Jimmy Shu is one of Australia’s most successful restaurateurs – but whenever he opens a new place, he spends time washing the dishes.
The reason why is one of the secrets of his success.
Shu has quietly been developing an Adelaide version of his wildly successful Darwin restaurant, Hanuman, and he’s opened with barely any fanfare.
Normally when a big-name restaurant comes to town, it’s accompanied by plenty of PR noise – but Shu doesn’t work that way.
The spacious restaurant hosted its first customers last week in the ground floor of the Chifley Hotel, just west of Pulteney Street. There’s an expensive fit-out, with sandstone statues, a display of antique opium pipes, wooden screens and furniture, and a courtyard garden planted with herbs and black bamboo.
After running successful restaurants in Melbourne, Malaysia, Queensland and his existing Hanuman restaurants in Alice Springs and Darwin, 65-year-old Shu says the Adelaide venture is his swansong.
Like the other Hanumans, the Adelaide version serves a mix of Indian and Thai dishes, with a sprinkling of Nonya.
And like his other ventures, attention to detail is his key business strategy.
He’s brought down floor staff and chefs from his Northern Territory restaurants until the locals are up to speed. Shu himself is totally involved in every aspect.
“I’m very, very hands-on,” he says.
And this is where the dishwashing comes in.
“Whenever I open a restaurant, I spend time in the dishwashing area.
“Two things – one is to show people, the staff, that I can do those things also. I’m not just high and mighty walking around – I’m one of them.
“The second one is that I can see what food is coming back. If it’s not right, I will taste it and I will go back to the kitchen. If there’s too much food and the food tastes OK, the waiter needs more training – they’ve over-ordered.
“You’ve got to be cautious about the customer’s needs – if the food hasn’t been touched, we don’t charge. I need to know why the customer rejected it. Those are the things you can monitor when you’re in the dishwashing area.”
It’s an unusually detailed approach for a man with multiple businesses, who splits his time between his home in Melbourne, his restaurant sites in Darwin and Alice Springs, and numerous trips to Asia to source the best spices and the best staff (although he says the Government’s tough English test for migrants has wreaked havoc on his attempts to bring in skilled Indian and Thai chefs).
Shu leaves nothing to chance. All his spices are sourced from particular suppliers in South-East Asia and imported fresh – sometimes in Shu’s bags.
He’s also developed a habit of “capturing” sauces from dishes that he loves. Even when overseas, he carries a supply of ziplock bags to decant a particularly delicious sauce, which he freezes in his hotel room and wraps in newspaper to bring back to Australia and analyse with his chefs.
“It’s one of my idiosyncrasies,” he laughs.
The hard work and attention to detail began in Shu’s childhood, when his father, a restaurateur in Sri Lanka, set him to work.
“In my growing days I didn’t appreciate him because he drove me like a slave. I was a typical chop-suey kid – from school, put the bags down, get something to eat, then into the kitchens.”
The tough routine didn’t damage his love of food and cooking.
“No, but I did to a certain extent lose my love of orchids.
“Five o’clock in the morning I had to wake up and start the pumps to water the gardens. One and half acres right in the middle of Colombo.”
His father bred a particular kind of orchid, 1000 of them, which required constant daily attention – and that job was in Shu’s hands.
“I would say now that I’m privileged to have experienced all that.”
People who know Shu’s food from Hanuman and his previous ventures in Melbourne – including Shakahari, Monsoon and the Isthmus of Kra – are excited about his entry into the Adelaide market, but perhaps confused about why he’s chosen this location in a long-vacated restaurant space in a quiet corner of South Terrace.
But none of this is accidental – it’s based on his shrewd assessment of the location and the Adelaide market.
Shu, who arrived in Australia the day before Cyclone Tracy smashed Darwin in 1974, lost big on his first restaurant – seven figures.
“That’s my family home. It’s a cruel industry. There’s no glamour. It’s tough.”
But out of that disaster he developed a method that has seen places like Hanuman thrive for more than 20 years, hauling in so many awards they can barely fit on the Darwin restaurant’s walls.
“Absolutely correct – and I made sure I ticked those boxes when I came in here.
“Number one is car park – I’m not relying on the tourists, that’s the cream; my bread and butter are my locals. They’re the ones who will sustain my business.
“Here the biggest box that was ticked was the car park.”
There’s plenty of parking out the back of the Chifley during the day, and on South Terrace after hours. He’s banking on the convenience to encourage people to go to his place, rather than his competition in Rundle or Gouger streets.
“Here, it’s peaceful. You’ve got your corporates here and your eastern suburbs there. Brilliant.
“And the premises. You can’t find a place of this size in the city for the rent I’m paying. It’s been a win-win situation.”
After opening 13 restaurants over a decades-long career, why has Shu chosen Adelaide for what he says will be his final new venture?
The reason, says the former Australian of the Year nominee, is the intangible but powerful connection between Adelaide and the Territory.
“There is this amazing connection between Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin,” he says. “I’m still trying to figure it out.
“For six years, people have been telling me this: ‘Why don’t you open in Adelaide?’ This thing keeps coming about Adelaide, Adelaide – and I’ve got a lot of my produce coming from here.”
Then, about 13 months ago, Shu was in Adelaide for a convention, and he met staff from the Chifley that he’d worked with in Darwin. He saw the restaurant space – which had been long empty – and started to form ideas in his mind about how the room could look.
Over the past year, he’s been slowly developing the restaurant. He’s still doing so, and will refine the large menu in response to customers’ feedback.
The food, which Shu proudly shows off, is refined versions of Indian and Thai favourites. A sweet eggplant pachadi, for example, is teamed beautifully with a spicy vindaloo. Oysters, a favourite on the Hanuman Darwin menu, appear here as well, served with a vivid, multi-layered sauce of lemongrass, sweet basil, ginger, chilli and coriander.
Shu is happily exploring local produce and say he loves Adelaide – the Hills, the beaches, the parklands and wine regions. On Sunday, he’s taking his ute to the Torrens Island markets. During the Fringe, he’ll personally be cooking up a Nonya fish dish and other treats at the Garden of Unearthly Delights to promote Hanuman.
He’s likely to do the clean-up afterwards.
Adelaide has certainly attracted something new – in the kitchens and in the character of the man behind the food.
Make your contribution to independent news
A donation of any size to InDaily goes directly to helping our journalists uncover the facts. South Australia needs more than one voice to guide it forward, and we’d truly appreciate your contribution. Please click below to donate to InDaily.