Restauranteur Simon Denton
Restauranteur Simon Denton

Cool, calm and collected, Simon Denton knows how to seamlessly manage three high-end restaurants with a staff of 40. There’s only one issue that makes this restaurateur’s blood curdle—when his izakaya-inspired cuisine is referred to as ‘Japanese tapas’. “That really upsets me,” says Denton, co-owner/managing director of Izakaya Den in inner-city Melbourne. “The Japanese have been doing it just as long as the Spanish, you know.”

Like Spanish tapas, the hot-ticket izakaya offers a selection of small dishes for customers to share but while tapas has a very hearty feel, izakaya embraces attention to detail.

After working in the industry for nearly 30 years, Denton’s cuisine philosophy and ability to forecast trends has partly shaped the way Melbourne eats and drinks. Following his first inner-city venture, the highly acclaimed Verge, he extended his reach by launching Izakaya Den with partners Miyuki Nakahara and Takashi Omi in 2009. The Japanese word ‘izakaya’—meaning a local tavern that offers snacks and drinks—was hardly heard of, even in oh-so-hip Melbourne, when Denton first brought it into prominence. “There’s a lot of formality in Japanese culture but the izakaya is essentially a place where they let their hair down,” he explains.

Izakaya Den thrived during its first two years and Denton soon recognised that customers were appreciating the shared plates and informality. This is one of the reasons why he needed to make a dramatic decision on Verge—after 11 years, his team of co-owners Karen White and executive chef Dallas Cuddy decided to call it a day.

“The market had changed a lot—restaurants weren’t as popular as they used to be, and the way people dined was different,” says Denton. “We were still really happy with the product and what we were doing but we just felt it was a good time for a change.” Denton never walked away from this expansive space on the corner of Spring Street and Flinders Lane though— “I love the site, and I love the views on to Fitzroy Gardens,” he explains. That’s partly why he was determined to quickly resurrect the space into a sophisticated new establishment. Six months after closing Verge, his Izakaya Den partners opened two new Japanese-inspired venues—the casual Nama Nama cafe on the ground floor and Hihou restaurant/bar upstairs.

“I’ve always had a strong Japanese influence through my family,” explains Denton. “We’ve always travelled there and we had quite a lot of Japanese friends growing up. I also have some Japanese heritage—my great grandmother is Japanese. Also, my parents did some work in Japan—my father designed the Australian Embassy in Tokyo. So we’ve always
had a connection to the country.”

His architect father, John Denton who co-founded the leading architecture firm Denton Corker Marshall (DCM), has a natural connection with his son’s restaurants—he’s designed all of them. Meanwhile, his mum, Susan Cohn, is a contemporary jeweller whose ‘Cohncave’ mesh bowl has become a signature piece for the Alessi brand. “My attention to detail comes from my upbringing in the design world,” explains Simon.

While DCM has designed landmark buildings such as the Melbourne Exhibition Centre, Museum of Sydney and even the Stonehenge Visitors Centre in Great Britain, its smaller ventures—the Botanical restaurant and the Adelphi Hotel in Melbourne—became watershed moments for the architect’s young son when he started working in the food industry in the
early nineties.

As a teenager after school, Simon worked as a bus boy, then waiter, at Café Neon in South Melbourne and The Red Eagle in Albert Park, both run by Harry Stefanidakis and Chris Vafeas. “At that stage it was just a job. Then when I finish school, I got into it more seriously and I got the bug, so to speak, and I haven’t looked back.”

When Stefanidakis and Vafeas opened the Botanical in South Yarra—which had just been refurbished by John Denton’s DCM firm—they hired Simon as a waiter first then he moved up the ranks to assistant restaurant manager. “I learnt things from the ground up,” he recalls. “[Stefanidakis and Vafeas] really taught me and inspired me to go forward.”

He spent four years honing his craft at the Botanical, so it was almost inevitable that when the DCM firm had completed its next project—the design-savvy Adelphi Hotel in Flinders Lane—Simon took on the role as assistant food and beverage manager.

Working in the CBD was a natural connection for this restaurateur who had grown up there from the age of 10. “We were one of the first people to move into the city—we had a warehouse apartment off Little Bourke Street,” he says. “It’s always been a big part of our lives.”

However, to expand his knowledge in the industry, Denton moved to Sydney for two years, working for Neil Perry at Rockpool and Matt Moran and Peter Sullivan at Moran. But he soon received the call that the Adelphi was being relaunched so he decided to return, working side by side with UK-born Jeremy Strode (Pomme, Bistrode).

Denton needed just a few more hospitality notches on his belt, so he spent a couple of years managing the chic Melbourne restaurant, Luxe. After this, he knew he was ready to follow his dream. “My aim had always been to have my own restaurant.”

In 2001, Denton opened Verge with chef partner Karen White who’d worked with him at Luxe, and hired his father’s firm to design the space. “It was really good to work with my father and to be able to talk things through,” says Denton who sees the design element as part of the whole package. “If you place too much importance on the design and forget about the other things then it’s obviously not going to work. There are examples of places like that—all style and no substance. It’s important to have a balance.”

In 2009, DCM was hired again for Denton’s next project, Izakaya Den—this time project manager, Japanese architect Kei Kitayama, transformed the space into a minimalist but inviting venue. Its polished concrete walls, exposed beams and marble tables work as a backdrop, while bursts of colour and light project onto the main wall and create the specials list.

“The addition of all the little details creates the experience. It gives you a basis for what you and the staff are doing. That translates in subtle ways to the customer,” says Denton.

At the restaurateur’s three venues, his forte is offering unusual fare, ranging from handmade udon noodles to Japanese whiskies that are not available anywhere else in Australia. He sums up his philosophy: “For me, the place has to be somewhere I would really want to go, and products that would get me into that place.”

While these glamour elements impress guests, it’s the organisation skills that keep the venues running smoothly. Managing 20 chefs and cooks and another 20 staff isn’t difficult but there are a few hiccups when it comes to authenticity.

“We have head chefs at each place who have been working with us pretty much since the start. They give us the loyalty and we give them the support—it’s a two-way street. However, because we mainly employ Japanese and some Koreans, we have a fair bit of staff turnover. Many are on working holiday visas.”

Denton admits that language can be a problem for some of the staff. “Some have just arrived and their English isn’t great; it can cause some ‘lost in translation’ moments. The positive is that they do understand the food and how it’s made, so a lot of things come more naturally.”

He’s found that the customers are pretty cuisine-savvy. “Their questions are just clarifying things as opposed to ‘What is this?’.”

Despite these slight difficulties, Denton’s decision to hire Japanese and Korean staff is to bring authenticity to the restaurants. “We want to give customers the full experience from the kitchen through to the person delivering food,” he says.

When he’s looking for new staff, he considers their experience and training but he’s also attracted to their passion and personality—“I’m always looking for someone with a real spark,” he says. “It’s a matter of potential staff coming into the restaurant or bar and working there for a few hours so I can get a sense of how they might fit in.”

With Denton’s brilliant track record, there is always a temptations to expand, taking on different states, but the restaurateur is tentative. “We’ve thought about that but I think it’s important not to get carried away,” he says, referring to the likes of MoVida and Longrain “who have chosen the right timing”.

“There’s no need to rush. Also, we’re not sitting in an office—we’re on the floor so for us to expand, we really have to think about those sorts of things.” In fact, he’s so hands on—with his venues being only a nine-minute walk apart—it’s hard to imagine spending half the time in another state. As Denton points out, “We live in the restaurant.”

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