Few industries have been rocked by the pandemic more than hospitality. Chef Alanna Sapwell sees the silver lining of our forced isolation, and light emerging in 2022 as she heads for Byron Bay.
As much as some have really missed being in the full force of hospitality, after what we’ve all gone through I think people are looking for something that means more to them,” she says. “Or that will, at least, cater to their new found enjoyment of time off.”
Until Covid hit, time off had been something Alanna was short on. Gary Mehigan has described her as, “Australia’s brightest new star”, and in 2020 she was awarded Gourmet Traveller’s ‘Best New Talent’. Pre Covid she’d been appointed Head Chef of Arc Dining at Brisbane’s Howard Smith Wharves following a career that began after she heeded her Grandmother’s sage advice, headed to Noosa and knocked on the door of chef David Rayner’s restaurant, The River House and asked for a job. She stayed for four years.
Months cooking in Florence and Arnhem Land followed, ahead of a stint in Hakuba, Japan, running her own kitchen and snowboarding every day. Upon returning home, she cooked alongside Josh Niland at Saint Peter in Sydney before heading to Brisbane to take the helm at Arc Dining.
Under her leadership, in its first year it earned a Chef’s Hat, but unfortunately ended up becoming a casualty of Covid. She decamped, returned to Noosa and set up her pop-up restaurant, Esmay, based in Sunshine Beach’s beloved Wasabi Restaurant and Bar.
Jerusalem artichoke tarte tatin, nasturtium; BBQ’d turnip, green almond, lardo
“I placed all of my money into Esmay, understanding the financial hit many people had taken, I wanted to create an accessible space where everyone could enjoy the simple pleasures of hospitality at an affordable price – good food, amazing service and some tunes,” she says. “I made it a hyper seasonal menu; sometimes changing throughout the night as to what produce we could source.
To be able to deliver this experience while keeping costs low, I opted away from à la carte to a set menu with optional add-ons,” she explains. “I was very cautious as to how people would feel about the lack of choice and whether they would trust me, but it was very well received. Keeping things tight also allowed me to run a minimal team with minimal food wastage,” she says. “Most waste went to the chickens!”
Alanna relished being in charge of her own ship, but pre-Covid habits quickly began to creep back in. “I soon realised I wasn’t respecting my own time and had slipped straight back into severely overworking myself, which I don’t believe is good leadership for longevity.”
On the road
After three months, the opportunity to take Esmay on the road as a pop-up for Good Food Month emerged, and she took Esmay around the country between lockdowns. “It was tricky, for sure, but it was a huge learning experience and platform to see how different businesses worked – not just from the chefs I had the pleasure of collaborating with, but the whole team, including the passionate and hardworking farmers I worked with along the way,” she says.
“It was also a unique opportunity to have a business plan executed within different settings and with different staff. The staff and physical place are such a big part of what a restaurant is, and it was eye-opening to see what resonated with the customers when changing those variable factors of Esmay,” she says.
Lion’s mane skewer, diane sauce; Padron pepper, toasted rice, fish floss
For now Esmay has been packed up and Byron is calling – from February, Alanna will take the reins as Head Chef of Beach Byron Bay. This is a joint venture between the Fink Group and Belinda and Ben Kirkwood, and Ben says, “We are confident (Alanna) will bring her incredible passion and leadership to the team and her creativity to the menu.”
While Alanna says. “I am eager to join the thriving hospitality community in Byron and to work with the clever, thoughtful local producers,”
As Byron beckons, Alanna is keen to retain what she has learned from the past two years. “Most of us have had to stop during the pandemic, and consequently had an opportune moment to think deeply and realise what is personally important,” she says. “Now that everything is starting back, it’s so imperative we don’t lose the realisations we’ve made in this time,” she says.
“I hope, unlike most things in history, we don’t go from one extreme to the other, but instead find some sort of happy medium. Let’s try our best to stick to what we’ve uncovered, found, and learned – whatever that may be - over the past two years, and incorporate those learnings into our almost-back-to-normal busy lives. Whether it’s supporting local farmers by buying a veg box, continuing to grow some of our own food, or simply slowing down to let ourselves enjoy the moment, let it continue!”