With his restaurants Automata and A1 Canteen thriving directly across the street from each other in Chippendale, it can seem like Clayton Wells is doing everything right. But last year the acclaimed chef made the hard decision to close his Singapore restaurant Blackwattle after just a year in operation. That’s a perennial lesson for restaurateurs of all stripes: you can never rest on your laurels.
“I learnt a lot from that,” Wells admits. “I was there [in Singapore] a week out of every month, but it’s very hard to control things on a daily basis from another country. Some things work, some things don’t.” With that in mind, he decided to shutter the overseas offshoot before it lost enough money and was forced to close. He took a judicious left turn and opened an entirely different eatery directly opposite Automata on Kensington Street in Chippendale.
“We use the same principles, but in a more casual setting,” says Wells of A1 Canteen, the laid-back yin to Automata’s industrious yang. While Automata showcases a five-course set menu with all the high-end trappings, A1 functions like a cafe by day and a bistro by night. That way there’s no danger of them competing against each other. “The pricepoint and the offerings are very different,” he adds. “A1 is more of a community thing: I want it to be accessible to anybody.”
For all his success, Wells never held any early ambitions for a career in dining. Growing up in Western Sydney, he originally wanted to be an architect. But by a fortuitous twist of fate, he did some work experience as a cook and wound up loving it. The only problem was that there wasn’t much variety of restaurants in the area then, so he spent years working in hotels before segueing into proper eateries in the city. “Cooking wasn’t a really desirable job,” he says. “It didn’t have the same effect it does nowadays – chefs weren’t famous back then. I got into it because I loved it.”
His first big break as a chef was landing a job at The Rocks’ fine-dining icon Quay, where he spent a fruitful year in the kitchen before graduating to the position of junior sous chef at the equally esteemed Tetsuya’s. Still, even then he didn’t sit back and consider his career sorted. Instead he spent time working in the UK and Scandinavia before returning to Australia in time to help open Momofuku Seiobo (the very first Momofuku restaurant outside the US), where he was sous chef.
“I knew I needed to explore. I wasn’t ready to settle down in Sydney and open a restaurant [of my own]. I didn’t know enough,” he says of the bold decision to travel abroad just when everything was falling into place for him on his home turf. But that very travel landed him the priceless Momofuku connection, opening up a new level of learning that would shape his future as a restaurateur.
“I hadn’t worked in a brand new restaurant before,” Wells says. “The development of everything was quite a defining moment for me. I learnt a hell of a lot in a short amount of time, just in the intricacies of starting something from scratch.”
After participating in that process, Wells felt like he was finally ready for his own place. Enter Automata, which he opened in the former Old Clare Hotel in 2015. “Momofuku turned Sydney fine dining on its head – I realised you don’t have to be sitting in a quiet dining room at a table with triple linen to produce something special,” he says. “That was a very important thing for me to learn and see and be part of. And that’s what I wanted to carry into my own restaurant: that fun, energetic atmosphere, but still with attention to detail in the food.”
Having perfected that balance at both Automata and the more casual A1 Canteen, Wells brought his expertise to Broadsheet Kitchen earlier this year, mentoring promising young chef James Tai for a special one-off dining event at Automata.
Until then, Wells has his hands full with his much-loved sibling restaurants. “I just want to focus on the two things I have here and make them as good as possible. There are always things we’re learning and getting better at,” he says. “I’m here all day, and all I have to do is walk across the street.”
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