Justin & Georgina NorthJUSTIN NORTH
Going for it

Justin North’s Becasse restaurant has cemented his reputation as one of Sydney’s leading chefs

Justin North’s success story is built on hard work, the identification of opportunities and a willingness to take risks.

Originally from New Zealand’s South Island, Justin completed his high school leaving certificate at 15 with no clear idea of what he wanted to do.

“But a friend of mine found a hospitality course which covered all the facets from cooking to management and front of house. When I did the cooking part I realised how much I loved it,” he recalls. “I had enjoyed art at school and I found cooking gave me a similar opportunity for self-expression.”

After completing his formal apprenticeship at 19, Justin decided to move to Australia. “I had wanted to go to Europe but thought that maybe it would be too big a step at my age. So I came to Sydney and started working at the Park Lane Hotel (now Sheraton on the Park).”

From there it was a short step to working with Liam Tomlin at his first restaurant, where Justin met part owner Dietmar Sawyere. “I was there for just over a year, then I got a job in England and worked for Raymond Blanc for about three and a half years.”
Eventually Liam Tomlin opened Banc restaurant and Justin worked there until he’d raised enough capital to open his own restaurant, Becasse. Originally opened as a café in Sydney’s Surry Hills, in 2005 it moved to stylish new premises in Clarence Street in the heart of the city’s CBD.

The word ‘becasse’ means woodcock, a rare European game bird. Justin remembers: “The first time I tried it was probably one of the greatest culinary experiences I’ve ever had. So it just seemed an ideal choice to name the restaurant – an example of what we were striving for.”

Becasse was the brainchild of Justin and his wife Georgia, a sommelier who also works as the restaurant’s manager.

“We’d always wanted to open our own restaurant, but we wanted to raise the financing ourselves, not rely on backers,” Justin explains.

“We started out quite small, just myself and two others. Now we have two restaurants and a café, with about 50 staff which means both our roles are more diverse.

“The great thing about working for yourself in this business is that when times are tough you are able to know how to cut costs without affecting quality because you understand the industry, the requirements of the kitchen and front of house. A businessman who invests in a restaurant doesn’t necessarily understand these things. So we made a conscious decision to do it on our own and when we’d raised enough money we went for it.”

Justin attributes Becasse’s initial success to “the package we had to offer – we had really good produce at a really good price topped off by a very attractive, concise wine list and excellent service. So it was the whole thing, rather than any one ingredient.”

He adds that the restaurant was deliberately styled to be quite different from anywhere he’d worked. “The Surry Hills cafe was actually one of the hardest places I’d ever worked because the kitchen was so small. This meant we had to keep a small staff and no one could afford any time off! But the idea was to make it a stepping stone to somewhere grander. So we wanted to build a core team and make sure we could work together.

“Many of the staff have been with us for a long time now. James, who was with me when we opened the first café eight years ago, now runs our new restaurant Etch. Toro, the pastry chef, has been with us seven and a half years.

“Our philosophy hasn’t changed since we started – it’s the same approach but obviously on a much larger scale. We try to keep getting better at what we do and make a point of using our profits to reinvest in the business.”

While Justin was initially attracted to cooking as an opportunity for self-expression, running his own restaurant taught him the importance of sound business management.

“The creative side is important, but it’s just one side,” he emphasises. “We’ll go to the markets each morning and buy what we consider to be the best produce – this is the raw material with which you create. But it’s not all art – obviously you need to be competent at the financial side and the science element of cooking as well.”

Asked what advice he would offer to chefs thinking of opening their own restaurant, Justin says simply: “You just have to get out there and go for it.

“Whatever it is – whether cooking or anything else – the bottom line is if you really believe in what you’re doing, you should follow through and not compromise.

“I think it’s probably difficult with the economy the way it is at the moment, but on the other hand Australia is one of those paces where you can set up relatively cheaply.

“The important thing to remember is that your first establishment, wherever and whatever it is, is never going to be your ideal. But you need to see it as a good starting point. You can open up a restaurant in the suburbs here and do what you want to do for a fraction of the cost it takes to open up in New York or Paris!

“But you need to recognise it is a long hard road and you can’t expect money early.

“We’re lucky here because Australia’s quality of life is such a comparatively high standard. We’re in an enviable position with our weather and our beaches so you’re able to enjoy a high living standard without spending a lot of money.”

Justin also cautions against trying to do too much too soon.

“A lot of young chefs will finish their apprenticeship and immediately expect to be made head chef or sous chef. Even if you do have the talent in terms of your cooking ability, you’re not likely to have the necessary people management skills.

“Learning to inspire and motivate people effectively is something it takes a long time to develop. Knowledge is power and the more training you have, the more knowledge you have and ultimately the more successful you are.

“Frankly apprentice training in this country could be a helluva lot better. There seems to be a massive gap between what is taught at TAFE and what is really the case out there in the industry. The quality of the lecturing and the curriculum seems to be disjointed.

“For example, sourcing good produce is fundamental to good cooking but rarely do the students get taken out to the markets to learn how to identify this.

“A lot of the skills and craftsmanship of the trade is not taught anymore – like the breaking down of animals for meat cuts. In my business we’re now in the position where we can buy our animals whole and break them down to different cuts. I’ve learnt this over the years from different butchers and opens a whole new world in how you can utilise cuts to be creative. But apprentices aren’t taught this. And today so many places buy all their stuff filleted and pre-portioned – you’re not going to learn anything from that. It’s amazing how often you can encounter someone who’s been a chef de partie for the past eight years but they don’t know how to properly gut a fish!

“TAFE seems to teach old-style cookery. Of course it’s important to learn the traditions but they also need to teach what is actually expected in a fine dining kitchen. I’m not saying I have all the answers and I don’t know how many people in the industry are actually getting involved in developing the curriculum but my feeling is there should be a lot more.”

Looking to the future, Justin is understandably reticent to divulge too much about his plans.

“We’ve got a few things in the pipeline – I’m always on the lookout for new business opportunities. But our day to day focus is more on the people – our business is built around our staff and the training they get.

“The way I look at it is, the more we expand the more opportunities we can create for them, which is a way of returning that loyalty they’ve shown us – giving them a chance to take themselves to the next level. If we can work together in that way it’s good for everyone.

“When we open a new venue, it opens the doors for an assistant manager, for example, to step up to the next position as a manager. That in turn creates an opportunity for a new position to be filled by a new staff member.

“So everyone gets to grow together and we get that healthy balance between new and established staff.”