20 Questions with Kelly Jackson

Kelly Jackson is Crown Melbourne’s Executive Chef. In his newly expanded role Kelly will oversee the back-of-house kitchen operations while also driving the culinary vision for Crown restaurants and events & conference business.

An Executive Chef is a manager. They need to know how to run a restaurant and how to build a menu, but they take a 300-foot view.

Crown Melbourne has 24 restaurants, and our events business is also very important. 

There’s always one aspect of the F&B offering that could completely occupy all your attention. It’s important not to get utterly absorbed in one thing. You need to maintain a distance to get a property-wide view.

Crown’s culinary offering is very diverse. We have the full gamut, from casual dining to premium fine dining. We have a bent towards Asian cuisine, especially on the gaming floors, while the waterside restaurants are particularly diverse with names such as Nobu, Rockpool, Rosetta and others.

When I think about Crown as an integrated resort: you could spend a week in one of our three hotels and not need to leave the complex; eat at a different restaurant every night, enjoy the pools, the movies, 10-pin bowling, Holy Moly and more.

Some of our most popular offerings are family restaurants. For example, Gradi does particularly well, which is in the middle of the retail area and is a great family restaurant. At Crown we strive to offer an experience to meet every occasion, preference, palate and mood, which is the ultimate end-game of our diverse offering.

Crown’s F&B offering changed radically when we opened up to tenants some 10 years ago. The synergies between Crown and the tenants are very important and provide a unique selling point. We have many of the country’s best chefs right here at Crown. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in Australia.

It’s been wonderful to see Melburnians return to Crown after a long lockdown. Have their eating and drinking habits changed because of Covid? I think they’re just overjoyed to be out and about, socialising — I think that’s probably the biggest thing; the connection with people.

We are slowly but surely returning to some normality after the lockdown. Who would have thought that the much-maligned QR code could be so important? It’s proving to be invaluable for checking in and linking to online menus.

The personal touch is still very important. Especially in fine dining, nothing replaces interacting with a waiter or other front of house staff.

Until restaurants return to full capacity, I believe it’s important for restaurateurs to look hard at their menus. I don’t believe anyone expects the menu to be unchanged when you’re restricted to 50% capacity, for example. Rather than having 15 mains and 15 entrees, pare that back to six or seven, it will reduce your prep time, staff costs and wastage. 

I’ve noticed other restaurants in my neighbourhood that are staying closed on Monday and Tuesday until things return to normal. That could make sense as well. It’s important to set yourself up to succeed.

Turning over more covers each night, I believe, is key. Especially as we move out of Covid, I think this will be a measure of success in 2021. 

Don’t get me wrong, I trained in a fine dining restaurant, I love that world and we have some amazing fine dining restaurants at Crown, but my sense is that people won’t want to spend $250 per person to dine in 2021. Yes, there’s still a place for special occasion dining but a measure of a restaurant’s viability will be in its ability to attract return customers — every week or every month. The one-off, once in a lifetime restaurants will find it tougher in 2021. That’s my personal view.

I don’t want to be too morbid, but many restaurants will find 2021 tougher than 2020. After the government support dries up, there won’t be anywhere to hide.

On a more positive note, I believe people will want to support their local businesses, so restaurants can capitalise on that sentiment.

I know that I’m geared more to keep my menus as locally-sourced as possible, simply to support our farmers and suppliers. 

I expect that 2021 will see an extension of the plant-based trend. The sharing-style plates will return in a big way as well, especially in our events menus. 

Hamburgers? Yes, hamburgers are here to stay. We’ll see some evolution in the burgers and buns; healthier burgers… burger reinventions, you might say.

I think burgers are forever evolving.

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