The restaurant industry “for most of humanity,” says Chris Lucas, “was a tiny little amount of restaurants at the top end.”
The CEO of the Lucas Group, and a restaurateur for more than 20 years, Lucas’s vision is one of egalitarian dining, which is how he describes his famously popular restaurant Chin Chin.
“Dining is no longer for special occasions like it used to be in the ’80s and ’90s,” he says. “It’s no longer some extreme experience.”
It was one of the first in Melbourne to scrap bookings, and offer high-quality restaurant fare for more accessible prices than its predecessors. It cultivated a noisy, bustling atmosphere that starkly set it apart from those same eateries. Here we had a restaurant, but we also had a party. And whether you love the thrill or hate the act of lining up for a restaurant, it’s a democratising – and unifying – event (and one that all would-be Chin Chin diners face).
Lucas’s perspective on dining comes from his role as an owner and founder, rather than a chef. It’s not hung up on food or drinks over service or design; it’s about creating an experience that goes the “full circle”.
“I’m just a representation of the diner,” he says. “Restaurateurs have an innate understanding of the restaurant business because most [of us] have grown up with a more holistic view of what a restaurant encompasses. It’s food, it’s kitchens, it’s front of house, it’s design, it’s marketing, it’s understanding consumer trends.”
Lucas’s father emigrated as a child from Greece to Geelong in the 1920s. He worked as a chef in a pub when Lucas was growing up, and Lucas remembers eating a diverse array of food compared to the other children of Greek migrant families he knew in the ’60s.
Lucas moved to Melbourne at 18 to study at Monash University, in the middle of one of Australia’s most significant hospitality growth spurts.
“The big change happened in the ’70s and ’80s with [a new wave of] mass immigration,” he says. “Those who were more entrepreneurial … basically started their own restaurants or cafes because they wanted to eat their own food.”
In the ’80s, Lucas began to spend time in Richmond, where a portion of Melbourne’s bourgeoning Vietnamese community had set up businesses.
“At the time that was pretty new and exciting because no one had really eaten pho before,” he says.
When apartments started to go up in Melbourne’s CBD, Lucas felt the city became more like Tokyo or Paris, he says, “and the fine-dining sector exploded.”
After '60s French heavyweight chefs Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel and the Troisgros brothers and the likes birthed and popularised nouvelle cuisine – a lighter, more presentation-focused breakaway from classic French cooking – the ’80s and ’90s welcomed white tablecloths and suited waiters at Grossi Florentino, Syracuse, France Soir and more.
Chandeliers and champagne became hallmarks of the lavish restaurant experience that defined Melbourne dining at the time. Nouvelle cuisine and its associated tiny portions and foams and gels soon proliferated in Australian restaurants and for Lucas, this is when “food lost its way a bit” and became “unrecognisable”.
In the last 15 years, the opposite emerged with pioneering chefs such as Noma’s René Redzepi paring things right back to the fundamentals: nose-to-tail, root-to-leaf dining that champions reduced food miles, and hyperlocal, seasonal produce.
“It was a pushback against haute cuisine and the extravagant, crazy weird stuff,” says Lucas.
Attica’s Ben Shewry was an early exemplar of this approach in Australia, bringing foraged food and native ingredients to our plates with care and precision. Before long, your Sunday Eggs Benedict came with lemon-myrtle hollandaise; and pepperberry and bush-tomato beef sausages were in supermarket fridges.
“It went one way too hard, now I think it’s gone the other way too hard,” Lucas says. “It’s important to look after the environment – who doesn’t want to be better connected to more naturally-produced, cleaner food … [but] it’s important to evolve and demonstrate the variety on offer.”
For Lucas, the future is the casual, contemporary, accessible and, most importantly, social.
“I think today people are probably more excited in the dining-out experience because … restaurants have become more than just a place you go out to eat.”
“In my day if you wanted to hang out, make friends or try and meet someone … you went out to a nightclub. Now it’s bars and restaurants. If anything, nightclubs have gone backwards and restaurants are filling that social void.”
And that’s where the restaurateur with a holistic view fits in.
“Food is … an important part of social interaction, and I’ve got to build restaurants around that,” Lucas says.
His restaurants walk and blur the line between restaurant, bar and even club, where a party scene mingles with food influenced by generations-old cuisines. Bento boxes are served in Kisumé’s bustling, windowless basement; the crowd is a non-negotiable side to your jungle curry at Chin Chin; and your waiter at Lucas’s modern Malaysian and Singaporean-inspired restaurant Hawker Hall will likely sport a cocktail umbrella behind the ear.
“I’m not an extremist, we’re not here to change the world – a restaurateur’s role is to make people happy and to feed them,” he says.
“I think in the next 10 years it’ll swing back into the middle: elegance, sophistication and a push to classicism, but with a contemporary spin.”