In the era of COVID-19, remote working and Zoom meetings hardly raise an eyebrow, but what if you run one of the most anticipated restaurants in the country and your boss, one of the world’s greatest chefs, happens to be in stuck abroad? Meet Alan Stuart, the man in charge of Oncore, the fully booked fine-dinner at Crown Sydney that brings the food of Clare Smyth – three Michelin star chef from London’s Core – to the port city.
A Day in the Life of 30-year-old Stuart may be about coordinating a team of 60 to deliver the precision experience expected from such a high-profile restaurant opening, but usually ends with debriefing with Smyth via WhatsApp.
“We talk to her all the time — I call her after the service, tell her how the service has been, and we have a meeting at the beginning of each week,” Stuart says. Clare will mention little things we need to work on, how we can speed up the service, how we can get the plates cleaner. The only way she can see pictures of the food right now is online, so if she notices something, she’ll let me know and we’ll work on it.”
It’s been a long road for the young chef, who spent months preparing a launch that was twice delayed, but his persistence has seemingly paid off: Oncore is full until February and after a week of service, he trusts it. “The fact that we’ve managed to repeat what we’re doing in London so successfully, one week after opening, is, I think, a testament to how great this team is.”
Stuart should know the standards. He and Smyth have been working together since 2012, when the New Zealander joined Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London and worked directly under her. “I’ve known Alan for a long time,” Smyth says. “And I worked with him for a number of periods: at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, then we kept in touch while he was at Eleven Madison Park. [in New York] and then went on to France, and then again when he came back to Core. He is one of the most passionate young people I have ever worked with.”
So Stuart has a deep understanding of very personal dishes, a combination of, for example, potato, roe and beurre blanc from the Southern Highlands, which ties in with Smyth’s Northern Irish roots; or another that looks like an apple, but when cut reveals a vanilla mousse around a heart of caramelized fruit. “It kind of reminds me of the similar relationship Gordon and I had,” says Smyth, who will travel to Australia in February to work side-by-side with Stuart. “You just know exactly what’s expected — you know the flavor, you know the identity.”
If negotiating time differences and up to four combined shifts a day to discuss just a single dish sounds tedious, remember that in these high-stakes venues, meals can be managed down to the second; in an ideal world, Smyth would research every preparation and examine every plate of Oncore’s $300 $300 ($490 with wines to match) seven-course tasting menu.
The reality is that, despite mainly mentioning classics, Stuart has dishes on the menu that Smyth has never tasted – for example, a raw kingfish and smoked seaweed stock. “We do the tastings as a team and I have enough people around to support me and tell me where they think things are going wrong,” Stuart says. “If we all agree, we’ll make a decision to make changes.”
One such person is restaurant manager Michael Stoddart, whose job it is to set a tone that matches Core’s warmth with the kind of raised edge you’d expect. Like Stuart, Stoddart will regularly consult with Smyth and her team. “Clare put her own DNA into the restaurants, from the fingerprints on the plates to the style at the end; she curated the playlist from start to finish,” Stoddart says. “We just want everyone to feel relaxed, warm and welcome.”
Whether any of his own picks will join AC/DC and Fleetwood Mac on the playlist? Smyth maintains the same level of control. “I’ve been told I’m allowed to present a few songs here and there,” says Stoddart. “But Clare needs final approval for that.”
The Good Food Guide 2022 magazine will be published on November 30 with presentation partners Citi and Vittoria Coffee, and free with The Sydney Morning Herald and The age. Also on sale from December 7 in newsagents and supermarkets.