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Aurora wants to be a guiding light in toxic restaurant industry

The Forager

Head chef of Aurora restaurant at Light Square, Brendan Wessels is working to turn around what he describes as a toxic working culture within the restaurant industry.

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As The Forager sits with South African-born chef Brendan Wessels inside the elegantly industrial restaurant Aurora on Light Square, a vehicle drives the wrong way up Morphett Street, causing a brief pause in conversation.

The erroneous manoeuvre stops the chef mid-sentence as he was describing how Aurora has been set up as a means to help change the unsustainable working conditions of an industry stuck in the past.

Much like the misdirected automobile, Wessels is driving against the historical flow of the hospitality industry.

Previously head chef at the d’Arenberg Cube, Wessels was last year approached by Simon Bryant to lead the kitchen at Aurora – a venture created by not-for-profit organisation Light Social Enterprise, founded by philanthropists Nick and Sophie Dunstone.

The restaurant opened earlier this year on the ground floor of Light Adelaide, which is a multi-level arts precinct that includes The Lab performance space, Beags outdoor bar and dining area and Little Mission Cafe.

Additional spaces are due to launch in the future.

Aurora restaurant. Photo: Jack Fenby.

While modern consumers are wary of things like organic produce, sustainable sourcing of ingredients and zero-waste kitchens, it’s not often diners will stop to consider the working conditions of the staff serving their meals.

Wessels says the restaurant industry has failed to address issues around appropriate working hours, pay rates and treating staff decently – all endemic of the slim margins that come with the game.

“We have transferred a broken system through the decades,” he says.

“The rest of the world and other industries have progressed and evolved; we’ve remained secular about it and have been a few evolutionary steps behind.

“You sacrifice a lot to be a chef, and I know from personal friends and acquaintances, the mental health in this industry is desperate. It’s just accepted and never addressed.

“The bravado to get through a 16-hour day, the pressure and the stress – it’s an immediate, result-driven environment.

“That’s the state of our industry and it has got to change. Work-life balance is essential.”

Aurora is an “accessible” fine dining restaurant with a menu that has a range of price points. The business is intended to be an example of how a restaurant can be run sustainably.

Brendan Wessels (centre) with the Aurora kitchen staff. Photo: Ben Kelly.

Setting the business up forced Wessels to look inwardly at his own values.

“It is the antithesis of what I’ve worked towards my whole career,” he says.

“It’s as much a work in progress for my own personal development as it is for my staff. This has been a big awakening for me.

“There are chefs that manage their kitchens correctly, and good for them, but it hasn’t been my experience, and it hasn’t been the experience of many chefs. It’s common enough for us to be concerned that the culture is wrong.”

Now 39, the South African chef fell in love with cooking because of its fast-paced “go big or die trying” mentality.

“It was wonderful – you get to cook and work long hours in a state of just pure, raw emotion. It’s either ecstasy or despair,” he says.

“It was magical to somebody like me. I loved the adrenaline. It was addictive but it was also very, very unhealthy.”

Wessels started cooking in England after landing a job washing dishes.

“I had no inclination for it prior to that,” he says.

“I was at university, got kicked out of university for interesting reasons – I was on a downward spiral culminating in my parents saying, ‘Go and find yourself’.

“The industry has traditionally been a refuge for misfits and there’s always been a strong sense of solidarity that we are the inner circle – a secret club.”

Last year, when restaurants closed amid COVID restrictions, Wessels sat down with Bryant to discuss what they deemed to be the major faults in the industry.

“One is the hours of work, so our staff at Aurora only work an eight-hour shift as opposed to a 14- or 18-hour shift. It is common to work those hours,” Wessels says.

“That was one of the first things we addressed, having to choose between having a life or complete sacrifice to your craft and your career.

“We encourage staff to have their own hobbies and a life. It’s a healthy balance.”

If we can contribute positively towards change, then we’re winning.

The restaurant has a Manager of Human Culture and there is ongoing training and development to help chefs progress, with detailed position descriptions for each role so staff understand exactly what is expected of them.

“If we can create that culture of excellence within themselves, allow them to grow naturally, that’s the success point for us,” says Wessels.

“This model does have its challenges and difficulties, one of them is financial. You want to pay people properly and want them to work the right hours, so you do have to be smarter.

“You also want to pay your producers and suppliers correctly and on time. These are all principles that we are sticking to, but it does also require patronage and the community supporting us.”

The menu at Aurora draws upon many different styles, and there is a custom-built braai on which Wessels’ team grills various meat, fish and vegetables.

“Our main criteria is that our food has got to be bloody yummy,” says Wessels.

“I absolutely love food. If it causes you to close your eyes when you eat it, you know you’re on to a good thing. If it gives you that swoon moment, that’s all that matters.”

Billed as a “world-class yet accessible dining experience” the menu features a la carte as well as a chef’s selection tasting menu.

The kitchen team prepares meals for service at Aurora. Photo: Jack Fenby.

Wessels hopes that the success of the restaurant will provide a model for other businesses to work from.

“We want to be able to hand over our research, to show what we have learnt – these are the mistakes we’ve made, and these are the things that really work,” he says.

“Take this and propagate it; use it to your benefit.

“If we can contribute positively towards change, then we’re winning.”

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