Ten Years of Ester: An Oral History

It’s been a decade since Mat Lindsay and his team opened “a small restaurant and bar” in a former Chippendale garage, centred around a woodfired oven. From humble beginnings – in a suburb people rarely visited – it’s evolved into a standard bearer for a certain kind of Australian cooking, while continuing to change and become ever more itself – but better.

Published on 16 November 2023

“A small restaurant and bar in Chippendale.” These are the words Mat Lindsay first used to describe his restaurant Ester. It was 2013 and his pitch was simple: a neighbourhood place using local and sustainable ingredients, making what it could in-house, serving organic and biodynamic wine, all of it ever-changing, all of it centred around a woodfired oven.

If the vision seemed humble, the execution was quietly revolutionary. General manager Adam Hall filled the room with ease and generosity, sommelier Julien Dromgool poured drinks that made waves, and Lindsay threw everything at the fire, seeing what would stick. What did is a long list of what are now considered classics: burnished whole cauliflower; roasted oysters swimming in sake butter; and pull-apart potato bread to swipe through cultured cream and dashi jelly, and overload with trout roe. There was char and crunch, generosity in the saucing, and long Sunday afternoons spent sharing dishes among friends.

But what’s become an emblem of a certain kind of Australian cooking didn’t start that way. Earlier in his career, Lindsay had worked under Neil Perry, then found his sweet spot at Billy Kwong. “I could have stayed there my whole life, really,” he says. “But if I didn’t stop and focus on trying to open my own place, I probably never would have done it.”

As the build was happening, the chef kicked around Surry Hills at forward-thinking wine bars 121 BC and Vini, where a young Giorgio de Maria (now co-owner of Paski Vineria Popolare) schooled him in low-intervention makers. When Ester launched, these were his references. But as time passed, Lindsay says, Ester formed its own identity. “It became much more of a restaurant.” Slowly, surely, Ester has transformed from a little neighbourhood restaurant into an institution. “We’ve grown up now,” Lindsay says.

Here we tell the story of Ester’s impact, in the words of the people who made it happen or witnessed it first hand. The accounts are of a restaurant thoroughly its own, that at 10 years old, still feels fresh, dynamic and ready for an exciting future.

Photography: Nikki To

Industrial beginnings
On July 31, 2013, Mat Lindsay lit the woodfired oven for Ester’s first service. The oven has been its heart ever since, the restaurant itself becoming a symbol of the changing face of Chippendale. But 10 years ago, when the suburb was known largely for the hulking Carlton & United Brewery, which had closed in 2005, and not much else, launching a restaurant there wasn’t just a gamble, it was almost unheard of.

Anthony Gill, chief architect
I remember thinking it was brave! There wasn’t much happening [in Chippendale].

The site had a roller door where the entrance is, and a large concrete ramp, because it was used as a garage. The board-formed concrete ceiling and beams were the most memorable part. The space certainly felt like it had potential, but it was going to take work to turn it into a restaurant.

Mat Lindsay, owner-chef
It was only ever meant to be a little neighbourhood restaurant with a bar that you could walk into. But we still didn’t have a clear plan about what this place was going to be, what the identity was. But I remember one day going to my favourite restaurant of all time, Vulcan’s [in Blackheath], with O Tama [Carey; Lindsay’s partner, owner of Lankan Filling Station] and thinking, “I need a woodfired oven”.

Literally the whole restaurant was built around the oven, which is great, because it gave it direction. From the way the menu is to the actual food on the plate is just really driven by the [oven].

It was all about the oven and getting the kitchen right from the start. The dining room is really the leftover space, with the bar on one side and the entry ramp on the other. This pushed most of the seating into the centre, which makes it feel more generous than the spacing of tables might suggest.

Adam Hall, general manager
We had very basic chairs – metal backs, hard flat wooden seats. It was all very basic. Mat wanted it to be egalitarian, and simple, and for the service to reflect that. And this was reflected in the fit-out as well.

We actually looked at this place first. But then everyone was a bit shy about it because Chippendale was a much different prospect back then. What this site had going for it was that the rent was so cheap. And I just like, I fucking love this room.

The week before opening this guy walked in, looked around and asked what was going on. I said, “We’re opening a restaurant”, and he went, “You’re going into the wrong spot mate”. I was like, “Fuck”.

Mat Lindsay | Photography: Patricia Niven courtesy of Murdoch Books

The early days
The fire was lit, the oven was cured, and if there were difficulties, they were tempered by Lindsay’s touch, Hall’s grace, Dromgool’s wine list, and guests ready to soak it up.

The soft opening was one of the worst nights of my life. It was chaos. We had a very small team, just four of us in the kitchen. And then one guy quit, so the next day we did it with three people.

No one knew anything about the place. I was a nobody. How do you get people to come to a place like this? Especially when people think it’s in the middle of nowhere.

After a couple of days Pat Nourse came in – this was just at the start of Instagram – and he was one of the first to go “check this out”. It just snowballed.

Pat Nourse, former editor of the Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Guide, co-author Ester: Australian Cooking
What stood out early? The chairs. They were truly awful. Thankfully they were replaced by things you’d actually want to sit on fairly quickly.

But no, it was the instant ease of the place. Adam Hall made you feel welcome as soon as you walked through the door. Jules Dromgool’s list was full of things you (or at least I) wanted to drink immediately. And there wasn’t a thing on the menu you didn’t want to eat.

Susan Hipgrave and Edward Waring, locals, longtime regulars
It was like a breath of fresh air walking in there. The renovation was clever, but it just felt really relaxed and the food, while it was extraordinary, felt attainable. Exceptional but not overwhelming and not fussy and not reverential.

Every time we went the staff were so warm and friendly. They knew what we loved to drink – they’d say, “Do you want something like you had last time?”. And the most important thing was the consistency: every time we went there it was as good as the last time.

What we wanted was just a casual kind of joint with pretty simple food. And it hasn’t changed much in that respect. But after a few good reviews and awards people were really coming here as a destination, which put a different sort of pressure on us.

This was 2013, the context was still very much tweezer food, lots of things cooked sous-vide and fussed over too much … This was different. It was gutsy and powerful and hot and scorched and satisfying. Things weren’t blackened and intense because Mat was imprecise or uncaring; quite the opposite: this was a chef in control of his fire and his ferments and all the Ester things we now take for granted.

I couldn’t get enough of it. And after a while it turned out a whole lot of other people felt the same way.

Those expectations ended up shaping what Ester became. We had to adapt a little bit while still trying to stay true to what we wanted it to be: we upgraded the seats to be soft and upholstered and comfortable. And very quickly we started booking the bar and setting it. The paper napkins became cloth napkins. And these little bits just started to creep in to bring it more in line with the expectations.

The style and the signatures
“When we opened with a wood-fired oven, everyone was like, ‘Oh … pizza?’, and we were like, yeah … no. No pizza. No pizza ever.” Lindsay recalls how guests struggled to break the association with the wood oven. Then they’d see the cauliflower. A hard-roasted brassica that became a symbol of a place where fire informed every element, but with a foundation in flavour.

Julien Dromgool, drinks director
It was punchy. And Mat was using lots of different techniques and ingredients, and putting them together in a very smart, conscientious way. Only a very small number of chefs in this country were using the techniques he was using. You know, he’d come out of the Rockpool kitchen with Neil Perry. The guy can cook.

Elena Begg, Melbourne local, frequent fly-in visitor
It’s really clever cooking. It’s delicious and comforting and modern without being ostentatious. There’s none of that. There’s just really gorgeous food.

The wood fire was really exciting to me because at the beginning mostly everything was cooked by the fire – that beautiful fire. I think what drew me first of all to Ester was the pavlova, the woodfired pavlova.

Hipgrave and Waring
The cauliflower. Oh my god they were the first ones to do that really roasted cauliflower. It was ahead of its time, really.

Back then cauliflower was pretty rare. People were used to it boiled, but we’d steam it, then before service we’d do a roast with a smoke, where we’d choke the oven, then give it a hard roast, and through service it’d get another roast. We worked out, for the first two years, the cauliflower paid the rent. It was almost dollar for dollar.

After a while, I was just like, fuck this, I don’t want to smell this anymore. So we took it off. That night a couple sitting on table 16 looked at the menu and said “Where’s the cauliflower?”. We told them and they just said, “What do you mean?” and walked out.

If we’re talking the [blood sausage] sanga and the potato bread, I’d say they’re still so popular because they’re hot, tasty and in your face. They’re tactile, they smell great, the sensation of biting into them is delicious and then they punch all the buttons on your palate, dancing from acidic to fatty to fermented to sweet to umami and back again.

The sausage sanga is still on and I love it. Everyone that eats it either loves it or is surprised by it.

One from the early days that’s stuck around is the [dessert of] coconut sorbet mixed with cloudy nigori unfiltered sake. It’s just delicious. I mean, it wasn’t like there was a precedent for it. It was just, “You know what, this could be really good together”, then, “Holy shit it actually is”. Mind blowing.

Clayton Wells and Tania Fergusson, Mod Dining, ex-Automata and A1 Canteen; regulars
There’s so much that sticks in the memory. Potato bread (always!). Roasted oysters. The best hasselback potatoes. Mopping up the brown butter and tamari and capers and prawn juice with that amazing bread.

Mat is happiest when a table is sucking the brain goo out of the prawns, dredging the fat out of a crab’s head, cracking bones to get at the marrow, slurping at the shells, rolling up the sleeves and saying, fuck yes, this life is good, and I’m going to enjoy it to the fullest.

Photography: Nikki To

The wine
A meal at Ester is about the drink as much as the food. Diners will glance at the next table, see something red or orange or amber and flick through the list to see what it is. Odds are, it’ll be unfined or unfiltered, organic or biodynamic. The seeds came from Lindsay’s experience, but it was Dromgool – who’d eventually oversee sister restaurant Poly’s drinks, too – who took the idea and ran with it.

Mat was always sourcing local, organic produce as much as possible and the ethos was the same on the wine and drinks side. It was at a time when there were only a handful of those winemakers in the country, and just a few importers bringing in those kinds of wines from overseas, and they were super excited to be working with us. Mat, more than myself, was in touch with what was going on globally, too.

We’d have bottles from [Campania winemaker] Cantina Giardino, poured from magnums, or larger. Then there was French producer Philippe Bornard – he’s now retired and his son Tony has taken over – but all his famous bottles with the orange fox on the label …

Gabrielle Webster, wine director Icebergs Dining Room & Bar
Natural wine was sort of brand new at that time; no one had ever spoken about it much. It was all big chardonnays and all that. So to see these energetic, light reds, beaujolais, and all these sorts of things on a restaurant wine list, not a wine bar, was super exciting. Like wildly exciting. We flocked.

There was a lot of discovery happening. And Jules’s wine list has remained at the forefront of everything I’ve wanted to drink over the last 10 years.

I think it was important to have a chef in a restaurant whose food was taken seriously to be only serving that kind of wine. It took it out of the realm of hippy-dippy pretend wine into something more serious. People had to start taking notice. So I like that Ester was part of bringing natural wine into the mainstream.

Photography: Nikki To

Sunday lunch
Afternoon light, lock-ins, a crowd stacked with regulars, and lunches that seem to last as long as the memories. Sundays at Ester are special.

That was a very deliberate conversation. I remember when we were talking about Sundays we were like, “Let’s make it a long lunch”. Because I know that when I finish Saturday night and go out and have a couple of drinks I don’t want to get up and have lunch at midday, I want to get up at midday then have lunch at two or three.

Wells and Fergusson
If we’re not there for an impromptu date night, up at the bar with a great bottle of wine, our favourite way to eat there is a long, long Sunday lunch with friends.

Sundays are when the lunch doesn’t seem to end, and there’s no racing to get in before the dinner service. I’ve always just enjoyed sitting in that venue drinking wine until the day’s over.

[For] some of our regulars, that would be the day that they cemented their love of coming to Ester. The kitchen would open at midday and sometimes close at 5pm, and then occasionally there’d be a lock in afterwards.

Everything is much more relaxed. And staff have a lot more time to chat and connect with their tables and have a laugh with them, that sort of thing. There’s much more of people pointing to rare bottles on the shelf that aren’t on the list and saying, “Hey, can I have that?”. We bring it down, we chat about it and then they pour some for all of the staff to have a taste. It’s definitely my favourite service.

Potato bread | Photography: Patricia Niven courtesy of Murdoch Books

The legacy
It’s in the day-to-day that Ester’s reputation has been forged, the restaurant becoming a standard bearer for a particularly Australian style of cooking that, above everything, has always been about enjoyment.

I’ve always been proud of the fact that we showed that really excellent food and good service doesn’t have to come with a super expensive price tag and a very flashy fit out. It’s a space where anyone can feel comfortable, it’s understated.

Wells and Fergusson
As hospitality people, it’s rare to discover something that felt so thoroughly original and thought-provoking, but completely comfortable. The food, interiors, service and music all worked together to make it a place we loved to hang out and relax.

It’s a lot of fun. And while a lot of thought and care go into the food and drink, it’s really about you. I don’t know if this is something that flows straight from Mat’s own humility, or if it was baked into the design of the place, but this has never been one of those restaurants where you’re supposed to be in thrall to the chef’s genius. It’s about getting around a table or a bar with people you love and getting into it. Not rocket science, perhaps, but not as common as you might hope.

It’s not changed so much from what we first started, but it’s just gotten better. Refined isn’t the word, but we’re just more in tune with it. That’s just come through practice. And we’ve learned more about how to use fire properly and in different ways.

Like the prawns, when we first started, were just split open with a bit of burnt butter and some lemon. Over time, we worked out how to do the shell a little differently. The butter has become this fermented shrimp paste butter, with a deeper, more rounded flavour. And we’ve perfected the actual cooking of the prawns, and the bread that comes with it is just better. It’s the same dish, just better and fuller.

Hipgrave and Waring
It’s developed by staying the same. It’s become more itself. It’s just relaxed, it knows exactly what it’s doing, and it does it to 150 per cent every time. The experience stays constant, although the food you get served up is even more interesting than the last time you went.

I’ve been very lucky that all the people who work for me are better than me. Nathan [Brindle] runs the kitchen, he’s been here I think eight years. Honor McGrath, the manager now, she’s been here for maybe seven or eight years as well.

It is kind of a coincidence that writing a book coincided with being open for 10 years. But we had a lot of stuff we thought maybe we should just write down before everyone forgets it. It was great to go back and realise all the stuff we’ve done, how far we’ve come.

We just want people to come and have a good time, and be open to trying new things. And that’s still the brief today. It was just always a sharing environment. Sharing plates, conversation, catch ups, celebrations, but outside of the normal day to day.

Anthony Gill did an amazing job. It’s a small space, but it’s very open at the same time. It’s stood the test of time, for a small restaurant in the back streets of Chippendale.

Photography: Nikki To

The future
Poly is entering its sixth year, AP Bakery (co-owned by Lindsay, Paramount House Hotel founder Ping Jin Ng and Reuben Hills owner Russell Beard) has recently launched in Sydney CBD, on top of venues in Paramount House and Newtown, and Lindsay has launched his first cookbook. But Ester itself? A new oven is just another step forward.

Traditionally your opening team is gone after six months, so to have so many key players still there 10 years on is a massive testament to them – you don't stay in a place that’s not good, it’s as simple as that. And Mat’s food is exciting. What they’re doing is fun. I don’t see any reason why they’re going to slow down.

I think there’s scope to try and bring it a bit more full circle without dropping some of the nice things we’ve added. We’ve slowly been relaxing it and just letting people stay for longer, not enforcing strict out-bys. I think now it’s proven itself and done its thing, we can just relax the whole thing a little more and go back to that more chilled-out version of what we wanted it to be at the beginning.

There’s been quite a major refurb in the kitchen, and that back-of-house area. So I think Mat’s put things in motion for it to keep chugging along for another 10 years. The landscape’s always changing, but it seems to still be current and relevant. So the future looks pretty bright.

Mat and co aren’t looking outside for ideas, so there’s a certainty and a continuity to what they do that is starting to look a lot like a kind of timelessness.

I’ve tried over the years to steer this thing in a different way sometimes, just through the style of menu or whatever. But no one’s having it. The customers come and this is what Ester is to them.

But we still change the menu, we’re still evolving. There’s something nice about a restaurant that you can go to after 10 years and it's the same as you remember it, but we’ve never been like that, so you never know where it’s going to be in five or 10 years. It’ll be similar in the way that Ester is Ester, but, I don’t know … we’ll just be better at it.