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"I get really wound up when I go out for dinner..."

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“It all stems from the fact that I’m an unbearable asshole!”

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So says Max Mason of the basis of his hospitality philosophy, derived from the notion that “I get really wound up when I go out for dinner if somebody isn’t giving a damn.”

“I’ve been to so many restaurants, even in South Australia, where the food’s amazing, the chef’s incredible, but it’s served by that hipster again, who just thinks they’re cooler than the food,” he laments.

“And that really winds me up!”

The British restaurateur certainly does things differently.

So much so that when he was hiring staff for the Henry Austin – perhaps Adelaide’s most ambitious hospitality project – he put out a casting call instead of a job application – and turned experienced applicants away.

“The less people with experience of this industry that are running the floor, the better – because you can mould them into what you want and tell them how to do it,” he explains.

“And a waitress never changes their spots; nor does a waiter… so [I wanted] to take somebody who gives a shit and in fact is interesting.”

He brought in an acting coach to teach staff about human interaction, and also taught staff chess to entertain guests while they wait for their dinner date.

This unconventional approach isn’t unusual for Mason. In England, he once employed a homeless man as his head chef and convicted murderers as kitchen staff.

He also thinks differently about the business of hospitality. After being lured to Adelaide’s historic and vacant Chesser Cellars building by a friend and the entreaties of Renew Adelaide, Mason adapted to his surroundings.

“I was a frustrated restaurateur [in the UK],” he concedes.

“Nobody had given me $20 million so I could retire with hookers, fast cars and a huge mansion!”

Nonetheless, he had earned a reputation for “rehabilitating buildings that have been left idle”, a vocation he has down pat.

“I listen to the building, listen to the city and make my ideas about how to adapt,” he explains.

Thus, he adapted Chesser Cellars in the Henry Austin, and moulded his ideas for the restaurant, bar and bottle shop around the dilapidated building, turning its weaknesses into strengths.

The small-plate menu of modern Australian yum cha is easy to run up and down stairs and there are flexible and unique spaces for functions. Amazingly, Max’s bottle shop is the first of its kind; he holds the 8000 wines and pays winemakers as they sell. He’s cut out distributors, and they hate him for it.

But the Henry Austin is just one chapter in Max’s story. He travelled the world as a maritime archaeologist and then a British Naval officer before getting into the restaurant game.

He then developed quite a reputation in London and Oxford, before being brought out to Adelaide for pop-up projects such as the 2015 Adelaide Festival outdoor restaurant at Lola’s Pergola.

Listen to Mason share his unique insights about food, wine, hospitality, business and life with Rooster Radio, which appears regularly in InDaily.

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