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Star Anise owner David Coomer nearly took his culinary skills back home to the east coast after a series of less-than-satisfactory work experiences, as Julie-anne Sprague reports.

 

DAVID Coomer searches far and wide to source the best and freshest ingredients for his restaurant, Star Anise

It’s a task he performs with relish. Who else, for example, other than a man passionate about his food would drive to the airport to personally collect a weekly order of pigeons?

But while he’s now enjoying the spoils that come with having owned a successful restaurant for five years – paying off debt and accumulating a good base of customers – the early days were a bumpy ride at the start.

Mr Coomer decided to establish Star Anise in 1998.  It was a case of “go it alone or go back to Sydney”, he said.

Plans and preparations went relatively smoothly until, just a fortnight after the grand opening of Star Anise, Mr Coomer discovered that payment for the kitchen had been ‘overlooked’ and there were issues with the lease arrangement.

Within weeks a team of repo men came to take the kitchen, prompting Mr Coomer to sell the family car to save the restaurant.

To make matters worse the rent was increased 100 per cent just a year later, something that came as a shock to Mr Coomer and his financial advisers.

Mr Coomer is the first to admit it was a tough break caused by a degree of naivety. But now, five years later, his small Shenton Park restaurant has proven to be a great success.

Not only was Mr Coomer named as one of WA Business News’ 40under40 Award winners for 2004, but Star Anise just scored a three-star ranking in Gourmet Traveller’s 2004 Restaurant Guide.

“That has been my target because it’s something that means what it says and there is no other guide in Perth. There is no Age or Good Living here,” Mr Coomer says.

“I was hoping for two stars because we got one the previous year but we got three. And it went crazy here just before Christmas. I thought it might be worth $20,000 to us but now I reckon it’s worth $100,000.”

And after persisting with quality food and service, and paying off the bills, Mr Coomer is now in a position to grow the business financially over the next few years.

“I’m getting a bit more relaxed now. For the first time in five years I am hiring a sous chef. I’m doing it because now I can afford to. He’s a young guy called Liam Atkinson. I can focus more on running the business.”

The move to Perth all those years ago was the result of a love match with a Perth girl, Kareen, during his time in Melbourne.

“I came here and ended up working at The Left Bank for three weeks. I went from $50,000 to $22,000, and I was doing things like the daily wok,” Mr Coomer says.

“I got out of there and went to King Street [Number 44] and I was there for four and a half years, on and off.”

He set up the Universal Kitchen and later, 14 and 7 kitchen.

“After that I went to the Duxton as executive chef. I had said no to the job a couple of times because it wasn’t a zone I was familiar with,” Mr Coomer says.

“I’m not a politician and you have to be to do that job. I reluctantly said yes and said it could be great or it would be horrible. I did it for a couple of months and then decided this was not for me.

“I couldn’t deal with that many people and I didn’t enjoy it all. It was like working in the public service.

“I then worked at the Indiana Tea House. I was there six months and there were about 18 chefs there and we turned through all of them at that time. We had two kids and we were really struggling and for the first time in a long time I had spare money in my pocket.

“But it definitely wasn’t my cup of tea.

“I was getting good money there but I quit because money doesn’t compensate.”

The former boat building apprentice decided to give Perth one last crack by starting his own restaurant. If that failed he decided he would pack up the family and head back east.

“We didn’t have enough capital to set up in Subi so I found this site [on Onslow Road].

“This place was a bargain; it was an old Thai restaurant. We did a cosmetic makeover and knocked out a few walls.”

And while the restaurant has gained a three-star Gourmet Traveller ranking, Mr Coomer doesn’t believe his restaurant is a fine-dining establishment.

“We’re in that fine-dining bracket but I always tried to keep it user friendly,” he says.

“We have fancy plastic chairs, not padded things.

“We are a modern restaurant like you’d find in Avalon [his home suburb in Sydney].”

Back in its first year, though, things were a little different.

“We did it as BYO for the first year and it was hell. We had people coming in here with a coffin of cruisers and VB and they would sit here all night and not leave.

“We weren’t making a cent,” Mr Coomer told Gusto.

“Once we got a liquor licence we gently worked it in so that we didn’t annoy the wrong people. But we did have a lot of arguments.”

Mr Coomer says the extra time he takes to deliver premium produce is worth it – the results set his restaurant apart from the competition. 

“It was really saying: ‘Let’s get something on the menu that isn’t chicken breast and isn’t something everyone else does’,” he says.

“We have pigeons and baby lamb and pigs from a great pig farm. I get my salad mix from Boatshed because they have the most fantastic mix.

“But it only comes in on a Thursday afternoon so I go out there on Fridays and get it.”

 

“We’re in that fine-dining bracket but I always tried to keep it user friendly.”

- David Coomer

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