Will and Mick Balleau are sitting in a derelict building in Carlton. Laughter from a handful of their staff members floats up the stairs, and Marlowe, Will’s Saint Bernard, is snoozing at his feet, blowing gentle dust clouds from the floorboards.
We’re discussing the factors that shape a restaurant’s success. The boys are barely older than 30, but they have a pretty good idea. Their first two venues, Chingón in Richmond and Le Bon Ton in Collingwood, positioned the brothers at the crest of Melbourne’s food trends. Let’s get this straight though – they’re not initiators. No one would claim they “started” Mexican food or Southern barbeque in this city. But what you can say – with confidence – is that they have taken two popular ideas and refined them to a point of distinct, benchmark clarity. And they’re about to do it again.
In February their third business will emerge from the empty shell we’re sitting in, completing the trilogy of cuisines the Balleaus grew up with in America.
For now, though, they’re preparing to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving with Will’s girlfriend from Toronto, some staff and friends, plus two enormous smoked turkeys. They’ve invited me along, because that’s the type of guys they are.
“This was actually the second Melbourne restaurant we ate in,” Will says, casting a glance around the space that was, until recently, a German joint named Mutti’s. “We’d been in town about three days.” Back then, the American-born brothers hardly knew anyone. Things have changed. The two-storey building is empty but for a long, clothed trestle table surrounded by 20 plastic chairs. Boxes of rented glasses sit on the bar.
In a few hours the glasses will be filled and the seats occupied by the substitute family the Balleaus have gathered around them since they first ate bratwurst and pork knuckle here four years ago. It’s a neat twist of fate. But then the brothers have a knack for returning to places, physically and gastronomically.
The Balleaus’ parents lived in New York for five years before moving to rural New Mexico to raise their three children. Their mother is from Brisbane and their American father had a passion for Mexico. As we chat it becomes clear these pit stops in the family history hold enduring significance.
Will is four years older and does most of the talking. Mick spends more time looking at the ground, or at his hands. It’s hard to get him to say anything voluntarily, or raise his voice above a soft murmur. It’s clear Will is the friendly face of the Balleau show, while Mick is the quiet, practical bloke who prefers to stay behind the scenes.
“My dad loved Mexico,” Will says. “I can’t remember how many times we went down there when we were growing up.” Naturally, this gave the Balleaus a good appreciation for Mexican food. Their mother was more passionate about New York, where she headed up the news department at the UN, and later took her young kids to explore the food scene.
It’s no coincidence Will and Mick’s three venues revolve around these childhood culinary axes. Chingón, Mexican. Le Bon Ton, New Mexico’s cowboy barbeque. The upcoming Five Points Deli, meanwhile, will focus on New York deli fare. Everything will be faithful, from the Art Deco fit-out, to the bagels, chowder, sauerkraut, pastrami on rye and other classics offered for breakfast and lunch. The duo is moving chef Jamie Hook over from Le Bon Ton to oversee it all.
Above it, the top level will be transformed into the nighttime-oriented Longhorn Saloon, in honour of a bar near their parents’ house.
“It was a pretty colourful little boozer,” Will says. “They didn’t really care about IDs, so we were able to sneak in there when we were pretty young. It was one of the first places I ever had a beer.”
These rough-and-tumble memories inspire the bar’s rock‘n’roll look, which will be all raw timbers and stark iron chandeliers, forming a strong contrast with the elegant, gilded look downstairs. Despite the different feel, the food at Longhorn will still lean towards New York, just a different side of it. After recently departing Nieuw Amsterdam, chef Nick Stanton will be heading up the Longhorn kitchen, which will churn out baked potatoes, beef jerky and dry-aged steaks prepared on wood-fired grills. A “raw bar” – another New York speciality – will offer prawn and crab cocktails, oysters, clams and other seafood.
All this – the themes of the brothers’ venues and their double-barrelled vision for the new venture – makes it clear: as much as they move around, roots are important to the Balleaus.
After Mick finished school he headed to Mexico for two years, studying cartography in Morelia and Guadalajara. “The food was simple and delicious and fresh,” he says. “By simple, I mean you get one dude with one little table doing one little thing, which he preps for himself every day.” It’s an approach he later imported directly to Chingón, where he designed the menu despite no kitchen experience whatsoever. “You put things together, give it to people and see what they think,” he says with a shrug.
In contrast, Will flew straight to their mum’s home town, Brisbane, intent on studying science. After graduating he spent two years in the jungles of Papua New Guinea and some time back in New Mexico before returning to Australia. It was 2006. “That was the start of me taking hospitality seriously,” he says, as Mick silently bends down to give Marlowe a sloppy sip from his beer glass. “She’s a little parched,” Will says with a wry smile.
While managing a wine bar named 5th Element, Will first encountered Stanton, the new chef at Longhorn Saloon. “He was only 21 or 22,” he says, “but even back then, you could tell he was something pretty special.”
Will later moved on to a Middle Eastern restaurant, Byblos, and though he’s worked in plenty of other venues, it was these two Brisbane businesses which taught him the necessary lessons to build Chingón and Le Bon Ton into what they are now. “I worked the front line of hospitality for a long time,” he says, “and I realise how important it is to feel valued and listened to.”
Later on, while we’re drinking champagne and eating the best turkey I’ve ever had, one of the staff at Le Bon Ton, a multi-decade hospitality veteran, turns to me and says, “I’ve never worked at a place where you can actually ask for stuff. If I say, ‘Can we get a new fridge?’ within a half an hour, they’ll usually come back and say, ‘Sure, why not?’”
This practical approach to management eventually led to Will being chosen to open a second Byblos in Melbourne. Before that, though, there was another year-long trip, this time to New York. “I was already pretty impassioned about hospitality and food and wine by then,” Will says. “So I made sure I went everywhere I could, met a lot of people and tried to immerse myself in the scene as much as possible.”
As when he visited 25 years earlier, he was amazed at the depth of the food on offer. “It can get as esoteric as Ukrainian and Sardinian,” he says. “That’s the type of cuisine we love. Not so much modern, ‘flair’ cuisine, but authentic, traditional, tried-and-true.” Their venues shoot very deliberately for the same thing. “I guess what we grew up with was very simple,” Mick affirms. “That’s some of my favourite food; mum’s homemade bread with a tomato from the garden.”
It was 2010 when they finally put that love into practice. Will was back from New York and badgering Mick to join him in Melbourne. When Mick finally relented and flew out, they found an old bookkeeper’s office in Richmond and moved upstairs. Downstairs they began building Chingón Cantina y Taquería, their first ever business. It took eight months, with Will doing full days at Byblos, then working until 2am with Mick. Today, they have an accompanying food truck, but the menu still has just six basic tacos on it.
Will says he’d wanted to open a Mexican restaurant for a long time, but the right ingredients weren’t available in Australia before then. “Plus, my brother arrived, and I was never ambitious enough to do it on my own,” he says.
The duo’s practical skills come from their dad who was, “always adding rooms to the house”. “There was a lot of freedom to learn and make mistakes,” Mick says about their home life. And there were plenty of mistakes at Chingón. Will reckons the venue’s textured feature walls took six tries to get right. “My dad used to say, ‘Perfect is the enemy of good enough’,” he says. “I listen to Mick; he’s great at calling that point when it’s time to open. If I had my way, we’d keep working at it forever.”
The eight-month effort they invested fitting-out Chingón wasn’t just for their own satisfaction, though. “If you look at where Byblos in Brisbane is, it’s in a very strange part of town,” Will says. “Chingón is the same. But I learnt that if you create a destination and an interesting space, people will come.”
Nowhere is this more true than at the nearly year-old Le Bon Ton, the brothers’ second venue. Gipps Street may still be in Collingwood, but it’s nowheresville compared to the bustle of Smith Street and surrounds. This hasn’t stopped patrons arriving in droves, lured by Texas-style smoked meats, top-notch cocktails and the ritzy oyster-and-absinthe bar.
Some days, the venue is quiet for just 30 minutes, between 5.30am when the bar staff finishes its pack-down, and 6am, when chefs arrive to begin preparing food for the next evening’s trade. It’s ironic considering the Chingón site was selected for its on-site accommodation because they, “didn’t know how well it was going to do”.
Like that first project, Le Bon Ton was designed to recreate flavours the pair grew up with and missed. Four months before opening they seriously lucked out when Will stepped outside the bustling Chingón to take a phone call. Jeremy Sutphin, a chef from New Mexico with 20 years of experience in the USA’s best barbeque pits, was standing outside ha ving a smoke.
He heard Will’s accent, they struck up a conversation, and stayed up all night drinking tequila and meeting each other’s friends. Aside from tacos, Sutphin named two more cuisines Melbourne had room for: Southern barbeque and New York deli. Will told him about Le Bon Ton and by morning Sutphin was their new chef. He brought a whole kitchen team with him, including his brother Christopher, another barbeque master.
Not everything was so easy at Le Bon Ton, though. A mere three weeks after the Balleaus took control of the building a water pipe burst, flooding the cellar with six metres of water. All the beer lines were destroyed, costing thousands. Other aspects of the fit- out were simply punishing in scope, such as dropping in hundreds of ceiling tiles, one by one. “The scale of the work would make you second-guess what you were doing, almost daily,” Will says.
With Le Bon Ton packed out each weekend, that stuff must seem like ancient history. We talk about why it’s so popular. “There’s a lot of things to like about it,” Will says. “It’s got a lot of prongs to it. It’s not just a restaurant or bar.”
As the laughter and chatter starts to increase downstairs, and a few staff members appear upstairs, eagerly anticipating the coming feast, the discussion keeps coming back to their role in the Balleau story. “The people who work in our operations are very well liked by our guests,” Will says. “They’re as much an identity of a place as we are, or the food or drinks are.”
The duo’s biggest challenge going forward could be finding more of these people for Five Points Deli and Longhorn Saloon, which they’re also building themselves. They’ve enlisted the help of their older sister Katie, who has a background in hotel chains, to manage the 70-or-more staff they now employ. Like Mick, she’s a recent transplant, who moved after constant campaigning from Will.
“I think we’re ‘gonna hang up our hat for a while after this,” Will says, before quickly changing tack. “I dunno, we’ll probably get bored.” Building and launching venues is their favourite activity, the pair admits. Where some operators are happy to sell up and move on to bigger things, the Balleaus’ projects are too close to their hearts to give away.
“We’re really proud of what we have,” Will says. Mick nods enthusiastically, adding, “The satisfaction isn’t from a cheque to go do something else with. It’s working every day, making it better and building new projects.”