The decision to walk out of work on Saturday afternoon doesn’t sit well with Liam Atkinson and his fellow Ku De Ta chefs. But after months of ownership uncertainty came to a head with Ku De Ta going into voluntary administration, the precinct’s former executive chef says the cooks felt it was time they started looking out for themselves.
“I’ve never walked out of a job in my life,” says Atkinson. “I’ve always given employers two, three months of notice. It’s what you do in a kitchen. But as one of my chefs told me, as chefs we’ve bent over backwards for everyone we’ve worked for our whole lives. Enough is enough.”
Here’s the situation, as Atkinson tells it. On Friday, administrators KPMG were called in by Ku De Ta’s owners to take over the business’s day-to-day. Of the current fortnightly pay cycle, three days were left. KPMG told staff their wages would be guaranteed from the start of the next pay cycle (the coming Monday), but staff could only be paid their full wage for the current cycle if they earned the amount over the weekend.
On Saturday, the kitchen team held a meeting after lunch service and the majority of chefs voted to leave the precinct immediately rather than continue working at a business with an uncertain future.
“We were stuck between maybe and maybe not,” says Atkinson. “The administrators explained all our rights and told us that we'd get some money but it was hard for them to make any guarantees. If the money is going to come to us at some point [employees are protected by the government’s Fair Entitlements Guarantee], it was in our interests to leave now and start looking for jobs.”
That evening, West and Ku Dining – two of the three venues at Ku De Ta – were closed indefinitely. The Deck, the precinct’s largest space, continued to trade with a clipped pizza menu. KPMG administrator Clint Joseph confirmed that all remaining chefs and staff that continued to be employed by Ku De Ta were paid a pro-rata wage based on the three days worked. Although no additional chefs or front-of-house staff members had tendered resignations, Joseph says one staff member in another aspect of the business “had their employment terminated”.
The walkout was an inglorious end to what could have been a mighty addition to the city’s dining ranks. Admittedly, Ku De Ta had its problems. Its location was low-profile and difficult to find in the dark. The lack of a public transport service didn’t help, nor did the expensive parking, a point raised by many online commentators and Atkinson himself (the price of parking, though, was out of Ku De Ta’s hands). But there was also reward for those who persevered.
The duck egg and bone marrow chawanmushi – a slowly cooked Japanese custard – topped with XO sauce pippies at Ku Dining was one of the best things I ate last year, plus you could get a plate of the pippies themselves next door at West. That Japanese-like crab spaghetti from the opening menu at Deck polled equally high on the deliciousness scale.
The quality of the kitchen was as impressive as the food. Atkinson himself is a veteran of revered dining rooms such as Star Anise and Print Hall – two of the finer restaurants Perth has seen. Collectively, his staff has come through restaurants run by Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing and shaken the pans at powerhouses such as Melbourne’s Dinner by Heston and Restaurant Amuse. There was also a former head chef at Red Cabbage on the team.
Unfortunately, much of the discussion around Ku De Ta seemed to dwell on the negative, certainly since this weekend’s explosive events. It’s an observation that gnaws at Atkinson and his peers.
“I’m proud of this city but people tend to want to put each other down,” he says. “It’s important we help each other out, in the good times and the bad. If people aren’t given the encouragement to put themselves out there, we’re not going to have those interesting and exciting venues we want to see here.”
On the upside, the local industry has gotten around Atkinson and his chefs with plenty of public and private support.
“I’ve had nothing but well wishes and a lot of my chefs I’ve spoken to have had the same thing,” says Atkinson. “I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of texts, Messenger messages and phone calls – any way people can get through. I’ve also had literally 60 different people contact me with job offers for everyone: part-time, full-time. For seniors and juniors. That’s been really nice.”
KPMG has set its first creditors meeting for next week and Joseph says he is confident of achieving “a good outcome”. Although official advertising for the sale of Ku De Ta began today, KPMG has already fielded expressions of interest from potential buyers (and, perhaps unexpectedly, offers from suppliers wanting to supply Ku De Ta). Intriguingly, Joseph said, if the right investor and staff could be found, there’s a chance Ku Dining and West could reopen.