Matthew Kemp has a clear, if not simple, vision: to make great food accessible to anyone who wants it. “Not to get all Citizen Kane on you, but I always wanted to take big city cooking to the masses, and at a really good price,” says the British-born, Aussie-adopted, multi-awarded chef. “Which we did when we originally opened Balzac [in 2000].”
We’re sitting in the newly refurbished upstairs dining room at The Montpellier Public House, previously Restaurant Balzac. It’s been open and operating under the new name for around two months and so far the feedback has been good.
The distinctive sandstone building was originally built in the late 1800’s as a pub, so it’s appropriate that with the new look and menu Kemp is returning the building to its roots.
“The response has been really positive. We’ve had a couple of old regulars who haven’t liked it, but we served 884 people last week. We used to do 450 covers as Balzac, so we’ve virtually doubled that already. And I think we’ll be able to sustain that, or that’s the plan any way,” Kemp chuckles.
Sporting a blue and white-striped butchers apron, he looks comfortable in the raw wood and sandstone surrounds, leaning back in his chair under the oversized naked light-bulbs at a simply laid, uncovered wood table. Everything about the new space feels more at ease and user friendly. It’s certainly a different look and feel for the well-established Randwick restaurant. So the big question is, after years of acclaim, why the sudden change?
“It’s something that I’ve actually dreamed of doing for quite a few years,” he smiles, but it’s an economic move as well. “What we offered, I thought was great, but we’re in Randwick and we’ve got to think about our demographic and who our customers are.” He goes on to note that he felt the restaurant had achieved everything it could as Balzac and that change was the only way to stay relevant. So after a two-week refit, Balzac made room for Montpellier Public House – a walk-in, friendly bar and casual lounge downstairs with an all day menu, a slightly more formal upstairs dining-room to accommodate bookings and an overall change in fare.
“You’ve got to be able to afford to practice the art you love. And if we carried on as Balzac there was a possibility that we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
But the change was also something Kemp felt the building itself could accommodate. “What I wanted was something that was sympathetic to the look and feel of the natural sandstone and timbers that we’ve got a lot of, and something that wouldn’t be daunting to walk into,” he says. “The lines are cleaner now and we’re making the most of the timbers that were here and the tiles that were downstairs. It was just a matter of bringing it all together.”
Clearly Kemp isn’t one to do things by halves. Not only did he open The Devonshire (in Surry Hills) with Jeremy Bentley in January 2011, but welcomed a new baby just months before unveiling the new look Montpellier Public House. It’s been a busy year. And whilst he happily admits to jumping into huge debt to achieve the makeover, it’s something that has invigorated his cooking and suffuses him with an enthusiasm that spills into everything he does.
“We had to make a statement. I’m happy walking into my restaurant now, starting with the food,” he says. “We had a table of eight up here the other day with the chicken for two, the oxtail for two and hare pie for two, and there was a guy standing at the top of the table carving the chicken for everyone and someone serving out the hare pie, and that’s what I envisioned for the restaurant – the sharing of food, people being in contact with one another and having fun. Not just sitting there to worship the chef. They were totally engrossed in a great night out. You’re supposed to be able to talk loudly, have a bit of fun and have a giggle.”
But Kemp confesses that choosing the new name was a toss-up between Montpellier Public House and the building’s original name The Star and Garter. In the end he went for the French/British combination, in part so the new menu wouldn’t be pigeonholed.
“A lot of my repertoire and basics is French. There was no way to get away from that and I love it! But I also love the British style of food.”
He grins. “So even though the British and French fucking hate each other, I’d like to bring it all together in a great dining experience.”
141 Belmore Road, Randwick
(02) 9399 9660
Upstairs Dining Room hours
Tue to Sun from 6pm
Public Bar Hours
Tue- Sun 12pm-12am