The McConnell Effect

Melbourne dining has transformed profoundly over the past decade. Food that was once out of reach to all but a select few has flooded the middle of the market, and it’s available at whatever time of day you need. Restaurants have become more welcoming, egalitarian and fun. Much of this, we can trace back to one trailblazer: Andrew McConnell of Cumulus Inc, Cutler & Co, Supernormal, the Builders Arms and Marion.

Published on 07 October 2019

The evolution of Melbourne’s dining culture is marked by the names of people and places that pushed things forward. Think Pellegrini’s and Caffe e Cucina, Stephanie Alexander and Gilbert Lau, Marios and MoMo. This list wouldn’t be complete without the name Andrew McConnell. The chef and restaurateur has been challenging the status quo since the very beginning of his career. His first restaurants – Diningroom 211, Mrs Jones and Three One Two – all attracted swags of awards and breathless reviews.

But it’s over the past decade that he’s really made an indelible mark on Melbourne dining. This period ostensibly represents the second act of McConnell’s career, where success has been built on the lessons and influences of act one.

Starting with all-day “eating house” Cumulus Inc in 2008 and proceeding with a remarkable run of siblings – Cutler & Co, Cumulus Up, Golden Fields, the Builders Arms Hotel, Moon Under Water, Ricky & Pinky, Luxembourg, Supernormal, Supernormal Canteen, Marion and two branches of upmarket butcher shop Meatsmith – McConnell has emphatically recalibrated the city’s dining culture.

Cumulus introduced the kitchen bar, the no-bookings policy and all-day dining alongside ingredients and techniques once only found in fine dining. Cutler & Co did groundbreaking work casualising fine dining; stripping cloths from tables, serving Carlton Draught on tap at the bar and setting the whole thing in an edgy-glamourous warehouse at the former “badlands” end of Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Nearby, at the Builders Arms, McConnell brought a fine-dining touch to the pub genre without turning the place into a self-conscious gastropub or losing its essential pubbiness.

His deft, delicate approach to flavour has also helped bring the once-disgraced idea of fusion back into the fold. He does it in a way that’s thoughtful, nuanced and seems necessary and logical, adding layers and hints of surprising flavour – soy sauce in a salad dressing or fermented chilli paste to elevate an ostensibly Euro-style dish of mussels, tomatoes and basil. And then there’s his gift with the cult dish: the New England lobster roll, the duck waffle, the abalone katsu.

New England Lobster Rolls at Supernormal in Melbourne | Photography by Pete Dillon

What McConnell has done since the opening of Cumulus Inc is to show that rules can be broken, but only if you know how to do it properly, with knowledge and sophistication. Flexibility and an obsessive focus on details are key. As is, it seems, a little selfishness.

“Cumulus Inc was all about me in terms of its ideals and ethos,” he says. “I didn’t want to be told I could only eat lunch in the CBD between 12pm and 2.30pm, because at that time of my life I was either asleep or at work during those hours.

“I wanted to get rid of the rules as to when you can and can’t eat and I wanted to eat well, with a good wine list, at any time of the day. Now it seems quite simple but in hindsight it was quite scary. Maybe a bit radical. To open a restaurant and run a menu all day was quite an investment and quite risky.”

Andrew McConnell in the kitchen at Marion in Fitzroy | Photography by Gareth Sobey

But McConnell’s restaurants are perhaps not the best place to weigh his impact on the city. Throughout his career he’s displayed an uncommon knack for recognising and nurturing talent – both tested and untested.

It was in the early 2000s at Circa, Frank and John van Haandel’s fine diner at the Prince of Wales in St Kilda, that this faculty first proved itself. In McConnell’s time cooking there, he employed chefs including “Queen of Desserts” Philippa Sibley (now at the European), David Moyle (formerly of Franklin in Tasmania, now at Longsong) and Matt Wilkinson (owner of Pope Joan). At one stage, a young Kiwi named Ben Shewry worked the breakfast shift. Carlton Wine Room’s John-Paul Twomey, an Irish chef who was to become vital to the success of McConnell’s future restaurants, also entered the picture here.

Take into account all those who’ve worked with or for him and departed to open places of their own, or head kitchens in Melbourne and across the world, and McConnell’s influence becomes far greater than the sum of its parts.

Locally, it’s hard to miss the influence at Carlton Wine Room, where two McConnell long-termers, Twomey and Andrew Joy (plus ex-Tonka sommelier Travis Howe), have created one of the best casual bistros in Melbourne. Out west, Josh Murphy (Cumulus Inc and Moon Under Water) and Rory Cowcher (Cutler & Co) run Harley & Rose, a family-friendly pizza joint that displays a noticeable attention to detail in everything from design to ingredients. It’s there too at Richmond’s Anchovy, where Cumulus alumna Thi Li takes a beautifully measured approach to modern Vietnamese that’s wholly original, while displaying shades of the delicate balance and wit that has made the food at Cumulus popular for a decade.

Cumulus Inc, Melbourne | Photography by Jake Roden

In the timeline of contemporary Melbourne dining, there’s before Cumulus and after Cumulus.

The Flinders Lane diner offered a choose your own adventure, any time of the day, at a time when eating in Melbourne was much more strictly prescribed. The menu was – and remains – a mash-up of luxury and comfort, available all day. Handmade crumpets with vanilla-spiked whipped ricotta. Small-producer charcuterie. Sashimi-grade tuna with fresh peas. Vegetables as hero ingredients. An oyster menu. A tin of Ortiz anchovies. Always a slab of meticulously sourced beef.

Before, there were high-end restaurants for special occasion dining, neighbourhood eateries for a casual meal, but little between. Cumulus was different. It belonged to a chef with a fine dining pedigree, but it wasn’t a fine diner. It was casual but elevated in a way that was appropriate for a solo breakfast or milestone celebration.

With hindsight, it’s clear that people were craving this kind of flexibility. And it’s a big part of the reason why now, whether it’s 10.30am or 4.30pm, you can find such an astonishing range of nice things to eat and drink in Melbourne.

It’s no coincidence that Broadsheet was founded shortly after Cumulus Inc. The restaurant heralded the arrival of an egalitarian, cosmopolitan spirit that felt entirely worth writing about. Throughout Broadsheet’s 10-year history, that spirit has grown and McConnell has remained at the vanguard.

As much as its food, Cumulus Inc’s design also remains highly influential. The space, designed by architect Pascale Gomes-McNabb (McConnell’s partner at the time), enhanced the idea of flexibility while adding a fine-dining filter, no mean feat for a place open from breakfast to nightcap. Sculptural designer light fittings, metallic industrial finishes, splashes of red on the pillars, marble tables and soft leather banquettes – it was edgy and glam and there was nothing else like it.

The kitchen, though, is where Gomes-McNabb really asserted her genius. Open to the point of overexposure, it ensures the large, high-ceilinged space feels bustling all day, regardless of how many customers are in. This clever design launched a thousand similar-looking ships.

Dynamic design, focused first and foremost on the customer, is a feature of all McConnell restaurants. Gomes-McNabb, who also designed the original Cutler & Co and Cumulus Up, was followed by Projects of Imagination, Sibling Architecture and Iva Foschia’s IF Architecture – all young practices with different aesthetics. As a group, they’ve ensured that each restaurant has a distinct personality, from Supernormal’s soft-focus Japanese canteen to Marion’s perfectly pitched balance of retro-shaded intimacy and display. McConnell’s next venture, due to open early next year at Cavendish House on Russell Street, will add another design group to the roster and potentially, act as a recruiting tool, the same way previous ventures have.

The original design of Cutler and Co, Fitzroy, in 2009 | Photography by Josie Withers

“I remember sitting at the Cumulus bar thinking: ‘Wow, I’d like to be good enough to work here,’” says Chris Handel, the group’s current general manager. “I’d never seen anything like it before, with that level of quality in environment and interiors. My eyes were opened and it motivated me to go to the UK to get that level of experience so I could come back and work here.”

Cumulus Inc and Cutler & Co also seduced Loren Daniels, marketing manager for McConnell’s restaurants for nearly six years.

“I’d been working in the fine-dining space for a long time but that style of restaurant was not really me, outside of work,” she says. “What I liked about Cumulus and Cutler & Co was their accessible, friendly vibe. I didn’t necessarily see them as groundbreaking, more that they were just great places to hang.”

It’s this ability to not just attract good people, but to keep them that separates McConnell and his businesses from so many peers.

John-Paul Twomey, the Irish chef from Circa, worked across all of McConnell’s restaurants as a development and head chef for more than a decade before leaving to open Carlton Wine Room. He says that McConnell’s style of cooking, attention to detail and obsession with great produce were what attracted him, but the opportunity and training available kept him there.

“All the restaurants are so different, there’s no getting stuck in a rut,” he says. “Each restaurant is run like it’s a separate small business, with solid training systems in place so you can learn about things like food and wage costs in terms of a small business. It’s great for young chefs, because they can learn skills other than cooking.”

The kinds of training programs offered at McConnell restaurants are also surprisingly uncommon in Melbourne. One example, Kitchen Sessions, is open to all chefs across the restaurants and features revered names such as Damien Pignolet, Tony Tan, Saskia Beer and Janni Kyritsis demonstrating a range of classic skills, techniques and cuisines outside the day-to-day running of the restaurant. At the front of house, beverage manager Leanne Altmann, runs in-house wine tastings and sends aspiring sommeliers off to Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) classes.

“We have an emphasis on training and upskilling and the ability to take people who haven’t worked in the industry before and train them from scratch over a period of two years,” Handel says. “And with the number of diverse businesses we have, we can move people around when they’re ready to extend that training and development.

“It’s a massive thing for us to offer this kind of training because it’s critical for retaining staff – people are going to stay if they’re engaged and learning on the job.”

More subtly, McConnell restaurants have shaped the minds of thousands of customers, who take in the food, the design and the service style (deeply knowledgeable and efficient but always charming and warm) and begin to expect things be delivered to the same standard, wherever they are. And because these are restaurants you can visit weekly – and many people do – there’s also been a certain amount of education. Diners have never been more informed about what they’re eating, especially when it comes to provenance.

Together McConnell’s diverse businesses define a particular Melbourne dining vernacular, one that blurs the lines between cafe, bar and restaurant, teaming flexibility and hospitality with the care and finesse once only associated with fine dining. Their influence on the city’s dining culture has been seismic. Melbourne would be a far different – and probably lesser– place today, if the chef had followed another early ambition and become an artist instead. We’re glad he didn’t.

McConnell: The Years Before Cumulus Inc

McConnell grew up in Box Hill North and had his first kitchen job while still in high school. Cooking wasn’t a done deal – his other ambition was to be an artist – but working in a pub in Collingwood ultimately won out. Displaying the drive and ambition that underpin his current success, young McConnell planned his four-year apprenticeship strategically. He selected a different restaurant for each year of his apprenticeship, each one targeted to maximise the breadth of his education.

The restaurants were among Melbourne’s best at the time: Marchetti’s Latin (high-end Italian), Greg Malouf’s kitchen at O’Connell’s in South Melbourne (modern Middle Eastern), Capers (young chefs with a modern approach) and Maria and Walter’s (classic French). Lessons were learned, but it was at his post-apprenticeship job working for Tansy Good at her eponymous CBD restaurant in 1994 that the lights really went on.

“Tansy set me on a direction that influences how I cook today,” he says. “Her basic technique was sound and her passion for ingredients was more extreme than anybody I’d met before. She taught me the importance of produce. She used to go the market in the morning, get a box of beans, tip it up and then sort through them, picking out all the little ones to get a half-kilo of beans that were sweet and perfect.

“It’s how I look at ingredients today – you won’t see a tomato on our menus except in summer when they’re at their best. There’s no point pushing shit uphill – if it’s not perfect, don’t use it.”

McConnell headed overseas for eight years and worked in America, Europe and Asia. He was personal tour cook for Madonna and Prince and head chef at restaurants in Hong Kong and Shanghai, where he wrangled large kitchens of 25 to 30 chefs, the language barrier adding to the degree of difficulty. These kitchens taught him many skills, not least the value of patience.

Returning to Melbourne in 2001, he opened Fitzroy’s Diningroom 211 with architect Pascale Gomes-McNabb (his partner at the time) and brother Matt, who now owns popular Iberian diner Bar Lourinhã. 211 was a sophisticated, luxurious fine diner on bohemian Brunswick Street – a stretch otherwise full of DIY cafes with mismatched second-hand furniture. It was upmarket but also of the neighbourhood, with a relaxed, approachable style and a vegetable-forward menu, unusual at that stratum of dining at the time.

Three years later he sold the restaurant to take the reigns at Circa. Here, McConnell started to form the direct relationships with farmers and producers that have become the bedrock of his present-day restaurants. This was how he’d operated in Asia and Europe – and how he’d been trained by Tansy Good – and he wanted to emulate it in Melbourne.

He wasn’t alone. An increasing number of chefs who’d worked overseas and experienced the wide range of ingredients a direct supply system offered were frustrated that the wholesale market and the Queen Victoria Market were basically the only sources of produce for chefs in Melbourne.

“Through word of mouth and different connections we started to form those direct relationships so that you could get a tomato through your door that had never seen a refrigerator,” McConnell says. “There was a real desire to put that kind of freshness on the plate.”

But even running one of the city’s most prestigious kitchens didn’t put the brakes on McConnell’s own projects. Mrs Jones opened in Carlton a year after Diningroom 211, revealing McConnell’s ambition to own more than one restaurant and his nascent tendencies towards changing things up when they’re not working.

The space was designed by Gomes-McNabb with a central communal table, quirky light fittings, a terrazzo floor and bone-handled vintage knives. It had a fixed-price menu that changed weekly with two choices for entrée and main course, and a supplementary daily special. It was a radical move at a time when most Melbourne menus opted for at least eight choices per course. Even with the likes of Brent Savage (who now runs Monopole, Bentley, Yellow and Cirrus in Sydney) and Damien Jones (of Ballarat’s Catfish Thai) in the kitchen, the hands-off approach didn’t work. McConnell shuttered the faltering business and re-opened it later as Three One Two, doing the cooking himself this time.

Three One Two fared better than Mrs Jones. With its monochrome good looks, camouflage netting draped in the window and a menu that included a prototype McConnell cult dish (brik pastry cigars stuffed with foie gras and served in a cigar box) it represented a credible shot at making fine dining more flexible. But after two years, Three One Two made way for the game-changing Cumulus Inc, ushering in the second phase of McConnell’s career, the one where he was finally confident and experienced enough to do what he really wanted to do.