Each week, Ballarat chef and food writer Suzi Fitzpatrick quizzes industry identities on the local hospitality scene. This week, she spoke with the man behind a Ballarat icon, Craig’s Royal Hotel owner John Finning.
Suzi: When did your journey in Lydiard Street South begin?
John: Mary and I purchased the hotel back in 1999.
S: Why Ballarat and Craig’s?
J: In my eyes, Ballarat was the best, most diverse region in Victoria. However, Ballarat in the 1990s didn’t offer the entire short stay or holiday destination package. You just cannot have good tourism without the entire package.
S: So you saw the old grand dame as an opportunity to create something fabulous? To create a place where Ballarat could combine quality food, wine and boutique accommodation.
J: Yes, Ballarat had never been recognised as having a food culture. Melbournians planning a weekend away wanted a great food experience and Ballarat failed to attract on this level, where as places like the Yarra Valley, Daylesford and Mornington Peninsula could.
S: How would you describe the dining experience at Craig’s Royal Hotel today?
J: We are not a fine dining destination – we do good bistro food with a predominantly French influence, the classics like confit potatoes, chicken chasseur and steak bordelaise. Often these things are construed as haute cuisine, but they can be found anywhere and everywhere in France, from the farmhouse kitchen to the local pub. Our dishes are provincial and rustic and focus on flavour and good local produce.
S: Why did you decide to specialise in French cuisine?
J: We always had French in mind. We respect the traditional style and disciplined training and we love the culture and romance – it’s unparalleled. I think the training in kitchens across Australia, post-war, has really let us down. Nowadays, when we employ staff, we encourage them to commit long-term, to learn every section of the kitchen in the European tradition.
S: Has it been a struggle to find good food and beverage staff?
J: Good staff came and went in the first few years. It was tough going while we got things off the ground. Eventually, we felt ready to push on. We head-hunted for a French chef who had worked in climates similar to ours in Ballarat. Phillippe Desrettes was working in Brisbane at the time. He really embraced our region and has settled here for the long-term. It’s a good thing, too, as his chateaubriand is in high demand with the locals.
S: Do you run the kitchen with a true brigade of chefs?
J: We have a team of five, plus kitchen hands and breakfast chefs. As our head chef, Phillippe oversees every inch of the kitchen and is supported by sous chef Shannon Easton, who has been with us for about 10 years. The section chefs and commis learn all the workings of the kitchen, not just larder or pastry. Phillippe knew from the start that we would need to focus on finding the right people, then training them to do things our way. At present, there is a great feeling in the kitchen, with all different types of people who respect each other and work well together.
S: It’s been 14 years since Craig’s began its restoration project. Presently, the whole package is amazing. Do you think the food and tourism has changed since 1999?
J: For a long time, there was nowhere exceptional to eat in Ballarat. Things are slowly changing now, but the changes need to be more significant. We have great wineries, but not many with cellar door-style vineyards. We have great produce, but are not making the most of it. I do, however, believe our chefs, restaurateurs and cafes are very much focused on creating a definitive food identity and are committed to ensuring we will achieve the overall tourism package. This is not unlike Walter Craig himself, who saw Ballarat’s full potential way back in 1853 as a truly grand destination.
Craig’s Royal Hotel, 10 Lydiard Street South