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The making of a food master

BUSSELTON-BORN chef Russell Blaikie has travelled the world to become a master of his craft and now, as co-partner of Must Wine Bar, he is intent on becoming a master of his own food business.

From the kitchen of London’s Dorchester Hotel, working under industry icon Anton Mosimann, to a directorship at #44 King Street, Mr Blaikie has honed his culinary and management skills to the point where he has been able to create a successful hospitality business during the recent industry downturn.

Mr Blaikie attributes much of his success in the kitchen to years of learning from leaders in the field, as well as learning to recreate some home-style favourites.

“I went to this three-star Michelin restaurant [in Europe] and there were these young waiters having a great time, a great time in one of the most intimidating environments known to man,” he said. “It was my first business lesson – don’t make it [restaurants] intimidating, you need to have some fun and make sure that the customer knows it’s fun.”

Mr Blaikie has also become the master of Russian cooking, spending years taking notes from his wife of Russian decent and her family.

“I learnt a lot from Tam about what Tam’s grandmother used to cook; it’s real yeast cooking. I learnt from Tam’s aunty and Tam’s father gave me feedback every year, he’d say ‘that’s ok’.

“Last Easter he [Tam’s father] stood up at the head of the table and said ‘here you go’ … he gave me a solid gold 100-year-old 10 rouble. It is the highest compliment.”

But while Mr Blaikie has enjoyed successful culinary moments he is by no means a stranger to the pitfalls of bad decisions.

He said one of his biggest mistakes came when he progressed from the head chef position at #44 King Street to the position of general manager.

“I designed a menu at #44 that had a goat’s cheese pizza with roast capsicum and black olives … three and a half years later as the GM I was talking to the head chef and said: ‘We’re bored with that pizza, let’s take it off’. We sold as many pizzas off the menu as we did when it was on,” Mr Blaikie said.

“In the restaurant industry people are creative by habit but when you have something that is popular it becomes an institution and you should never change it. We thought we could do better and we were completely wrong.

“What we are doing at Must is looking for that dish that is the new goat’s cheese pizza.”

Mr Blaikie and his day-to-day business partner Anne-Marie Banting have just celebrated their first business birthday, and while he has yet to discover Must’s very own goat’s cheese pizza, he and his colleagues have made significant inroads in Perth’s hospitality industry.

The team at Must opened the restaurant at a time when the hospitality industry was on its knees, two months after September 11 and the closure of Ansett.

“We’ve come through this first year in fantastic form and we’ve momentum

now that we didn’t have 12 months ago,” Mr Blaikie said.

“We opened in a very tough time for hospitality and made such headway.”

He attributes much of their success to persistence and attention to detail.

“The thing with hospitality is that things can go wrong in the blink of an eye. If you are not monitoring performance every day, something can go wrong. But just as it can go off the rails in an instant, you can fix it in an instant, generally.” Mr Blaikie said.

And while Mr Blaikie has the talent and experience to land him a job in just about any country, it’s Perth’s lifestyle that keeps him cooking great dishes for punters visiting Highgate.

“I live 10 minutes from the beach. I go fishing, I go surfing and I’ve got two kids growing up here. I live in paradise,” he said.

Entries for the 2003 WA Business News 40under40 Awards close on December 20 2002. For more details visit www.40under40.com.au

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