Shannon Bennett

The chef behind Australia’s best French restaurant, Vue de monde, has always done things his way. But with new cafés, and a move upstairs to the top of the Rialto tower, is he riding himself into the ground?
Photo: Corey Sleap

How does a Westie kid go from chip shops and milkbars to become one of the true stars of International cuisine? How does a chef focused on fine-dining minutiae (like a drizzle of jus out of place) have the brain space for the hands-on control of a mini-empire of restaurants and cafés? Shannon Bennett might be gazing into the eyes of a tiger prawn one minute and a merchant banker the next. The man is relaxed as he is driven, self effacing as he is brimming with confidence, egalitarian yet caters to the elite. A paradox? No, not really. In other words: paradoxically, there’s nothing paradoxical about, arguably, Australia’s finest chef — everything he does or says seems to make perfect sense. Even the haircut. The shoulder-length straggle should be jarring — beyond the pale even. But no, that’s simply the surfing chef Shannon Bennett. As I say, paradoxically un-paradoxical.

After years of serving the top end of town at his uncompromisingly excellent Vue de monde, Shannon Bennett is taking the Vue brand to places it’s never been before… like the ‘burbs and Oman. Ah ha! The real Shannon Bennett is showing his true colours at last. He’s cashing in. Wrong. A big impetus for the St Kilda Road Café Vue was the space to bake his own bread, and similarly, the Café Vue at Heide museum of modern art in Melbourne’s outer East gives him the pick of the site’s vegetable patch. As for the Middle East joint venture? Well, he says the chicken is to die for, and it’s insulting to turn down a Sultan.

So Vue Inc. is moving onwards, and, as it happens, upwards. Shannon Bennett’s signature restaurant will be taking up residency on the top floor of Melbourne’s lofty Rialto tower. But for now Vue remains grounded in its long-time Normanby Chambers location in Little Collins Street where I sat, macchiato in hand, observing the early morning rituals and waiting for Shannon Bennett to become available.


It’s all hustle and bustle; floors are getting squeegeed and mopped, potatoes are bussed out of the oven and pressed through a sieve, and pans clink on stove tops as five men work around each other running drills rehearsed every day of the year. The choreography is punctuated by calls of “Yes, Chef!” I look around for the chef, but Bennett is nowhere to be seen. A little while later, he appears down the far end of the galley. Sans chef’s hat, or apron, he’s dressed in neat casuals with a clipboard in hand, sternly querying some item on his list. When he finishes up, I ask him about the ‘impostor’ in the kitchen, the one they call ‘chef’, and with the running of the Vue empire what hat he’s wearing nowadays.

“I’ve got a really great talented team, and I’m in a difficult position morally, because they want to be head chefs. They’ve been here a long time and are very ambitious. And I’m at the stage now where it’s not really any longer Shannon Bennett the chef; it’s more Shannon Bennett the restaurateur. And when we move to the Rialto next year, that’s going to be a stage where I’ll be in the kitchen, but I’m going to have to hand over a lot of my ideas to someone else, which I’m already doing a lot now.”

Handing over the reins is hard for any chef, especially one that has fought so valiantly for his place in the kitchen. Almost two decades ago, after the young Westmeadows lad distinguished himself as one of the best apprentice chefs the Grand Hyatt and Australia had ever seen, Bennett headed overseas to work his way up through a handful of Michelin Star restaurants under the watchful eye of John Burton Race, childhood hero Marco Pierre White, Albert Roux, and Alain Ducasse. And after seven years on the road, he returned to Australia to share what he’d learned. But a lot of Melbourne chefs didn’t see eye to eye with Bennett, he thought his expertise should earn him a place at least at chef de partie level, but the best offer he got was for a commis position picking spinach for Jacques Reymond. “That summed up what was going on in Melbourne at the time. At least Jacques had the decency to meet me, because half of them didn’t. So I was forced into getting my own restaurant. I wasn’t ready for it, so I had to make myself ready.”


Nowadays though, tensions have eased. Bennett is no longer the upstart, but one of the most successful restaurateurs in Melbourne, as well as one of Australia’s best chefs. Vue de monde is Bennett’s baby, and also his calling card. After borrowing $70,000 from a family friend, Vue de monde became a genuine proposition, and gave Bennett the freedom he needed to run the show. The fact he held the power, instead of being chained to a silent partner, is what Bennett sees as the secret to his success.

“The key to my success was the fact that I didn’t have other people with money invested in the restaurant making panicky financial decisions. The restaurant was about being successful in cooking great food, not a means to an end or retiring at a certain age rich. That’s not how I operate.”

Yet most of the industry work differently…

“That’s the biggest problem with those chefs that are perceived as the owners of the restaurant. They’re actually not. They have no idea what finances are all about. The basic principles of the business are: a great product, served at great prices, a perceived value for money somewhere along the way, and then knowing how to balance that. You’ve got creditors, you’ve got money coming in, and you cannot spend more money than you earn, then you will make money. It’s as simple as that.”

To remain on top of his expanding empire, Bennett’s business side has almost had to become his better one. “My first week in the business, I dropped 15 grand. That taught me a few things straight away: restaurants need to work week to week. One of the biggest problems with restaurants is they seem to look at their P&L on a monthly or quarterly basis. By the time they’ve looked at it monthly and quarterly they’re well in the shit – spending way more than they’re earning. I know my cash position every day, you have to, it’s just crazy if you don’t!

“Also, in those early days, if I had someone else’s influence, that would have frustrated the hell out of me. Because all they would have wanted to do would have seen a little cash cow. And that would have stuffed things up, because in the end, Carlton was a great cash cow.”


Indeed, before Vue de monde moved to Normanby Chambers in the heart of the CBD, it was out in Carlton (where by many it was condemned to fail); full all the time, and making loads of money. After only two and a half years Bennett had written his first book, the autobiographical, recipe-infused My Vue, and another year and a half later he took his friend out to lunch and proudly handed back his $70,000, with interest. All that he had set out to accomplish at Carlton had come about, and it was time to move on.

Bennett again confounded his critics by spending over $2m on the new site — including a whopping 100 grand on Paul Smith chairs. “At the end of the day,” he says, “What are you going to use a 100 grand for? You can’t take it with you when you’re dead, so you may as well have fun with it.”


History tells us that the move was inspired and  the Carlton legend soon turned into the CBD fine-dining institution. Indeed, the fine dining Vue spawned a Café Vue and then a Bistro Vue, all on the same site. The roll out provided a blueprint for the more recent forays — the cachet and pedigree of the Vue name providing a powerful calling card.

Saying that, the Vue clout comes with a commensurate weight of expectations, which can often be too lofty for a cut-price café or bistro to meet. “Our biggest problem down at 401 [St Kilda Road] and Heide is people expect Vue de monde service for an $8 pie.” But rather than hose down expectations, he prefers to try and meet them somewhere in the middle. “In some way you’ve got to articulate that philosophy without having 25 waiters on the floor.”

Bistro Vue, the first cut-price proposition, succeeds in Bennett’s desire to “give people who love our food another reason to come and visit us more than once a week.” But for some, Café Vue was as hard to understand as the Bistro was easy to understand. The perception was it lacked a real identity, an obvious raison d’etre. It’s a legitimate observation but one Bennett doesn’t have any time for.

The Normanby Chambers iteration of Café Vue was the first and designed by Illy coffee affiliate, designer Luca Trazzi, in Italy — essentially an off-the-peg fitout designed to dimensions and pictures over the internet that arrived six months and $300,000 later. Next, Café Vue at 401 St Kilda Road was designed by Elenberg Fraser. It’s the second time Bennett has had the architect fit out his establishment within a larger complex they were already responsible for (the same thing occurred at Normanby Chambers where Elenberg Fraser were responsible for the main buildings renovation as well as fitting out Vue de monde). Café Vue at Heide by comparison is situated in an unadorned glass building previously designed by Chris Connell that complements the museum’s modern appeal. They all therefore have a very distinctive look that, for a person of Bennett’s creative flair (especially in Melbourne where individuality is championed), seems unfair to criticise. After all, the whole reason Bennett leased the tenancy for the café at Normanby Chambers was so a McDonald’s or Subway wouldn’t move in, forming a barrier to protect the Vue de monde brand. As mentioned, Bennett has similarly pragmatic reasons for opening the other two cafes — bread and veg, to be precise.

But with high food costs accounting for 37–38 percent of the menu prices, he barely makes a profit at Normanby, and with 12 to 14 people on the floor breaking even at 401 is also struggle… in other words, for all the brand’s fine dining success, Café Vue is a hard slog. It’s the weight of people’s expectations that is keeping it down. Expectations which Bennett typically had no problem dispelling in the past at Vue de monde. There are plenty of stories in his early days when Bennett would rebuke and swiftly eject customers. Now he’s even got a rule for it, Rule No. 6: “Never take yourself too seriously.” It’s a piece of advice he picked up in the last couple of years from one of his friends, and one he’ll never forget. He’s also said it to a couple of customers on occasion, “You’ve forgotten Rule No. 6.” Because they’re complaining that the temperature of the Chablis is seven degrees and it should be 8.2. They look at you all bewildered, and you say to them, ‘don’t take yourself too seriously, because right now you are.’ Bottom line: f**k off, we don’t need you. My philosophy has got stronger and stronger in that area, because I don’t do this for money. The money side of it for me is making sure the business is strong. So Rule No. 6, that’s probably what the next book will be about.”

Bennett is quite the prolific writer. Some nights, in his downtime after a 16-hour day, you might find Bennett typing out his latest tome. He’s already written three: My Vue, My French Vue and his latest, a guide book to his favourite Parisian haunts interspersed with recipes, entitled simply Shannon Bennett’s Paris. Bennett reckons it’s about time he broke out another bottle and wrote the second instalment to My Vue, “There’s plenty of stories,” he says.


Vue de monde is moving to its brand new eyrie atop the Rialto, which means changes are afoot. Other than a kitchen redesign and a bigger chef’s table, Bennett’s main focus will be tinted green. “It’s time to reinvent what we’re doing. I’m really champing at the bit to become more sustainable, because of what’s happening around the globe now, and also financially. I know for a fact that if I don’t get smarter and wiser on sustainability in the business, we’ll get slugged by attacks that we won’t be able to afford. That’s going to happen whether we like it or not. All of us are going to have to face reality that somehow our businesses, and our models, and our principles are changing. And that’s going to really hurt people if they don’t think about it now.”

What that means for Bennett is to become power neutral and secure sustainable sources for products and produce now. “Sustainable produce is probably the easiest of all reforms to make, because bottom line is, great quality produce always comes from very good sustainable principles.” He sends his team of helpers out to gather information from courses, and work with companies like Business Shaper, SITA Environmental Solutions, Worldwind and ARUP to formulate the plan of attack for the new digs. He’s also an ambassador for Audi, and works with Miele, picking their brains for better practise. “Europe is well ahead of the game. Their sustainability practises have been driven through economics. It’s cheaper to put up a wind turbine on the top of a building for 13,000 euros and produce 8kW of power than it is to pull power from the grid. It’s just simple economics.” And that’s the goal at the Rialto, to generate enough power onsite to power all the kitchen appliances.


With the Vue de monde move to Rialto, Bennett also plans to give his food a more Australian focus and add to the canon of national cuisine. “I don’t mean we’re going to serve Bush Pepper Berries, and have aboriginal music playing in the background. It’s about what we are as Australians now. And I’m slowly starting to work all of that out, that being Australian means you can still have French food, and French technique.”

It’s a departure from what Shannon set out to accomplish on his return from Europe, namely bringing wholesale replicas of French cooking to Australia. “The dishes I was doing in Carlton were replicas of chefs I’d worked for, like Ducasse and Marco Pierre White. Now that’s changed into dishes that I’ve made my own.” But the appeal of French cooking is still most attractive to Bennett. “It’s got the most discipline. And for me, I love the history and decadence behind it all. With other cuisines, you have to be born into it. Your mum had to have given you that taste of just that amount of ginger, or that amount of spice. Whereas French cookery is actually a discipline where you have to learn the technique. Take the example of Masterchef’s favourite, the croque em bouche. They glorify it to a certain extent, without really doing justice to the technique and knowledge required to pull it off. There’s a lot of bloody work involved in making a proper croque em bouche, a massive amount of work, skill and science behind it all. To me, French cuisine is still the king of cuisines, because there’s still so much to learn and get wrong. And there are not many cuisines like that in the world where you still can’t get all the information out of one book.”

As to how he sees the Australian industry now compared to when he first arrived. “We’re a smaller population, though certainly not deficient. I think a lot of chefs, world critics, and top 100 restaurants have gotten too big for their boots in many ways. Australia, for its population is one of the best places in the world for cuisine. Probably the best place! I mean, there are probably 50 great restaurants in America, whereas I can name at least 30 great restaurants in Australia off the top of my head. America’s population is 300 million, and Australia’s is about 21 — I think we’re doing very, very well for ourselves.” And although Vue de monde serves up some of the most expensive menus around, he’s very conscious of where the rest of the Vue brand fits. “We’ve got to make sure we’re a very affordable industry, because we don’t want to price ourselves out of the market. You still want to be able to go out for a steak and chips for under $30.”


Fine dining exists in a rarified world based on stringent discipline, big money, flair and not a little hubris. It’s a world of ‘1 percenters’, where a degree here, or a minute there can make all the difference. Shannon Bennett has proven himself to be the king of the ‘1 percenters’; the OCD-esque detail; the pure science of the world’s most demanding cuisine. So how can he be so bloody philosophical! So damn level-headed…

Paradoxical? Nah. This is Shannon Bennett being Shannon Bennett.

“It’s a tough industry,” reminds Bennett. “People who come into this industry know that the wages are low, the hours are long, but you don’t do it for that. You do it because you love pleasing people. For around 20 years of my career I’ve worked on very, very low wages, and it certainly didn’t bother me — they were some of the happiest years of my life. Happiness can be found in working a great week, sleeping in on Sunday, going for a few beers, and seeing a great movie. You don’t need a lot of money for that, and you’re satisfied with your work, and what you do. That’s what life is about.”

Bennett’s latest book ‘Shannon Bennett’s Paris’ is a personal tour of his beloved city: Paris. Interspersed with recipes, anecdotes and helpful additions from some Vue customers, it’s the perfect travelling companion. — Mark Davie

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