Case Study /read
Shane Delia has his head in the game. As one of Australia’s highest profile chefs, he has every reason not to be in the kitchen – TV shows, cook books, brand ambassadorships.
However, unlike many of his contemporaries, you’d have a real fight on your hands to pull him out of the kitchen. Which would be difficult, as the man’s other home away from home is the boxing gym.
Long story short, there’s an undeniable authenticity to Shane Delia. A passion not just for the food in the commercial kitchen, but the people and the craft.
"Choosing SKOPE was about design aesthetics, functionality, and also hygiene. But we also wanted to make sure we chose a product that we could clean easily and was from a brand that had a really fabled reputation founded on reliability."
He may have opened Maha, Australia’s award-winning authority on the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dining experience, when he was only 28.
But talking to this chef, you always get the sense that his defining moments came much earlier, when he was a struggling teenage apprentice travelling from Melbourne to Geelong every night to attend The Gordon.
So when it comes to designing a commercial kitchen and talking about it, you can tell he’s thinking about his team, his colleagues and his friends the entire time.
There’s a lot of thought that’s gone into every aspect of a Shane Delia kitchen - right down to the door handles and fascia on the fridges.
“The kitchen is the heart of your restaurant, so you need to look after it – and not just for your cooks. In the typical kitchen you’re in a basement with no natural light and no air flow. So to create an environment that really encourages excellence and professionalism, and make it so people really want to come to work, is really important,” Shane says.
Central to that aim in the renovation of the Maha kitchen was banishing the mental divider between FOH and BOH that defines many restaurant spaces.
Working with business partner Nick Imaniani and kitchen designer Chris Love, Shane and his team went into minute detail to provide a consistent environment between the two spaces that, ultimately, is about exceeding expectations for staff as well as customers.
“We want our wait staff to be able to walk into a kitchen in the same mind-set that they have when they’re in the dining room. Their eyes don’t have to re-adjust because the lighting levels are the same, for example, they engage with the chef, they pick up the food from this beautiful, mood-lit kitchen. It’s a continuous experience.
“It’s also about providing an experience that exceeds expectations to our customers. There’s only so much you can do on the plate. The environment has a big part to do with the experience, and the kitchen now is such an essential part of that.
“Like a lot of restaurants, we often bring customers into the kitchen if they’re celebrating an occasion. But we’re actually very proud to do that now, we set up a little station for them, construct a dish in front of them and give it to them as a memento of their experience at Maha. It bridges that gap between front and back of house, and actually brings people into the heartbeat of the restaurant.”
That reverence for the human component of the commercial kitchen has driven many of the integral choices behind the renovation, including the equipment choice.
“Choosing SKOPE was about design aesthetics, functionality, and also hygiene. But we also wanted to make sure we chose a product that we could clean easily and was from a brand that had a really fabled reputation founded on reliability.”
“For us, reliability is key but it wasn’t the only thing. People say a Toyota is reliable too, but it’s also really ugly. So we didn’t want to put a Toyota in there, we wanted a Mercedes-Benz. A Mercedes-Benz is unbelievably reliable, it has beautiful design aesthetics, every little detail that you don’t even see has been thought about, and it carries some weight with its brand.
“We wanted products in our kitchen that hit all those pillars but also made our chefs proud to have the opportunity to work with equipment that was there to help them reach their goals.”
While it would be tempting to assume that price was no issue, nothing could be further from the truth. Through hard-fought experience, the Maha team calculates asset purchase decisions on potential life-time costs, not just the sticker price. They think about the business case, in other words, and the true cost of rolling the dice on quality.
“Look, we’ve all been in a start-up business where you think ‘Great, maybe I’ll cut some corners here by getting a cheaper piece of equipment and when it breaks down I’ll just replace it’.
“At the outset that can sound like a pretty smart decision but the reality is that you’re not going to try to replace it - you’re going to try to repair it. And, inevitably, you’re not going to be able to get people to come out and service it. You’re not going to find the parts. And even if you can find the parts, the cost to the business will be huge.
“It’ll always happen on a Saturday at 7 o’clock too. That’s when it’ll happen. You’ll get the tech out, he’s going to come out and look at the fridge and go ‘I don’t even know where you get those parts from!’ and he’s going to have to find them. During that time, you’re going to be down and it’s going to cost you money in terms of labour for the service techs and then in terms of the repercussions with the customers. You’ll be losing revenue.”
Shane has learnt about the business impact of these kinds of decisions the hard way, but he completely empathizes with how hard it is to sometimes break this cycle and start taking the long view.
“After all this you can finally get into a position where you say ‘Okay, maybe I’ll just replace it’ but then the temptation is always to replace it with another piece of rubbish and then you’re in the same position in another 12-15 months, as soon as the warranty runs out. We’ve learnt through the years that you can’t put a price on peace of mind.
“But it’s also about knowing that a good piece of equipment comes with a good service structure. There’s nothing bullet-proof, things will happen. But working with a company that understands that, and is resourced well enough to be able to react when they need to is great - you can’t put a price on that. We know with SKOPE that if something goes down then within an hour we’ll at least have a solution and we’ll know it’s being worked on.”
One new addition to the Maha kitchen is the Irinox MF25.1 PLUS, a blast chiller from an Italian brand with a reputation that precedes it.
“We’d heard about Irinox from larger facilities, like some of the guys at Brunetti’s. We hear the same type of story, that everyone’s really happy with what they’ve got but everyone knows there’s so much more potential. Everyone in our kitchen is excited to learn what we can do.”
Blast chilling and freezing is becoming an increasingly common mainstay of the modern commercial kitchen thanks to the financial impact of being able to cool and freeze at unprecedented speed, and preserve food in pristine condition for longer.
The Maha team are just scratching the surface of what’s possible, but it became clear very quickly that the potential of the technology was huge.
“On a day-to-day level it means efficiency and speed for us. A perfect example came just yesterday. We were developing a new dish, there was a miscommunication with the pastry chef, who wanted to use a cold sauce. We heated the sauce by accident when we had a whole room of people waiting to taste the dish. We needed that sauce real cold, real quick.
“If it wasn’t for the Irinox we’d be scratching our heads, putting it in ice, stirring it in the freezer, and trying to get the temperature down. Instead we just put it on a tray, put it in the blast freezer, and boom, we got the temperature down. Within three minutes it was like frozen and we were ready to go. It was a small thing but it avoided the hassle of us having to find a solution and having to go speak to the customers about the delay, and then having to delay the rest of the dining room.”
Recognising new opportunities in hospitality - like blast chilling - are all part and parcel of the brands Shane builds. That goes for Maha’s unrestricted approach to Mediterranean fine dining, Biggie Smalls’ use of food delivery apps like Uber Eats, or the innovative approach to craft beer at the Brick Lane Brewing Co.
But according to the man himself, the key to success is actually unplugging from the hospitality industry to find a different perspective.
“You need clarity. About two years ago I started boxing and applying the boxing philosophies to my daily life, and it’s changed my perception and the way I approach opportunities. I’ve always traditionally been the front foot fighter, in anything. In business, in life, in relationships – in a fight. I’d be the one that has his head so in the fight that he can’t actually see what’s happening.
“Since we’ve started training I’ve switched my technique – I’m a back foot fighter now. I sit back, I assess, I take some time. I look at what’s happening around me. I take time to listen to people and then I wait, and I assess, and then I strike. And when I strike now, I actually land the punch. It’s a different mind-set – less effort and more reward.
“But we’ve also put in a good structure within our business. So how do we stay ahead of it? We really identify who’s good at what and enable them to be the best at it. And by doing that we just seem to be engaged with everyone we’re talking to, inside and outside the industry.
“As far as staying ahead of food trends and all that stuff, we don’t even pay any attention to that. I am the most disconnected chef in Australia. I have plenty of chefs I admire, and plenty of chefs that are friends, but there aren’t many industry people I’m speaking to on a day-to-day basis. The hospitality industry is a small puddle. We all live and breathe it, and it’s great, but there’s a wider world out there. A huge ocean with lots of different fish – that’s the pond I want to swim in, that’s the exciting bit.”