Saturday, 13 September 2008

Rita chats with Garry and Ian from Rockerfellers

Ian Cox and Garry Dorrington (ex Rockerfellers) were in town recently and Rita took the opportunity to have breakfast at Dukkah and Pigeon Hole with them and reminisce about the good old days! The below will ultimately be added to the Rita's Bite website People page.

Ian and Garry could arguably be called the grandfathers of hospitality in Hobart, along with a few other stalwarts. Garry has been plying his trade (hospitality in Hobart) since late 1972, when he got a job in the new (at that time) Revolving Restaurant in Wrest Point. Prior to that he had been working as a tour guide for the National Trust at Runnymeade in New Town for a few years.

Ian, being a qualified Horticulturist, arrived in Hobart to take up a job with the Clarence Council as Manager of Parks and Reserves, which he did for 3 years.

The period that Wrest Point opened the casino and Revolving Restaurant was a revolutionary time for fine dining in Hobart. If you were around at the time, you’ll remember how strict door staff were enforcing the dress code to get in the doors of WP. Not like today when any riff raff can walk in decked out in trackies and joggers!

In those days, denim was a total no-no, no matter how much it had cost you to buy. American comedian Jerry Lewis was an example of the relentless dress code policing at WP. Lewis was, at the time, the huge billing entertainment name in the Cabaret Room, which, by the way, encompassed a fully formal, white linen, sit-down meal prior to your entertainment. Mr Lewis was having a bit of a wander through the gambling area after his performance one evening, but as he was clothed in denim, albeit Armani which he’d paid more than the doorman’s annual wages for, he was thrown out!

They were just as strict about any male not wearing a tie and jacket. There was initial conjecture that if you didn’t have a suit on you couldn’t get in, but I think that was just gossip. They were horrendously strict though, and even though it was a real pain in the arse, at least everyone actually looked quite smart. Women in long dresses was common attire there. How often do you see that now? I myself am definitely not a formal dress person, but can appreciate others looking their very best in more formal attire.

Following the stint at the Revolving Restaurant, Garry left, along with David Siepen (who was a fellow staff member there) and they worked at Angelos, which was, at various times, Winter Garden, then Angelos, then Silvers Nightclub, then latterly Mona Lisa, in Liverpool Street. The next phase of their lives was to involve their business partnership running some wonderful, historic venues round town.

The groundbreaking 159 Davey (at that address) in 1976, after which followed (in 1978) the equally groundbreaking Beaujangles in Victoria Street. How popular was their Sunday brunch at Beaujangles? We’d never seen such food and so many people going out for brunch!

After Beaujangles came Sweethearts, which initially was sited near where Trafalgar Place now is. When that area was redeveloped, they moved to Bathurst Street, where Siam Gardens now is. Sweethearts was the place for fabulous desserts. Sweethearts existed from about 1979 till 1985.

That then heralded the start of Rockerfellers, originally above Knopwoods, where Syrup now is. They were at that site for 6 years then moved to their last address in the former Gibsons Mills, where Catch now is. They owned Rockerfellers for 19 years in all – an astronomic amount of time for hospitality in Hobart.

During the course of their Rockerfeller ownership, they started a few other ventures up as well – namely Cha Cha’s, on the site of Banjo’s in Elizabeth Street, and Sticky Fingers Ice Cream Parlour. Cha Cha’s rates up there as one of the best restaurant openings I attended because it had previously been another restaurant which was sold on to the boys along with all the alcohol. Naturally the cleaning out of the wine cellar and top shelf occurred at the opening, so there were many people staggering out of that particular restaurant opening very much the worse for wear! It operated for 3 years then closed down.

Sticky Fingers was another landmark venue. The boys established it with the ultimate idea being that it would fund their retirement. However, out of the blue and 3 years into its operation someone made them an offer for the business that was too great for them to refuse, so they sold it. It was a boutique ice cream parlour, with all the adventurous flavours made on the premises. As well as the customers coming onto the premises, every restaurant in town wanted to use their ice cream. They were run off their feet.

The introduction of the Fine Food awards at the Show saw them winning Gold for their beautiful ice cream. Stephanie Alexander also wanted her restaurant in Melbourne to be supplied with their well known Pink Grapefruit Sorbet.

As fast as the ice cream was made, it was eaten, leading to a sign being made for the door to account for the sudden 2 hour closures they were often forced to have: “You’re licking it faster than we can make it”. It was a great money spinner for them.

They also fought for the right to be able to develop the Cornelian Bay Boat House site, and obviously won, ultimately. They retain their interest in the restaurant to this day, and should be justifiably proud of it.

I asked the boys if they could recall any really memorable incidents from their 19 years at Rockerfellers. A few came up.

A dinner guest one evening was Rolf Harris. Rolf used the loo at one stage, and returned telling the boys that the sign on the toilet door was fading a bit, and asking them if they wanted him to touch it up with a texta! Naturally they agreed, so Rolf went to work and produced one of those famous Rolf Harris works of art, with the finished product looking great. The boys were rapt and decided that next day they’d get someone in to glass over the sign and thus preserve it for posterity. Unfortunately their mega-efficient cleaner started her early morning cleaning shift at 5.00 am next morning, and with a lot of hard scrubbing, managed to clean off the “scribblings” someone had done on the toilet door the night before, so she proudly announced to the boys when they arrived later that morning! Bugger!

A few bad nights also came to mind for the boys. One instance was at the old Rockers when one of their chefs was going upstairs with a large stockpot (with no lid) full of liquid toffee. As the pot had a handle missing, he was holding it with a tea towel wrapped round it. (The boys had previously told him to toss out said pan). He slipped on the stairs and managed to tip the whole pot of molten toffee all over himself. The blood-curdling scream of anguish from the chef in the stairwell was what alerted all to the disaster. He received extensive burns and his body immediately stiffened as the shock set in. Staff had to lift him onto the bar to lie in the prone position till medical help arrived. He had to have many skin grafts.

Another busy Friday night, packed to the rafters with customers, they had an American tourist dining alone who managed to drink 2 bottles of red along with a 3 course meal. At the end, looking decidedly green, he stood up to leave, and immediately vomited all over the restaurant, spraying most of the restaurant and customers! The restaurant had to be cleared; meals which were on their way out returned to the kitchen; in-coming customers turned away; everyone present offered free wine, drinks etc in order to placate them, and the whole disgusting mess cleaned up. Vomit had gone everywhere, even in women’s handbags, as people subsequently found out when they later delved into their handbags for wallet or car keys!

The boys say that hospitality in Hobart was kind to them and they loved their time here working in restaurants. They never looked round at what other people were doing, but did their own thing. Their hard and fast rule for success was that the business absolutely ALWAYS came first. The business was their priority at all times. Their whole life revolved round the business, and they were never deflected. They provided a lot of colour and personality to the dining out landscape of Hobart and I, for one, miss their constant presence immensely.
Posted on by Rita


Forde Montgomery said...

If it wasn't for Ian and Garry the Hobart hospitality industry would be 10 years behind where it is now. Yet they never really got the 'superstar' reputation that they deserved. Plus I like it when guys have mo's and stick with them. Ah to have been around when the Casino was a top venue, it must have been fantastic?

Anonymous said...

another 10 years behind, that would make it forty then?

just for interest sake, how was the food at these venues?

Miles McClagan said...

I'd have thrown Jerry Lewis out as well (oiii glavin)...

At least until he showed me his "moving/funny" Nazi war film, the Day The Clown Cried

Anonymous said...

David Siepen is another of the unsung foodies around town - he was also one of the original group to try and bring good food and faultless service to this town. Many of the restaurants of that time suffered greatly when the tax rule changed ( many changed hands quickly or struggled on for a few years and slipped away quietly) - to a large extent the tax change killed the long lunch and to a lesser extent the long dinner.

Ian, Garry and David knew how to work the industry.

Look forward to hearing their thoughts on the food scene.

Rita don't you think it is a little odd that we really don't see many of the old guard still in the industry in a big way.

Cool Room

Rita said...

Cool Room - I think there's a good reason for why we don't see the old guard round still - they've got older, and pretty well retired! You know how mega-hard hospitality is, both physically and mentally, on your body? Well, after a while it takes effect, and your body really does feel those many years of being on your feet, especially if you've worked any length of time behind the concrete-floored bars and in the kitchens.

I remember an old friend, Pat Self, now unfortunately long departed (too early), who had worked all her life as licensee of many pubs round town, like Tatts and Tasmanian Inn to name but a few. Pat's diagnosis of the illness which eventually killed her was put down to a lifetime of working behind bars (not in gaol!). Apparently this activity put way too much stress on her body.

Hospitality is a hard life. Don't get me wrong - I believe it's absolutely the best career to go into, but it's still bloody hard work.

C U M P E R S garrulous gobbler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rita said...

Great to hear from you CGG, and you're right - the boys ARE inspiring, and I doubt there are any issues being faced today that they haven't faced in the past.

Rita said...

....and BTW Anon 4.10, the food was always top at Rockerfellers. And in the other venues ditto. 159 Davey I particularly remember as being outstanding.
Forde - those were funny times, and I'm glad I was here to see them. At the time of them being so harsh with their dress code I thought Wrest Point was just being an elitist, snobby venue, trying to make their precious place exclusive, but looking back I can see what they were trying to uphold, and even though it wasn't a place I frequented, I can now appreciate it.

sir grumpy said...

Yes Rita, they looked after us many a time above Knopwoods and in Morrison St.
Never had a bad feed or a cold reception from them.
We tool many interstate and overseas visitors there for a feed. It was always much more than just a meal.
I thank them for that and wish they were back running a Rockerfellers again.

Anonymous said...

Talking about the Casino. Who is the new chef at the Point Restaurant??