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- Dave Stewart has transformed Ascot Food + Wine from a café into a bistro – hospitality
Dave Stewart has transformed Ascot Food + Wine from a café into a bistro – hospitality
Opening and sustaining a successful restaurant involves more than just selecting an exceptional menu. This requires navigation licenses, books, lists, general operations and much more.
Dave Stewart has been through it all. The Gippsland-born chef opened Ascot Food Store in Melbourne’s Moonee Ponds in 2014. While his dream was to run a bistro, technical details resulted in opening a cafe instead.
Rebranding brings operators a new set of challenges and an element of risk. But after hitting the refresh button, Stewart launched Ascot Food + Wine — a place that combines European cuisine with an excellent selection of wines.
The leader talks to Hospitality about growing up in Gippsland, receiving the keys to his first dining space, and how he transformed the place from a day-to-night concept.
The Victorian region of Gippsland is renowned for its incredible landscapes, farms and produce. He has long been an inspiration to chefs across the country, including Dave Stewart, who spent much of his childhood with his grandparents in Yinnar.
“Without sounding too cliché, it connected me to this whole ‘living off the land’ thing,” he says. “They had a property with orchards and berries and my grandmother loved baking and cooking.”
Stewart would later move to Traralgon, a “larger country town”, where he would pull some strings to get his first cooking gig. “One of my cousins Jodie [Vogt] was a restaurateur,” he says. “She owned two pubs, a restaurant and a hotel. When I was in school I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do so I contacted her and asked if I could do some work experience and that’s where it all started. I fell in love with cooking and how the kitchen works.
It wasn’t long before the budding chef landed a part-time job with his best friend who shared Stewart’s passion for local ingredients. “His parents owned a big fruit and veg shop in Gippsland,” he says. “Before, we used to spend a lot of time going to the market to buy products and understanding how [it all worked]which was exciting as a teenager.
Stewart moved to Melbourne in 1999 to begin his apprenticeship at Chris Lucas’ now closed No 1 Fitzroy Street in St Kilda. “I worked there for a while, but I wanted to get into the hotel business because there was a lot of talk about cooking competitions,” he says. “Sofitel and Hilton were big on this stuff, so I applied for jobs at a few different hotels and ended up getting one at Hilton On The Park with chefs Frank Burger and Stefano Veralio.”
Stewart was immersed in the fast-paced environment of the hotel kitchen, which meant the chef cooked for a large clientele. “Hotels are good because you have the restaurant, the catering and the functions, so it opened my eyes to learn [about cooking] mass volumes,” he says.
The chef left the hotel dining room and worked in a few different restaurants around the Southbank Arts Center until he was approached by chef Chris Moraitis and seafood distributor Nick Frangoulis at the age of 23, who asked him to run Tender Trap in East Doncaster.
It was a tenure that spanned more than nine years before the chef left to help open the historic The Vincent pub in Albert Park. But the chief had been keeping tabs on prime real estate in Moonee Ponds.
“It was a Spanish grocery store where my friends and I would pick up sandwiches,” Stewart explains. “The owner’s name was Lewis. Every time I went there, I was like, “Let me know when you want to sell.” It had a lot of character and was in the middle of a residential area.
Stewart’s persistence eventually paid off and led to a game-changing phone call that propelled him into the next phase of his career. “One day, he phoned me out of the blue and said, ‘Okay, I’m ready to sell’,” says the chef.
The space was originally slated to launch as a contemporary European bistro with a premier beverage selection, but the launch was halted due to permit delays.
“It already had a bottle shop license when I picked it up, so I didn’t think it would be too difficult to get a general consumer license,” says Stewart. “We had a lot of issues and objections from many neighboring properties.”
The decision was made to pivot and open as a cafe instead. Ascot Food Store got off to a great start when it launched in 2014 and it has maintained its popularity over the years.
“Looking back, it was kind of perfect for that era and it took off,” Stewart says. “I had never made coffee before, so I had a restaurant approach and philosophy [when it came to the] dishes. It ended up being a hit, but it wasn’t what I wanted it to be.
Stewart never gave up the idea of running the dinner service, and the opportunity arose years later. “After six and a half years of going through council, court and jumping through all these hoops, we ended up getting our liquor license approved with a lot of conditions,” says Stewart. “We started putting all the pieces together to be able to operate until the end of the year with the expectation of opening in 2020, but then obviously Covid happened.”
The place will close for almost two years while Stewart takes a well-deserved break and moves to Byron Bay to rekindle her enthusiasm in the kitchen. “Towards the end of Ascot Food Store, I lost a lot of passion,” says the chef. “I ended up getting a job with Jason [Saxby] at Raes on Wategos. It was probably the best thing I’ve done because I was able to cook again without the stress of business. When I came back, I felt like I was in a better place.
Ascot Food Store reopened under the new name Ascot Food + Wine in May last year with a refreshed interior and menu. “We couldn’t be the same company again,” says Stewart. “We absorbed all these costs [from Covid] and i had to watch [growth prospects], so we decided to invest in the relaunch and rebranding. The scary part for us was going from a cafe to a restaurant.
Saying goodbye to Ascot Food Store was a step in the right direction for Stewart. “Everyone thought I was crazy enough to want to kill off a successful brand,” he says. “We needed a fresh start with a new look, a new layout, a new brand and a new name.”
The restaurant’s European bistro offering sees Ascot run dinner Wednesday-Saturday, lunch Wednesday-Sunday as well as breakfast at weekends. The fare is inspired by some of Stewart’s culinary idols, namely Charlie Trotter and Marco Pierre White, with Stewart leaning into both chefs’ books.
“I’ve always loved classic, elegant, simple dishes that are cooked really well,” says Stewart. “It’s just a little more accessible.”
Stewart has also decided to inherit her hometown of Gippsland by championing her produce throughout the menu. “A lot of the stuff we use is from Gippsland because that’s where I come from,” he says. “We source our fruit and vegetables from Thorpdale.”
One dish that has garnered a lot of attention is a modern take on vitello tonnato. “I turned it into a trevally dish where we dry it and cut it like we would with veal,” explains the chef.
“We lightly sear the trevally so it’s dry, then we use albacore tuna confit overnight with bonito vinegar, zucchini and oil, so you end up with a tangy tuna mayonnaise served with mustard, fried capers and chives. It’s sour and creamy, but it’s one of those dishes where you can taste every ingredient.
The dinner menu at Ascot Food + Wine matches the drink selection, which was curated by co-owner and front desk manager Shaun Hampson.
“Much of the wine is European and there is a nice range of French, German and Italian wines,” says Stewart. “We have beautiful Chablis and incredible Australian Chardonnays. It’s a good mix of everything and a lot of research and tasting has gone into the list.”
Running a business has been a rewarding and challenging chapter in Stewart’s 20-year career. Ascot’s transition from a cafe to a restaurant has been a welcome change for the chef who keeps longevity in mind.
“It’s a much better business model and that’s what we decided to do,” he says. “We have been around for almost 10 years now and we plan to stay much longer. I had to take off my chef’s hat and put on my business hat. You cannot be emotionally attached because there are so many decisions to be made; everything must be for the greater good of the company.