 17/20 and ranked it in the city’s top five. “And we haven’t looked back since, ” Hazel says proudly.
Since then, Scott has twice been awarded chef of the year in The West Australian’s annual Good Food Guide awards and the restaurant he runs with Hazel remains one of Perth’s great dinner destinations.
Like the other couples on these pages, Scott and Hazel have a fairly strict geographic demarcation: front of house is her domain, back of house is his. “Scott does his part and I do my part, ” Hazel says. “Although Scott might sometimes want to cross that line a little bit too far, I just give him the elbow.”
In all seriousness, Red Cabbage is a very egalitarian affair. The mutual regard husband and wife have for each other’s role is something also expected of their respective staff. “We’ve tried very hard to keep it so front and back respect each other, it’s one team. I like the staff to be joined, there’s no split, it’s not front and back, there’s no bickering, we all respect each other’s job.”
The result is a workplace whose harmony makes for a joyous dining experience. Hazel and her team work the room with seamless, affectionate aplomb while Scott and his kitchen wizards make magic backstage. And, perhaps because of Hazel’s affinity with the customer, she’s the one who gives the green light to any new additions to the menu. “If I’ve got new dishes I’ve got to sell them to Hazel first, ” the chef says.
Scott and Hazel got together in 2005. In yet another affirmation of the waitress-meets-chef cliche, Englishman Scott was cooking at Halo when he fell for the pretty, doe-eyed girl out front. “Then that was it, ” Scott recalls. “We were together for three weeks and moved in with each other. We’ve been together 24/7 since the day we met, really. It is kind of a hard thing to do, so it takes two special people.”
A few years into the all-consuming restaurant business, Scott and Hazel decided they needed to reclaim some of their lives. They had daughter Poppy, who is three and a half, and are a matter of weeks away from welcoming their second child. Quite contrary to the gripes of many parents, Scott says children actually stopped them from going crazy. “Kids take us back to a normal life. That’s what we wanted. We didn’t want this to dictate everything. It takes a lot of our lives away but we didn’t want it to take everything, so I think having kids gave us our sanity back.”
The couple say they manage to keep their work separate from their home life — unless a customer has really upset them. “We could be watching telly and then we’ll look at each other and I’ll go: ‘You’re in a mood aren’t you?’ Why that one person? Why can’t we let it go?” Hazel knows exactly why. “It’s because we care, that’s what normal caring people do. I think it’s a hard industry because the doors are open to any sort of criticism.”
Hazel says she is a self-taught expert in “customer psychology”. “Every night you have to prepare yourself for a mixed bag of emotions that come into the restaurant, we leave our stuff at the door but who knows what comes in … you’re sort of on a rollercoaster ride from one table to the next. Afterwards you’re so exhausted.”
The couple struggle to understand why some customers delight in being cruel. “They forget it’s a husband-and-wife team, who have got their own family and their own issues to deal with just like them, ” Scott says.
Such are the perils of owning a small business that Hazel isn’t able to look forward to a long maternity leave. She jokes that Scott let her reduce her shifts towards the end of the pregnancy “so long as I’m back to work a week after I’ve given birth”. Scott, feeling generous, says she can have two whole weeks — which is exactly what she did get after having Poppy, who was born just before the Christmas rush. “My compromise was that we have got time off in January so I thought: ‘I’ll just deal with whatever issues I’ve got with my body then.’”
When they’re not running Red Cabbage, Scott and Hazel enjoy running for fun, after discovering keeping fit helped keep them focused. They also cherish relaxing Sunday night dinners at home with Poppy. “We haven’t gone out for an adult dinner for a while, ” Hazel says. “Scott’s been cooking most nights. Usually I cook but I’ve taken a step back at home, ” she says with a grin.
© The West Australian
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