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Cooking up a storm

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Luke Mangan has built his business and brand to become one of the Australia’s finest culinary entrepreneurs. His restaurants span three continents, he does consultancy work and has cook books, product lines and TV gigs. He speaks with Peter Switzer to divulge the ingredients for success. 

Lucky beginnings

Mangan puts his initial introduction to the restaurant business down to ‘luck’. Asked to leave school at the age of 15, Mangan’s foray into the cooking world began after his brother got him a job at Melbourne’s Two Faces restaurant. Mangan did an apprenticeship at the restaurant and his passion for cooking grew from there.

“It was the best thing that ever happened, because I needed that tough disciplined training,” says Mangan.

After five years at the restaurant, Mangan went to London and worked with some top chefs before returning to Melbourne where he worked at restaurants as second chef. The problem was the businesses kept going broke.

“I was a bit worried. I thought my cooking ability wasn’t as good as I thought,” he says.

So he moved to Sydney where he met John Hemmes. Hemmes offered Mangan a job to open CBD restaurant in CBD hotel at the age of 24.

“That was a great four-and-a-half years of learning, especially learning with John’s mind. He’s an incredible businessman,” says Mangan.

The restaurant developed a good reputation, and Mangan moved on to open his own restaurant, Salt, in 1999. The media played a big role in its popularity with the restaurant receiving great reviews. Salt opened just before the Olympics, which proved to be great timing because of the promotion Australian tourism, including restaurants, was enjoying at the time. Mangan then became an international entrepreneur chef.

“A lot of our things have been right place, right time,” he says. “For example, Richard Branson coming into our Salt restaurant in Darlinghurst and having a great experience and then we’re off doing food for Virgin America first class and other things coming up.”

Worldwide expansion

Mangan has also expanded overseas with South in San Franciso, and Saltin Tokyo.

Mangan says the businesses did feel the effect of the Global Financial Crisis but they have been making a strong comeback.

“We felt it first in San Francisco and it hit us pretty hard,” he says adding that the effect rolled on to Tokyo, and then came to Sydney. Interestingly, Mangan says they were prepared for the Tokyo and Sydney downturn because they had learnt much from San Francisco.

Other areas of Mangan’s business have improved as a result of the GFC. He has extended his brand through consulting with major companies, doing corporate gigs, plus has seen his line of food products increase in sales.

“Everyone’s saying, ‘OK, we don’t go to restaurants, we’re going to cook at home’,” he says. “Well, that’s where we’ve picked up an advantage because we’re selling so many more food products through the retail outlets – people buying the olive oil and the spices, so that’s a good thing.”

But the success of the restaurants comes down to those who are in it. Mangan says having great staff on board is crucial.

“You’ve got to have great staff. And the chef, to me, and the restaurant manager are the key to the business because you sort of let them run it, and you’re the backbone for them.”

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