Wage theft is an open secret in the hospitality industry (a recent example in Adelaide constitutes “modern slavery” under international labour definitions). So it’s refreshing when chef Brendan Wessels calls it out unprompted. “Our industry, in a lot of ways, seems to be stuck in the past. Especially when it comes to investing in people,” he tells Broadsheet. “The profit margin in restaurants is so, so slim … that’s why there’s so much pressure on owners and chefs to cut corners. We end up not paying the staff properly. We end up not buying the produce that we should. We end up not supporting the farmers that we should.”
Wessels (formerly of the d’Arenberg Cube Restaurant) will be leading the kitchen team at Aurora, part of the new multi-level arts venue Light on Light Square. Scheduled to open next week, it joins the already opened Little Mission cafe and The Lab, a multi-genre music and arts space. Wessels says the not-for-profit organisation behind the venue, Light Social Enterprise, founded by philanthropists Nick and Sophie Dunstone, is determined not to cut corners. This means paying staff fairly, and training them well. “We don’t have owners on top of us saying, ‘I want every single penny I can so I can buy a new Jaguar.’ We need to make this financially sustainable, because we want to prove that the model can work,” he says. “This is unlike a lot of experience that I’ve had in the past, which is why I’m so intrigued by it … you don’t have to resort to negative industry practices.”
But Aurora isn’t just a political statement; it’s a labour of love. South African-born Wessels is excited about a custom-built braai on which he’ll chargrill proteins and vegetables (an early preview suggests fire-licked octopus, broccoli, shallots, chicken and fish). “It’s a big part of my culture … It’s like a barbeque, only 10 times better,” he says. “It’s a woodfire grill that we actually got designed and built for Aurora. It’s super exciting for us to teach our staff, as well, to cook with fire.”
The restaurant will have two menus (à la carte options and a tasting menu), and while final details are still to come, you can expect subtle influences ranging from Korea and Japan (think miso and nori, ponzu marinade or seafood with yuzu) to the Middle East (bulgur wheat, say, or ras el hanout), the Mediterranean (such as peperonata and semolina gnocchi) and Australia (Australian salmon and saltbush).
With the mentorship of Richard Gunner (who Wessels says has an “encyclopaedic knowledge of produce”) and Simon Bryant (a “pioneer in sustainable food sources”), Wessels has found suppliers that align with Aurora’s ethos. As we walk around the upstairs office space, Wessels gestures to a mind map pinned to a wall. It outlines principles that suppliers need to meet before the restaurant will work with them, covering the quality of produce, locality and work practices. Farmers such as grow-to-order supplier Kasim Erkoc (of K&R Produce) will supply vegetables.
“Every single week I buy fruit from the supermarket, and every single week, I hate myself. They’re horrible, and I end up being so distraught, and so angry. The world’s ending – and it’s just indicative of how complacent we’ve become about food,” says Wessels. “Kasim’s carrots taste like carrots, his tomatoes taste like tomatoes … His produce is just absolutely exquisite.”
Aurora will open on February 24 at 63 Light Square.