Some chefs, so consumed by their work in the kitchen, are happy to leave things like their restaurant’s fit-out and furniture in the hands of other people. While he’s deadly serious about his food, Scott Pickett is not one of them. From the floor to the ceiling, the fridge doors to the knife handles, he has obsessed over every detail of his new venue, Estelle by Scott Pickett (ESP).
Not every detail will be noticed by diners, but they won’t forget the experience. An unabashedly high-end restaurant, ESP is degustation only, with a seven-course menu featuring simply named dishes that belie the experience and inspiration behind them.
“The thing I didn’t understand as a young cook was restraint,” says Pickett, speaking to us the morning of ESP’s opening. “That’s what I learnt when I was away (working in London and Paris); to be more confident with less components, and to strip things back. Now I’m looking at what I can take off a plate, not what I can add to it.”
With its huge windows giving High Street passersby a view straight past the Christopher Boots light fixture and Philippe Starck chairs to the open kitchen, ESP feels like a big leap from the original Estelle. But opening a new restaurant and turning the original into a bistro is not a leap for the owner. It’s just taken him five years to do it. “The original plan was for Estelle to be the bistro it is now, but there were only six tables in the restaurant,” Pickett says. “I remember one Friday night early on, our biggest table for the night had six people sharing a charcuterie board and a bottle of wine. We decided we had to do a minimum spend otherwise we were going to go broke. That’s why we did the tasting menu. I love degustations, but there’s also a bonus in not having to buy all this extra food. We weren’t carrying stock we didn’t know we could sell. The decision was straight up survival.”
Pickett and his wife began work on Estelle five years ago, and built a good rapport with their Northcote landlord, who also owned the building next door. “I always thought I’d extend, which was great in theory, but the reality is on a Tuesday night in Northcote, you’re not doing a tasting menu for 70–80 people. But you might do 50,” he says. “So we thought, why don’t we split the concepts, take Estelle back to what it was always going to be and take the degustation concept out. We looked at going into the city, but I thought, if you can build your dream next door to your original place, why not?”
Naturally, there was a research trip to Europe. Pickett visited a slightly staggering 32 restaurants in 21 days, coming home with 3500 photos to be used as inspiration and ideas for Estelle Bistro and ESP next door. “It was a research and development trip, which is how I sold it to my wife, but it was also a bucket list,” he grins.
Listening to him talk, about Ilija Karlusic, the architect originally from up the road in Preston who’s now a president at Hirsch Bedner Associates and worked on Alain Ducass’ Tokyo restaurant before helping with ESP, or about the Laguiole knives Pickett sent back to France three times before he was satisfied with the designs, it’s impossible not to marvel at his enthusiasm. And also to wonder if this is perhaps a man who hates sleep. Especially when you remember that in the middle of opening ESP, he filmed season one of The Hotplate, his first foray into television. As with everything Pickett does, the story behind that little adventure is worth hearing.
“It was my birthday, December 16 last year. I hadn’t had a break for months so I switched the phone off, dropped my kids off early and played a round of golf by myself,” he begins. “I came home, had a birthday dinner with my family and when I turned my phone on next day, I’d missed calls from both Channel 7 and Channel 9. It was a crazy coincidence. We started exploring the options and it felt like 9 was the best fit.”
Pickett and his team had planned to have ESP ready by April, but with a few permits held up by council, he found he had a three-month window during which filming might be possible. “I thought if I could do it four days a week and be at Saint Crispin (his Collingwood restaurant he owns with Joe Grbac) and Estelle three days, it could work,” he says.
While he’s not giving too much away about the show, Pickett is easy-going about the success or otherwise of The Hotplate, which he will judge along with English food writer Tom Parker Bowles (son of Camilla). “If it helps pay for the copper pans in the kitchen, great. But if it doesn’t go crazy, I’ve still got the restaurant,” he says.
During filming, Pickett and his team had their share of issues back in Northcote, with ESP’s concrete slab having to be re-poured eight weeks before the restaurant was due to open. “All the footings, all the foundations. So that was $150,000 that wasn’t budgeted for,” Pickett says. “Everyone’s asking why I’m so calm, but after everything we’ve been through, the actual opening feels like a dream. We’ve walked it and lived it. Josh (Pelham, head chef) and I, we had a kitchen we mapped out and spray painted on the floor, thinking about how we’d move around and where everything needed to be. And now it’s here.” Long may it remain.
245 High Street, Northcote
(03) 9489 4609