Restaurateur Robert Molines has been recognised for his lifetime contribution to the industry, and for his successful Bistro Molines. He tells his story to Shane Conroy.
Restaurateurs Robert and Sally Molines are Hunter Valley royalty. From running Happy Valley Restaurant in the 1970s to the award-winning Bistro Molines in 2021, they have influenced the evolution of Hunter Valley food culture across six decades. In 2006, French-born Algerian Robert was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to the tourism and hospitality industry in the Hunter Valley, and recently won a Lifetime Achiever award and Restaurateur of the Year at the Restaurant & Catering Hostplus 2020 NSW/ACT Awards for Excellence. He shares his incredible journey.
What are your first food memories from childhood?
When the French community had to leave Algeria in 1962, we moved to the south of France. I remember my uncle’s orchard there. Every Easter we would go there and the whole family would make a big paella. My stepfather was an Italian chef, and I remember visiting the family farm in Italy and eating in the farmhouse. We would cook all kinds of things, and I loved it. In Australia you play rugby league, but for me the culture was crafted around food.
Why did you choose to come to Australia?
My mother was an attaché to the French consulate in Melbourne. I roamed around Australia and spent some time in Adelaide. I never planned to stay, but after a while my mother and sister bought a house in Double Bay in Sydney. I worked in many restaurants in Sydney. A friend of mine had a restaurant in Potts Point, and he said to me ‘do you want to buy my restaurant?’. So there I was at 21 running my restaurant, Le Sagittaire. This was 1972 and Potts Point was still very hippy, and a lot of fun.
How did you meet your wife Sally?
We were introduced through a friend of hers, and as a Frenchman I didn’t look twice! Sally has been part of every restaurant since— I am the cook, but she is the boss. When I went on the podium to accept the Lifetime Achiever award, I said there has been a mistake and there should be a plural on this award.
What brought you to the Hunter Valley?
Sally had family here. We went to visit, and it was a bit of a discovery for me. A few months later, there was a restaurant opening there called Happy Valley. I thought I’d spend a week there to see if I liked it. We moved in 1973 and we have lived here ever since.
What was the Hunter Valley food culture like in those days?
We were the only restaurant here in those days. People in Sydney told me I was crazy, but the big city didn’t really do much for me. New vineyards were starting to pop up, but we were still a beer-drinking country. It was difficult to get good produce, so once a week I used to drive to Sydney and bring back all the seafood and vegetables for the restaurant in the back of my ute.
What’s your fondest memory from your early days running the Happy Valley Restaurant?
I introduced a lot of things that people had never tried — even things like garlic brains. This formed a sort of trust with my diners. It grew in popularity and we started doing theme nights. The Arabic nights were quite spectacular. I took all the tables away and had everyone sitting on floor cushions. We had a lot of fun.
You then had great success with The Cellar, Robert’s and now Bistro Molines. What are the ingredients of a successful restaurant?
You want to be a mind reader. When people come to my restaurant and read my menu, I’m not trying to show how clever I am. It’s about the guest and how to make them feel relaxed and happy. To do that, I play with the seasons and the weather. You can get a cold day in summer, right? So what are you going to serve on that day that will most please your guests?
What do you still love most about the restaurant business?
We are so grateful to be in a position where we can deliver happiness to every guest. For me, it has never been about becoming a TV chef and beating my chest. I love cooking, so it is never a chore. People say to me, ‘You are 70 this year so when are you going to retire?’ I smile and say, ‘How could I retire?’ I’ll still be cooking if I’m in a wheelchair.
So with retirement ruled out, what’s next?
I’m contemplating writing a cooking book. It would tell my story about coming to Australia and be filled with recipes that show how the food has changed over the decades. But to write the book I’d have to be away from the kitchen for a long time, and that scares me a lot.