From kitchen king to burnt toast – and back. Paul Mathis tells Mary-Jane Daffy how he lost, and found, his mojo.
THERE was a time, not so long ago, when Paul Mathis was known as the Mr Midas of Melbourne’s restaurant scene.
For close to two decades it seemed almost every cafe or restaurant he touched turned to gold.
His CV boasted a string of the city’s most loved and talked about eateries, from Joe’s Garage and Blue Train to Soulmama and Taxi.
Then in 2008, he vanished. Most assumed that having sold his ambitious Transport bar/restaurant complex at Federation Square for a cool $21 million, he’d retired somewhere warm to count his fortune and live out his days in a blur of luxury yachts, fine wines and expensive cars. The truth, however, was very different.
As the boom times of the mid-2000s lurched inexorably towards the global financial crisis, the entrepreneurial Mathis ploughed his Transport profits into four big commercial properties. He had grand plans for a green-based emporium in Williamstown and a series of pubs in Brunswick and A’Beckett Street in the city. But when the world’s economies imploded in 2008, just months after he’d settled, the banks turned off the credit and Mr Midas ran out of luck. ‘‘I couldn’t get money, couldn’t do anything, couldn’t do a trick,’’ Mathis recalls. ‘‘The banks shut up shop. I was saying to them, ‘I’m Paul Mathis, I can do these things’, and they’re saying, ‘We don’t care if you’re Princess Mary’.’’
Four years later, Mathis is sitting at hip new eatery Sharing House in Docklands’ emerging South Wharf food precinct. It’s clear he’s still a little shellshocked by his GFC meltdown, but he’s lost none of his drive or manic energy. Sharing House is just one of six food businesses he has opened in the past six months and he’s bouncing around like an excited teenager – which, a week out from his 51st birthday, he is not.
He points proudly to his new primary-coloured Lego bar, a nod to repetitive tripping accidents on his five-year-old son Kai’s blocks. He pats down his pockets distractedly, produces a phone and proudly reveals a photo of Kai, whose mischievous grin mirrors his own. Suddenly Mathis remembers that a service counter he ordered online is to be delivered today, and he’s off again.
It has been almost 30 years since the boy from West Sunshine followed his father Sam into the pizza business, opening his first eatery, Mathew’s Pizza Inn, in Hoppers Crossing in 1983, with the profits he’d made from restoring and selling a couple of vintage Alpha Romeos. His second venture, Cerabona’s Pasta Deli in Niddrie, which he opened with his mother, Maria, was funded with the profits from the sale of a 1971 Porsche.
Mathis describes his parents – Maria is Italian, Sam is Greek – as ‘‘absolutely, totally, utterly amazing’’. ‘‘They immigrated in 1956 and when they met here they didn’t speak a word of English,’’ he says with a raised eyebrow. ‘‘They must have spoken the language of love.’’
It was his parents who encouraged him to move Cerabona’s into the city, where he rolled out fresh pasta, served steaming at the bar. By the time he opened Joe’s Garage in Fitzroy’s newly trendy Brunswick Street in 1989, he’d added Asian food to his repertoire. ‘‘That’s when I felt I’d become more of a complete chef,’’ he says. ‘‘But that’s when I left the kitchen because the business went mad.’’
Indeed it did. For a few shining years, Joe’s Garage was the beating, vibrant hub of Brunswick Street, a high-turnover cafe that thrummed with the pulse of a trendy bar and in turn put Mathis on the map.
Riding the wave of Melbourne’s burgeoning cafe culture, he followed suit with Southbank’s Blue Train, another jiving cafe bar that brough a slice of retro Fitzroy into a sparkling new riverfront complex. It went gangbusters. “I did think, ‘f---, this is amazing’,” he recalls. “We were taking over $150,000 a week, doing almost 2000 pizzas a day and matching that number in coffees.” It was 1999 and nothing on Blue Train’s menu was more than $10.
His next venture, Automatic at Southbank, replicated the casual dining formula in a cavernous space further down river, confirming Mathis as a risk-taking radical able to anticipate dining trends ahead of the pack.
Soulmama came soon after, a canteen-style vegetarian restaurant at the St Kilda Baths that reflected Mathis’s personal approach to food and attracted snaking lines of punters vying for a table night in, night out.
His Federation Square occupation swiftly followed with the opening of noodle bar Chocolate Buddha in 2002. The next year he launched his most ambitious venue to date, Transport Hotel and Taxi Dining Room, a heaving multi-levelled space designed “like the inside of a Borg starship from Star Trek”.
“It was super scary,” he recalls. “I had this isolated island site. I’d spent $8 million on it and hocked my house and there was no guarantee a soul would walk in.”
They did, by the thousands, and in 2005 Taxi Dining Room was awarded the coveted Age Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year. After two years and the launch of Upper House and Lower House restaurant and wine bar, also at Federation Square, Mathis sold up and got out. By all accounts he was set for life. “If I had the same success in any other industry I’d probably be a begazillionaire,” he says earnestly. “I feel betrayed. It sucks, really.”
His next restaurant, SOS, was a punt. Not only was it positioned in the unlikely surrounds of the Melbourne Central shopping centre, it also echoed his own prescriptive food philosophy, serving only sustainable seafood and vegetarian dishes. It didn’t work.
“The Australian market is very sensitive to trickery and debasing the classics by trying to be a smart-arse, but they don’t really like concept restaurants either,” Mathis says. “The confidence I had to say what I did about environmental issues and tell people they ought to not eat meat so often was too confronting. That sort of thing self perpetuated that ‘f --- off Paul Mathis, don’t tell me what to do’ thinking. I thought I was just passionate but people misconstrued it as cockiness and all the negative by-products of success.”
This time around he’s not telling anyone what to do. Sharing House is one of the greenest restaurants Mathis has built. The towering walls, for example, are a patchwork of reclaimed timber from the wharf, but he’s determined to shut up about it.
The closure of SOS took Mathis down for a couple of million but it was the force of the GFC that paralysed his finances. Two months before the economic meltdown, Mathis bought four enormous commercial properties that were scheduled for pubs and one as a double-decker shop. Then the banks stopped lending. ‘‘I’m paying interest on these properties I can’t do anything with,” recalls Mathis. He had also signed a lease in Williamstown that he couldn’t get out of, originally slated as an organic supermarket called Greenland. “I was over it, I was stunned,” he says. “Millions of dollars later I got down to just one house and that was it.”
But by no means is Mathis down and out. He has a supportive wife, Joanne, and a beautiful four-bedroom house in Camberwell. He plays tennis three times a week, and drives a hybrid and a smart car. They’re not the sports cars Mathis has always loved – and which helped launch his career – but he’s not concerned.
These days Mathis is focused on the future of his new empire rather than the demise of his old one. And there’s a lot to focus on. Across a hallway from Sharing House, where vibrant colours splash across marble table tops and retro chairs, is his new Japanese restaurant Akachochin, dishing up elegant cuisine in a sleek and pared-back space. In Little Collins Street, he has opened Henry and the Fox with Age Good Food Guide 2011 chef of the year, Michael Fox, in the kitchen cooking clean bistro fare.
Closer to Mathis’s own backyard, down a Camberwell back street, is CoffeeHead, a cafe-cum-coffee supermarket stacked with coffee, beans and machines. And in Hawthorn, Mathis has gone back to his roots with a pizzeria, Firechief, housed in a yawning space that bumps onto a street-style cafe, Goldilocks, at the rear.
It’s a diverse portfolio, but Mathis says the central philosophy that binds them is his commitment to the food. “That’s where my passion lies. When it comes down to it, the most fundamental core belief I have is that the food has to be right.”
It’s not just talk. Mathis has hired some of Melbourne’s best chefs to ensure the food is right. As well as Fox at his city restaurant, he has lured ex-Vue de Monde head chef Mark Briggs to run the kitchen at Sharing House, while Akachochin has former Nobu head sushi chef, Kengo Hiromatsu, at the helm. “It’s in my nature to keep charging forward,” Mathis says with a cheeky grin.
At your service – 30 years of the Mathis touch
Mathew’s Pizza Inn, Hoppers Crossing (1983-84)
Cerabona’s Pasta Deli, Niddrie (1984-86)
Cerabona’s Pasta Workshop, Carlton (1986-92)
Cerabona’s Eats, City (1989-92)
Joe’s Garage, Fitzroy (1989-91)
Blue Train, Southbank (1993-01)
Automatic Cafe, Southbank (1997-04)
Blackbird, Sydney (1998-2000)
Transit Lounge, Crown Casino (1999-01)
Soulmama, St Kilda (2002-10)
Federation Square (2002-05)
Federation Square (2004-06)
Taxi Dining Room,
Federation Square (2004-06)
Upper and Lower House,
Federation Square (2005-06)
SOS, Melbourne Central (2006-08)
100 Mile Cafe, Melbourne Central (2008-09)
Firechief, Hawthorn (2011-now )
Goldilocks, Hawthorn (2012-now)
CoffeeHead, Camberwell (2011-now)
Henry and the Fox, City (2012-now)
Akochochin, South Wharf (2012-now)
Sharing House, South Wharf (2012-now)