On The Line: Colin Fassnidge
Is Colin Fassnidge Australia’s most famous chef?
In his latest show, Seven’s Kitchen Nightmares, Fassnidge delivers tough love to failing restaurants in an Australian take on the original US smash hit hosted by his ex-boss Gordon Ramsay.
Fassnidge speaks to food journalist Wendy Hargreaves about hospitality, comfort food and fighting back from failure.
Q: Has Kitchen Nightmares made you as grumpy as Gordon Ramsay?
A: Me? Grumpy? Nah. I give people a bit of tough love, and some people really need it, but I’m a bit nicer about it. I’m no Gordon Ramsay. I’ve spent 50 years trying to figure out who Colin is, so why would I need to be somebody else? And I don’t want to scream and shout and demean people in their own business.
Q: One of the restaurateurs you helped on Kitchen Nightmares has accused you of hurting her business, while another place has since closed. How do you respond?
All of the businesses were all in trouble when we came to help them on the show, and half the restaurants did well, and half didn’t. That’s the nature of the business everywhere. The restaurant that closed was that far in debt before we arrived… I’m surprised they were still open, to be honest. It was a really sad story though, and I hope they’re OK. At the end of the day, we gave advice and gave them plans to give them every chance. If we do the show again next year, there’s a good chance the same thing will happen.
Q: Have you ever failed in the hospitality business?
A: Oh yes. I’ve made all the mistakes… every single mistake you can make in restaurants. And I’ve had businesses that haven’t worked. I know how it feels to be trying to get out of that hole. All you see is the hole. It’s a business you don’t want to be in, but you have no choice. You have to pay the bills. At 4Fourteen (Fassnidge’s former hatted restaurant in Surry Hills), we had five good years of making money, but then it wasn’t working anymore. It was 2018 and Sydney had completely closed down with those awful lockout laws, and then Crown Street was getting dug up to put in tram lines. We went from 160 covers a night to 40, but rent was still $5000 a week and the landlord wasn’t willing to negotiate. I didn’t take a wage for a year. I ended up selling the business very cheap just to get out of the lease.
Q: How often are you in the kitchen at your restaurants?
A: I’m not on the pans anymore, but I’m still in there running the business. The other day I was cleaning the toilets. This is the life of a restaurateur. My back is too shot to cook. I’ve done 35 years of it.
Q: And how’s business?
A: It’s so hard to make money in hospitality. The cost of food is through the roof. Rent is through the roof. And now interest rates are going up, so diners are worried about spending. You really need passion to be in hospitality. If you don’t have that passion… if you don’t love it, it’ll kill you. But when you’ve got the passion, and you give diners a real experience, it’s a great life. Right now, business is good. Our venues are going really well, and I’m lucky to have media work as well. Sydney’s CBD is out-of-control busy. People just want to go back out, and we’re at a good price point. We’re doing food people want to eat. Nothing that needs tweezers. We do a great suckling pig sausage roll.
Q: Who do you most admire in the hospitality industry?
A: I’ve always looked up to Andrew McConnell, right back to when I was starting out in business. Everything he does I love. He makes food that people want to eat. I’ve always thought Andrew McConnell is one of Australia’s top restaurateurs.
Q: Where was your favourite restaurant meal of all time?
A: It was in San Francisco. I went to a place called A16. They had a counter covered in food and they put stuff on a plate and basically threw it at you. It was rustic Italian, and they’d say “try this, try that”. That’s where the idea of 4Fourteen come all those years ago. It was an awakening of great food cooked simple without all the flash stuff.
Q: If you could only eat one thing, what would that be?
A: Pork shoulder. Slow roasted. Mmm.
Q: What’s your earliest food memory?
A: That’d be back in Ireland, sitting around the kitchen table with my parents (Collette and Tony). I remember Sunday morning smells of roast lamb coming up the stairs.
Q: What were family meals like when you were growing up?
A: My mother has always been a great cook. We ate lots of braises and offal… mostly ‘cause it was cheap. And it was cold in Ireland, so the food was basically to keep you warm. Lots of stews, meat, and dairy. Lots of potatoes and veg. My father cooked twice a week, and there were always lamb chops on Wednesdays. Cooking was not a woman’s job. It was shared around. I also learned to try everything and to never waste food.
Q: Did you have a favourite food when you were a kid?
A: My mother used to make this cherry pie. It’d last two seconds in our house. And lemon meringue pie from scratch. They both got demolished.
Q: And what about now?
A: I eat a lot more veg now. Like a lot more. We’re also eating more veg as a family, with a little bit of meat. It’s about eating less meat but making sure it’s great quality. We’re all eating smarter now.
Q: What’s for breakfast?
A: I don’t do breakfast. I don’t eat until midday. Then I stop eating at 8pm. I used to just eat s**t. I’d come home at night and eat beans on toast, and I wasn’t feeling very good. These days, I’ll have an oat milk coffee in the morning and go to the gym.
Q: What do you reach for when you’re stressed?
Q: Is that your favourite tipple?
A: Yep. Slane Irish Whiskey. Or Paringa Estate pinot or whatever my wife (Jane Hyland) buys. She’s the wine person in the house.
Q: So what’s your secret food vice?
I’m a big beans and toast man. Heinz. I grew up on it. When I was an apprentice working in a two Michelin star restaurant, I’d be eating baked beans on toast. It’s all I could afford. I also like cold cheese. I know it’s supposed to be room temp, but I love grabbing camembert straight from the fridge.
A: Some people say my socials are a bit cringe, but the fact is that those posts lead to a lot of work. I’ve found a system that works. It’s a no bulls**t system. Some of those videos get a million hits. I made potato salad in lockdown, and it blew up. I put anchovies in, and it blew up.
Q: Any more tips for fellow restaurateurs?
Never stop learning and leave your ego out of the business. Make sure you check out other restaurants in your area. It’s important to know your market, so watch who’s going into places in your area and check their price range. You really need to know what’s going on around you if you want to run a good business. And it’s always good to support your local cafes and restaurants. We need all the support we can get.
Written by: Wendy Hargreaves