Collapse of a dream

Kirsten Lawson talks to the staff from Ten and a Half

The collapse of Fiona Wright's catering company and Dieci e Mezzo will see a shake-up in restaurant jobs around town, with some top industry staff now looking for new jobs. Both head chefs, Adam Bantock from Dieci, and Bernd Brademann from the National Gallery, are looking for work in Canberra. Two days ago, Ten and a Half manager Michael Gray signed up to head food and beverage for the Molonglo Group, developing a suite of restaurants, bars and food spaces in the new Nishi building in Newacton. Gray, a rare talent, also had an option in Melbourne.

The staff agreed to speak about the collapse, for which some laid the blame at the doors of the gallery, rather than at the feet of Fiona Wright.

Former head chef at Dieci e Mezzo Adam Bantock.
Former head chef at Dieci e Mezzo Adam Bantock. 

Gray, who is owed about 18 months' superannuation, strongly defended Wright. "She has been callously attacked over the last few weeks and incredibly poorly treated by the National Gallery," he says. "She has done so much good over the last three decades in this town. The amount of people she's trained and mentored is a great gift, the rest of us can all move on from this but for this to have happened to Fiona Wright is such an injustice."

Gray says things went wrong on two counts. A decision by ACT Revenue to group Wright's companies as one, which pushed them over the threshold for payroll tax, and the application of that ruling to the time when Wright had the Parliament House catering contract - an "unexpected manoeuvre". "We hadn't planned for it. Once we understood it, we put measures in place to pay off the primary tax, but the retrospective application meant late fees, fines and penalties were well beyond us." (Wright maintains it could have been paid, if given time and better control of catering at the gallery.)

Dieci e Mezzo has closed.
Dieci e Mezzo has closed. Photo: Marina Neil

As for the National Gallery, Gray accuses it of backing out of plans for upgrades. ''Those agreements were what she based the structure of the company on, she geared up and tooled up and staffed up to realise that vision, which was accepted. And to a huge degree the carpet was pulled out from underneath her." He pointed to plans to refurbish the public cafe and create a permanent structure for the Sculpture Garden restaurant. Administration space at the gallery was inadequate, with three staff working in a space not fit for one. And the inability of Ten and a Half to control inquiries and bookings was "a disaster", and completely uncommercial.

Wright has also accused the gallery of backing out of agreements, saying it had not provided a contract 17 months after her company took on the catering job and, when it did, the deal was very different from what she had expected. The gallery declined to comment on the issue, other than a statement which pointed to the tax issues as the key: ''The National Gallery of Australia has been placed in a challenging position with regards to its catering operations due to caterers Ten and a Half being placed in liquidation through actions against it by the ACT Revenue Office,'' the gallery said.

Gray was lured to Canberra from Melbourne (where he was maitre d' at Vue de Monde) by Wright's vision for the gallery, having worked with her previously at Waters Edge. He describes the collapse as heartbreaking. But he is confident Canberra can sustain higher-end restaurants such as Dieci. "I have an absolute belief in this town. I wouldn't have moved back if didn't think the vision was going to be sustainable."

He was also confident that staff entitlements, including leave and superannuation, would be paid once the companies were liquidated. Wright echoed his confidence. But liquidator Henry Kazar said he was still trying to establish how much was owed before he could comment on the possibility of any being paid.

Former head chef for Ten and a Half Catering Bernd Brademann at the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery Australia.
Former head chef for Ten and a Half Catering Bernd Brademann at the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery Australia. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Kazar is winding up the companies owned by Wright and business partner Jeremy Paul, including Wright's Fine Foods, which operates the five Defence Department staff cafes (still operating, pending a decision on what happens next), and Ten and a Half, which ran the National Gallery catering and the Sculpture Garden and Dieci restaurants. Melbourne caterer the Big Group opens at the gallery tomorrow.

Kazar said part of his job was to ''investigate allegations and determine whether or not they have any merit'', but right now, his focus was on keeping the gallery and Defence cafes operating and keeping people in their jobs. ''People ought not be concerned about their employment, that's where I sit here and now, and that shouldn't change,'' he says.

Sculpture Garden Restaurant.
Sculpture Garden Restaurant. Photo: Rohan Thomson

James Kidman, Wright's executive chef, left six months ago. Kidman, now in Sydney, knew about the company's financial issues and problems

with payroll tax and superannuation at the time, but said his reasons for leaving were personal - his baby born last year, his wife's recent operation, his looming hip operation, and their return to live near family and friends. ''When I saw some super going into my account, I thought it was being resolved and everything was moving in the right direction,'' he says. ''I knew there were issues and what have you, but Fiona and Jeremy were always working through them and there were milestone moments where they thought they were getting on top of things.''

Executive chef James Kidman at the Sculpture Garden Restaurant.
Executive chef James Kidman at the Sculpture Garden Restaurant. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Kidman is owed a substantial amount in unpaid superannuation - he wouldn't say how much. But, like Gray, he defended Wright's attitude to business: ''She always talked to me at length about compliance and the importance of it,'' he says of his former boss. ''Fiona was always true to her word on everything.'' He wouldn't have hired people had he thought differently, he said, and if he hadn't believed his super would eventually be paid, he would have left long before he did.

He described the collapse of the business as a tragedy with many causes. He pointed to two sets of frustrations - getting changes made to the dining space at Dieci e Mezzo, and administrative issues at the National Gallery. At the gallery, delays getting the Gandel Hall function area opened cost money, and the gallery's handling of the bookings system meant some inquiries never got through, he says.

Dieci is housed in the foyer of the Actew building and floor-to-ceiling glass windows exposed diners to the view of passers-by. Kidman says the team had tried many times to have things changed - it took a year, he says, to have a wall painted and months to have lights changed. They never managed to get curtains to shield the room from the footpath.

''We said to them [Actew] you've given us a fish bowl. We said this from almost day one and we just couldn't get anything changed,'' he says. ''We couldn't even organise to get curtains up and that's crazy … I never got it. These were the sort of frustrations you dealt with on a day to day basis.''

But Wright doesn't accept the ''fish bowl effect'' had a major effect on Dieci, and is full of praise for Actew, which approved all their plans for change to the space, she says. The failure to install curtains was more about their own preoccupation with the financial crisis. Jeremy Paul echoes her view, describing working with Actew as ''an absolute dream''. Actew chief finance officer John Knox says ActewAGL had approved Dieci's request to install curtains, and ''approved multiple changes to the fit-out of the restaurant area''. Actew will seek expressions of interest for the space next month.

Kidman believes Dieci's costs were sustainable (food averaged 31 per cent of overall costs), but also points to the difficulty of making money in restaurants, especially if, like Wright, you steered clear of the cash economy. ''To create a profit margin of 8 per cent these days is really, really, really hard. It's almost impossible, if you pay all your staff the correct amount of overtime and time in lieu and all those things then you're talking about a lot of money.''

Kidman says he was especially saddened at the splitting of such a talented kitchen team, who worked hard to source local produce at the restaurants, served food at gallery events second to none, and at the Defence cafes make curry pastes from scratch.

''I'm really upset by it, upset because there were just so many good people who worked so hard, and for it to be wasted in that fashion is really disappointing. I'm disappointed for Fiona for obvious reasons and I'm disappointed for the staff who didn't necessarily get to see the fruition of their expertise and hard work,'' he says.

Dieci head chef Adam Bantock grew up in Bankstown and spent five years working in Asia before moving to Canberra last year to be closer to family in Cooma and Bowral. He has two children and a house in Murrumbateman, and plans to stay, so he's a chef for hire. Bantock said he was $5500 or more out of pocket from super, and feeling ''pretty bitter'' about the sudden closure. ''On Tuesday we were working, on Friday we weren't,'' he says. ''It was a good team and what we were doing was great, I don't think there was anything wrong with the product at all, which was even more of a shame really.''

National Gallery head chef Bernd Brademann is also looking for work in Canberra, probably in top-end catering, which he sees as a big gap in the city. ''I think there's a massive gap, I just don't think, to be honest with you, there are any other caterers out there that are taking things to a decent level,'' he says.

Brademann, who grew up in Germany but moved to Australia as a child, began his career in Canberra before heading overseas, then returning in 2010. At Ten and a Half, he found his niche. ''Working with James Kidman it was that ethos he installed in the kitchen. And that level he was striving for at the time was really up my alley and where I was at,'' Brademann says. ''We kept pushing after he left and even drove that further after he left. It was quite a fertile period.'' Like Bantock at Dieci, Brademann forged links with local producers, and the loss of those paddock-to-plate relationships is one of the big losses in the collapse.

''I think we were all there for a goal and a vision and a dream, if you could put it that way,'' Brademann says. ''We were reaching for some pretty high levels in what we were doing at the gallery. To be honest with you, it was extremely disappointing, because we were having a lot of fun there, and it was working out the way we wanted it to.''

Wright is devastated by the company collapse and spent the first fortnight holed up at home. ''You just don't realise just how incredibly traumatic the whole process is,'' she says, upset that she is unable to talk to her staff until the administration is complete.

Wright says she will lose her home - some creditors were secured to her personally - and walk away with nothing.

She describes herself as embarrassed, ''absolutely gutted'' and ''so hurt and crushed'' by what she believes was an unnecessary decision to wind up the company. She insists the entire fault is with the National Gallery's handling of bookings and the catering contract.

''That is the total and only reason why we went under,'' she says. ''We said to the [gallery] director we want you guys to have the best food of any gallery in the world. We could have done this.''

In an earlier statement, she critcised the gallery's handling of inquiries: ''The reservation phone had not been answered by gallery staff on numerous occasions, that messages requesting booking dates for numerous events had received no reply and that emails were not answered. The result was that many hundreds of thousands of dollars of potential function business was lost.''

Wright's business partner Jeremy Paul is also confident staff will be paid. ''If we walk away from this with absolutely not one cent in our pockets as long as everyone gets what they deserve, the staff, as well as our loyal suppliers,'' he says. ''We will do everything possible.''

He described Wright as ''an unbelievable mentor''. ''This industry is tough in Canberra and to have done what Fiona has done and then for this to happen I think is a disgrace.''