For Paul Baker, who has spent the better half of the past decade as executive chef at Botanic Gardens Restaurant, the last few months have been a chance to start something new.
When the first round of Covid-19 restrictions came into place, he swung into action with a business idea that he developed with his wife Annabelle Baker and her business partner Jimmy Day (the two founded wholesale business Edible Exchange). The result, Chefs on Wheels, delivers ready-made meals from top Adelaide chefs. The aim was to create sustainable revenue streams for people in the hospitality industry, and the project took off. Now, Baker hopes to keep it going – which means leaving Botanic Gardens Restaurant after six years at its helm.
“Chefs on Wheels turned into something bigger than we thought it was going to be,” Baker tells Broadsheet. “It doesn’t allow me to be in two places at once. The [Botanic Gardens] Restaurant has a great team and they’ll find someone that can tell the story of the garden … but for me, Chefs on Wheels is a business I started with my wife and my friend Jimmy. It’s like a new family business.”
It’s not that fine-dining has lost its lustre. Baker says the last nine weeks have seen him pursuing other interests and hobbies and finding a better work-life balance. “Restaurants really do take up pretty much everything you have. Especially a restaurant of that calibre,” he says. “You can’t half-arse it.”
He’s also enjoyed cooking more homely food, but says there are “different pressures” cooking for a delivery service. “If this is the one meal someone has ordered from you, you want it to be the best,” says Baker. “So there’s still that emphasis on high quality.”
Chefs on Wheels began with three days of delivery, and has since expanded to four. The team are delivering around 60 to 70 orders per day, in addition to preparing 40 to 50 pick-up orders. Brad Sappenberghs from Comida Inc has just signed on to the service (bringing with him three types of paella and wood-roasted eggplant), as has Simon Bryant, who will be creating ready-to-cook meal kits. “Those meal kits will be evolving,” says Baker. “You’ll definitely see some more chefs coming on board.”
Baker feels he owes it to the restaurants and chefs who’ve signed on – including original collaborators Terry Intarakhamhaeng (Soi 38) and Emma McCaskill (Sparkke at the Whitmore – to keep the project going. “We’ve been able to look after hospitality people at a time when they needed us, and we needed them,” he says. “And it obviously seems like something people want.”
It’s also meant Baker has time to pursue another passion of his: making pasta. Customers can order his ready-to-cook pasta and sauces from Chefs on Wheels offshoot Paul’s Pasta Project, including braised beef ravioli (with wagyu from Mayura Station, or ravioli with goat’s curd (from Woodside Cheese) and beetroot.
If the events of the last few months have demonstrated anything, Baker believes it’s that the hospitality industry needs to work smarter – and be ready for more changes to come. “Having the takeaway model as part of your business will hedge your bets,” he says. “You can do both [dine-in and takeaway] really well … Our industry needs to be adaptive. We can’t just do the same things we did before.”