My Top 5 Defining Moments
1. Getting a job at the Waterside Inn
I still scratch my head today just thinking about how I got the job with Michel Roux at The Waterside Inn.
He was in Australia promoting his first book in the late 80s, and I bought it. I was obsessed with the book. So, I wrote him a letter asking him if I could work for him in London but only got a response back 6-8 weeks later saying, “Thanks but no. Put your name on the two-year waiting list.” Boy was I pissed…
So, I called The Waterside Inn and asked to speak to the head chef in the kitchen and surprisingly they put me through and Mr Roux answered… I told him: “I got your letter, but I really want to work with you… What if I work a month without pay and if I’m any good you give me a job?” He said: “See you in two weeks!”
I had no idea at the time the risk I was taking but I had a crack and it got me in the door. Sometimes people say, “you can’t do it,” but I say in 1969 they put man on the moon… so anything is possible.
I spent three years in London with Mr Roux learning classical French techniques that gave me the solid foundation I needed to grow as a chef.
I spent my 21st birthday at The Waterside Inn working a 7am-1am shift and lived off 100 quid a week. But you know what? I’d do it all again tomorrow.
2. Meeting Mr John Hemmes and opening Hotel CBD
About a year and a bit after my stint in London I got a job as sous chef at Rogues, which was one of the hottest restaurants in 1993 headed by Neil Perry. It was in the Rogues kitchen that I also met Kylie Kwong for the first time.
Any who, one night a gentleman in a suit asked to see the chef who made his meal. I came out, he told me it was the best meal he’d ever had and handed me his business card. He told me to call him if I wanted a job at this new place he was building called Hotel CBD. His name was Mr John Hemmes.
The next day I rocked up to Rogues and the doors were padlocked – the restaurant went broke!
Luckily, I had John’s number. I gave him a call and he put me up in a small one-bedroom apartment on Challis Ave in Kings Cross.
He tested me out at his other restaurant called Merivale for 6 months and eventually I became head chef. I was 24 at the time. It had 6 different levels, got great reviews - it was amazing!
I learned so much from Mr John Hemmes about business, managing staff and building a team – vital skills and knowledge that I carry with me every day.
3. Opening my first restaurant, Salt
I’d been at CBD for 5-6 years before I decided it was time to venture out and open my own restaurant.
My dream had always been to open my first restaurant before I turned 30.
I got in touch with a mate of mine called Don Petroff, who was the kitchen guy from Austmont kitchens. He had done our kitchen at CBD and he told me there was a new boutique hotel going up in Darlinghurst and he knew the guys who owned the building, Robert and Terry Schwamberg. They were on the lookout for a great restaurant and bar for the hotel. We met them and our meeting went really well but it was a huge decision to make.
I wasn’t making nearly enough money to be able to invest in the project so the Schwamberg’s said they’d offer a rent-free period which would give us a great start. So I sold my place in Paddington, went into overdrive selling sausages and borrowed 1 million from the bank and Salt was born.
In its first year, Salt had a turnover of $5.9 million. It was the hottest new restaurant in town. It won Best New Restaurant in the SMH Good Food Guide 2000, awarded two chef’s hats and saw celebrities like Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Sir Richard Branson, Susan Sarandon, Jamie Oliver and Michael Bublé come through its doors.
4. Starting Appetite for Excellence
What’s now become known as the Appetite for Excellence program began out of my frustration at trying to keep our talented young professionals from leaving the hospitality industry.
Once you open your own restaurant you soon become disillusioned and depressed at how hard it is to find good apprentices. Once you found an apprentice chef who you thought was up to the task, it became an ongoing battle to keep them motivated. There wasn’t really much industry-based motivation for them and as a result, a lot of them were throwing in the towel. I wanted to instil a feeling of opportunity in them, motivate and reward the young guys who were working hard in our restaurants.
At the time, my business partner Lucy Allon and I were working with Lexus and their fine dining Encore program. We sat down to brainstorm how we’d get the program off the ground and approached our business partners to become sponsors.
What initially began as a Young Chef Program in 2005, has expanded to include Young Waiter in 2007 and Young Restaurateur in 2009. The program is now in its 13th year and wouldn’t be possible without the support from Virgin Australia, Tourism Australia, Sanpellegrino and Porkstar. As well as the support from our panel of experts who are some of Australia’s best chefs and restaurateurs, all eager to discover emerging hospitality superstars.
Applications just closed on Sunday April 15. Can’t wait to see all the amazing young culinary talents who come out of the program this year.
5. Meeting Sture Myrmell, the president of P&O Cruises Australia
We held the 2008 Appetite for Excellence awards ceremony in Sydney. The evening was winding down and everyone was starting to leave. So, I decided to have a few drinks to celebrate with the winners. Then, this really nice guy comes up to me, introduced himself and said “thanks, I had a great night.” I had no idea who he was, so I asked him “What do you do?”.
It was Sture Myrmell, Vice President of hotel operations at Carnival Australia, a huge group of international cruise liners including P&O. By this point I was a little bit tipsy and said to him, “we should do a restaurant together on one of your ships.” He looked at me funny and we wished each other good night.
About 3 months later I got a phone call, “Hi Luke, I don’t know if you remember me but its Sture Myrmell. I met you at the Appetite awards.” I had no idea who he was at first but I said, “um ye sort of, please go on.” He said, “You proposed the idea of doing a restaurant on one of our ships, would you still fancy doing that?”
Then it dawned on me… I told him to come for lunch at glass brasserie to discuss. He had all these ideas for P&O, which included a Salt grill by Luke Mangan on their ships. At the time cruise ships didn’t have the reputation they have now. I was hesitant at first and had to think about it, but went back saying “If you want us to do it, then it needs to be totally separate from every other food and beverage operation on the ship, a separate kitchen and a proper restaurant.” He said, “We’ll do what we have to to make it happen.”
The first Salt grill opened on the Pacific Jewel in 2009. Our second opened in 2010 on the Pacific Dawn and opened another on Pacific Pearl, Pacific Aria and more recently two completely new restaurant concepts on the new Pacific Explorer in 2017, Luke’s and A Taste of Salt.