Does Navi’s Julian Hills have the perfect restaurateur’s life?

May 28, 2019

Julian Hills, chef-owner of fine-diner Navi, talks to Peter Barrett about how he’s created an acclaimed eatery – and still has a life.

It’s a quiet Thursday morning on a mostly residential street in Seddon, a suburb in Melbourne’s inner west. But for its name painted discreetly at the bottom of a curtained window, you could easily walk past Navi, an intimate 25-seater which serves 10-course degustation dinners from Wednesday to Saturday night.

Customers haven’t been troubled by the lack of signage, however. Since opening in July 2018 – to excellent reviews – Navi has been fully booked. “I never envisioned that,” says the restaurant’s softly spoken chef-owner, Julian Hills. After all, he had anticipated an average of only 16 covers a night in his business plan.

For Hills, a 40-year-old chef best known for winning and retaining a Good Food Guide chef’s hat for six years in a row at Mornington Peninsula’s Paringa Estate, his first restaurant as owner is a work-life balance dream come true. Hills and his wife, Georgia, a physiotherapist (also his main business sounding board) live with their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Eleanor, just a stone’s throw from the restaurant.

“The whole idea of this place is that I get to cook food that I want to cook for a manageable amount of people and it’s only four nights a week, so I can have a little bit of a life,” he says.

While the hours might sound indulgent (for the record, Hills does all his own bookkeeping, so that means more than four days a week) Navi is less a money-making scheme than a labour of love, backed by sound economics. Every Tuesday, Hills drives to the Mornington Peninsula to purchase fresh produce from his five trusted suppliers and forage for succulents at a mate’s coastal property. Dishes are served on exquisitely glazed ceramic plates and bowls that Hills has made himself, having studied fine art at RMIT. (In six months, only four have been broken – which is just as well, considering the logistics of replacing them.)

So how did the first-time restaurant owner get it all up and running? Hills says enlisting help with his business plan from an experienced friend was crucial. His friend, a former YMCA chief executive, told him to write his own version first to test whether the idea was even feasible, then they could work on something more comprehensive together. “I’m pretty good with numbers, so she was quite surprised at how close I’d come to everything with my little scribbles on a notepad,” Hills says.

Hills and his wife borrowed against a property they own to raise the capital but the budget was always tight. Hills called on his architect brother, Damon, from Finnis Architects, who designed the 105 square-metre ground-floor space for free. When the builder supplied a quote of $150,000 for the fit-out, it was more than they could afford. Together, they came up with savings on materials by scouring eBay and getting creative with glue (the striking marble-topped front table is a case in point).

Hills’s can-do attitude was instrumental in getting the project off the ground. Perhaps it comes from his upbringing, on a remote hobby farm in the Strzelecki Ranges in Victoria’s West Gippsland region. Left for hours to amuse himself (and without a single digital device in sight), he picked herbs to make drinks, shot rabbits, caught eels and experimented with cooking.

“I was obsessed with catching things and picking things off the farm and enjoying the farm, basically,” Hills says. “I guess I was lonely and that’s how I’d occupy myself.”

After completing high school, he made a beeline for Melbourne and enrolled in fine art and ceramics at RMIT. His first taste of cooking professionally (excluding a three-month stint at fast-food chain McDonald’s) came in 1996, when he was put in charge of the carvery at the Myer Marketplace Restaurant. He was 17. “I had no idea how to cook,” he recalls. “I was just thrown in and started off cooking a roast. Then I realised if I put something different in, I could make a better gravy. By the end of the summer I had all the grannies lining up for my roasts!”

Meanwhile, Hills pursued his dream of becoming a professional snowboarder. For four Australian summers in a row he headed to the United States to compete, paying his way by cooking in ski-resort kitchens. A snowboarding accident that left him out of action for several months resulted in him running one of the area’s kitchens.

In Cape Cod on the US east coast, he “bluffed his way in” as sous chef at the Belfry Inn, a fine diner. He eventually came home to Australia at age 23 and started working at Blush Foodroom. Then there was the European, also in Melbourne, then Middle Brighton Baths and, after another overseas trip (this time with Georgia), he became head chef at the Courthouse Hotel in North Melbourne.

“Pretty much when we started our travels we decided we wanted to open a small, 20-seater degustation restaurant in the country,” says Hills of his six months in Europe with Georgia. “That was sort of my dream.”

After leaving the Courthouse, the couple found themselves on the Mornington Peninsula one “horrible” rainy day in winter. They loved it. Serendipitously, a winery they had liked there, Paringa Estate, advertised for a chef. Hills applied and, after assurances from the owner that he could make the restaurant “his own thing”, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work, winning six chef’s hats in a row.

His stint at Paringa taught Hills a lot about what it takes to run a serious restaurant while keeping an eye on costs. Success also gave him the confidence to branch out and do his own thing with Navi.

While Hills is now in complete control at Navi, there are still everyday challenges (filling cancelled bookings at short notice is a current bugbear) but the thrill of cooking for the public without sacrificing his family life keeps him motivated. “I was good at the roast and I feel like I’m good at cooking professionally,” Hills says. “I never stop thinking about food. It’s just me.”

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