The REAL journey - Why our philosophy means so much
Posted 27 Jul 2020
Are you a list person? I am a list person and at one point in the last couple of months I had seven active lists. On my phone, above my desk, hanging off the kitchen fridge, at work, in the car – they were ruling my life! Taking on ownership of the restaurant that I had been managing was always going to be challenging and my lists were all-consuming. Irrespective of these lists, there was one personal aspect that took me completely by surprise; defeating my internal cultural normal.
What do I mean, by internal cultural normal? I’ll get to that.
Human observer and commentator, Hugh Mackay, attempted to prepare me for this defeat when he wrote about a humans’ innate need for security through routine, in his book The Art of Belonging’. But I didn’t listen. I continued making lists detailing changes to things like the drink’s menu, the restaurant, the décor, you name it! You see the restaurant that I was managing wasn’t a restaurant that reflected me and my values. With an Italian overlay, Nico’s was completely the alter ego of the previous owners. Several of my lists related to the transitioning process. My intention was to evolve the restaurant from a typical Italian Pizza and Pasta venue to one which delivered more than a meal.
My new restaurant needed to reflect environmental respect, putting decision-making around food in the hands of customers and involve a local community of suppliers. In the future, I see REAL Pizza Pasta Salads delivering this, and so much more. A foodie community hub. A place where volunteering connections are made. An introduction to doing food-related things differently.
My mentor Charlie Carrington (ex-MasterChef and Melbourne-based Atlas Restaurant owner) went to great pains to encourage me to never lose my vision. He said, “the moment you bend your vision to suit others, you are working for their goal and not your own and that’s when work becomes a task.”
My lists formed this paradigm. All the while I viewed transitioning to be my major challenge. An external attempt at taking existing customers on the journey with me while seeking new ones. A true venue that caters or all. All the tasks seemed external and action based.
What my lists didn’t reflect was the change that had to occur within me.
Five years managing a restaurant under an owner with completely different beliefs and values compared to me had sewn so much culture and habit within me. The contrast in owners was palpable. Staff have even commented, ‘how you two work together is surprising’. I know that there were many times that both of us tired of one another but for levels of reasons we needed each other. And today we remain friends.
The biggest evolution had to come from within me. I had to shake off the Nico’s and bring on the REAL. Turns out this was a far more complex task than I gave it credit! Away from the restaurant my vision was sparkling and clear. At the restaurant it became buried in habit and assumption. Taking yourself to an examination table is not nice but in this case was essential. For the restaurant to transition to REAL I had to unpack each of my assumptions and measure them according to my values, and not those of others. This meant questioning everything – from purchasing ingredients, dealing with waste as well as leading staff.
It was such an all-consuming personal transformation that I felt supportive friends and family slipping away. All my focus and energy had to be on breaking these assumptions. It was tumultuous. I didn’t realise what was going on let alone the others around me. Three and a half months into restaurant ownership I surfaced. It was surreal, like a spell had been broken. I felt that I could breathe, I knew where I was heading and the transition – by no means complete – seemed more tangible and real. I could be a mother, a friend and a community member again!
REAL is largely about challenging assumptions.
Giving new ways of doing a place in your life, reassessing ways of doing in light of new priorities and giving redundant ways of thinking the flick. I am grateful that I have been through this journey as the process of assumption breaking is such a recent experience that I feel well placed to support others interested in challenging their cultural normalities. Whether it be bringing in a container for your takeaway, reskilling at a food preparation workshop or choosing regional ingredients rather than international for your pizza, I (we) will be here to support you!
Many of you reading this who know me may not have seen evidence of this personal journey but for those who did, thank you for your support and understanding.