Etta chef Hayden McMillan's taking on Melbourne's fine-diners
It's mid-morning on a Monday, the traditional day of rest for hospitality staff, and 10 days after opening Etta in Melbourne, you'd expect chef Hayden McMillan to be taking it easy. But he's there, along with a few tradies touching up the paint, waiting for a delivery of baby paua. The delivery isn't for him – it's for his old boss Michael Meredith for an event being held as part of Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. "I said I would cook them for him… and then found out it was 210 pieces – seriously."
That says a lot about McMillan and his sense of obligation to the people who have helped him along the way. The Kiwi chef has a fine-dining pedigree, having worked at some of Auckland's top restaurants – The French Café, Vinnies, Merediths. He headed up the kitchen at Parnell's TriBeCa and then at Clooney restaurateur Tony Stewart's America's Cup pop-up and The Waiheke Island Yacht Club.
Most recently, McMillan earned one hat as head chef at The Roving Marrow in Melbourne's Astor Hotel.
So I was expecting Etta to be a fine diner, which it isn't. McMillan's business partners are his wife, long-time hospitality professional Dominique Fourie McMillan, and sommelier Hannah Green (ex Rosetta), and with the help of their families they've secured a spot in Brunswick's Lygon St. Architect Iva Foschia has turned an old fish and chippery into a smart-casual 68-seater diner, with an open kitchen and small bar. The fit-out is simple, and there are plans to expand out into the courtyard next summer.
Why the more casual format? "I felt it was a bit safer for my first business," McMillan says. "We didn't want to struggle. You could do a 45-seater fine diner, but – especially in Melbourne – if you don't hit the market straight away, you could be done in a year. I always knew that wasn't the future. I still have the same standards as a fine-dining restaurant but the diners are more wanting fun and casual. I wanted something accessible.
"Once you get the trust and respect of your diners and you get a following, then you can do anything. Etta is an entry-level restaurant for me. It's a first taste that can deliver, be consistent, yet still be fun and relaxed."
Opening a place overseas appealed to McMillan. "San Francisco was one of the best experiences ever – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says. "I'd never worked overseas, and I'm always thankful to Tony [Stewart] and Des [Harris, executive chef of Clooney at the time] for that opportunity. Being in a bigger pond really appealed to me. I'd had a really good progression as a young chef, but Dom and I wanted to immerse ourselves in a really competitive dining scene. Even interviewing for jobs was a step up – all one-hat restaurants upwards will have a sommelier, so the wine focus is on another level. I feel it's taken a bit more seriously."
As McMillan acknowledges, Melbourne is a city with a strong culture of eating out, stemming from the waves of immigrants that came to the city from Italy, Lebanon and Greece. Brunswick in particular has a strong immigrant history. "Many people here have a garden and respect food, and they love to go out, have a glass of wine and good food," he explains.
The name Etta was chosen as an homage to that. "It has an Italian kind of sound to it, and being in Brunswick, we wanted to reflect that culture".
McMillan wants Etta to be a modern bistro with a focus on healthy, sustainable eating, he says. He greatly admires what Tom Hishon at Auckland's Orphans Kitchen is doing, and has a similar aim that his food be produce driven, fresh and clean with a strong vegetable focus, but with something for everyone. And above all, delicious and beautiful to look at.
"The food I'm doing now is casual but it has my own tweak – it's original, but it's all about deliciousness. The longer you cook and eat, your palate becomes more refined. I used to add two or three more things to a dish, but now I use a lot less. I use a lot of acidity – for instance the mozzarella pasta with zucchini sauce is a mix of kombu stock and pickling liquid, but diners won't taste it. It's a carrier of umami but I don't want to over-chef it here – it has to be delicious.
"At the moment I'm trying to get on top of admin and staff but I'm looking forward to evolving with the food. I'm pretty proud of where we've started – it's a marathon, not a sprint; it's a slow and steady progression.
McMillan says he does want to return to New Zealand eventually.
"In my perfect world I'd have a place in Melbourne and one in New Zealand. I'm a proud New Zealander and passionate about the industry back home – I grew up working with the best chefs in Auckland. I still can't believe I've opened here but I want to learn to do that in this type of environment – it's more sustainable for the future of the business."