Interview: Simon Goh, Sydney’s restaurateur extraordinaire

Faith, happiness and success - Simon Goh, restaurateur & "funky Buddhist"

Faith, happiness and success - Simon Goh, restaurateur & "funky Buddhist"

“I have a completely unsubstantiated belief that 92 per cent of the population have at one time or another entertained the notion of owning and running their own café, restaurant, tea shop or pub.

And in most cases, I am prepared to bet, those dreams have been inspired by the unique sense of well-being that comes from a really good experience of eating out”.

~ Terence Conran, legendary designer & restaurateur

(A quote from his book Terence Conran On Restaurants….Conran Octopus Ltd 2000)

~~~~~~o~~~~~~

In the highly competitive restaurant and hospitality business today, restaurateurs and hospitality owners have to be a few steps ahead of the trend and the competition. In every major city around the world everyday, there are cafes and restaurants that are opening its doors for the first time and closing down permanently. Owning and running a restaurant business may appear glamorous and satisfying with the conviviality associated with food and people.

However, the restaurant game is a complicated equation of balancing risk, people issues, finances and often to the surprise of many wannabes, food may be the least important factor in this relationship.

Tony Bilson, "Godfather of Australian cuisine"

Tony Bilson, "Godfather of Australian cuisine"

Managing a myriad of issues from selecting providores to entertaining demanding customers, from nurturing staff loyalty to tackling landlord demands require an intricate balance of management expertise, hands-on experience and mostly importantly, highly developed people skills.

Restaurateurs that don’t make it would invariably have failed in managing one or more of these elements. Bilson’s Restaurant, long considered by many as one of Sydney’s most revered and enduring restaurants, is a case in point where the team served their customers for the last time a few weeks ago.

Owned by the multi-award winning chef Tony Bilson, Bilson’s kitchen was headed by hot Peruvian chef Diego Munoz, who showed finesse, creativity and passion on his menu.

Despite the accolades and awards that Bilson’s have collected over the years, it did not survive the Sydney dining scene where new restaurants such as Sepia (Sydney’s restaurant of the year 2012) headed by Martin Benn (ex-Tetsuya’s fame) are raising the standards of food innovation and service.

Those who are successful understand the importance of balancing this equation, developing a system of management and nurturing a strong corporate culture where people and customers are the central focus.

Simon Goh, at ease and in the mood for love

Simon Goh, at ease and in the mood for love ...

One of these highly successful restaurateurs is Sydney’s Simon Goh, owner of Chinta Ria … Temple of Love at Cockle Bay and more recently Sassy’s Red and the spanking new Chinta Ria … Mood For Love in Westfield Sydney on Pitt street.

A thirty-year veteran in the restaurant game, Goh founded a fleet of Chinta Ria restaurants in the mid 1980’s in Melbourne’s swanky suburbs of Prahran, Camberwell and St Kilda.

His extensive food knowledge is only a small part of his arsenal of skills.

Goh is legendary in opening and managing successful restaurants with a point of difference. Having good taste and a keen eye for detail go a long way. His passion for music in the jazz and R & B genre has influenced the creation of a unique concept for each of the restaurants in his stable.

Iconic - the smiling buddha at Chinta Ria ... Temple of Love

Iconic - the smiling buddha at Chinta Ria ... Temple of Love

Chinta Blues and Chinta Ria Soul still operate from their original locations although Goh has divested his interests in these businesses to open the flagship Chinta Ria … Temple of Love at Sydney’s Cockle Bay in 1998. His shrewd and uncanny skill in timing the opening of his businesses sees him take full advantage of the hysteria and influx of visitors during the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Today, the Temple of Love, as he fondly refers to his brainchild, has proven to be a Cockle Bay stalwart and Sydney institution, a Malaysian restaurant with a difference. Most notably, it is an establishment that continues to woo its band of loyal customers after a run of more than thirteen years. This achievement is a testimony of Goh’s management skill, entrepreneurial flair and passion in acknowledging his customers and making people feel important.

Interview with Simon Goh

I met up with Goh recently at Chinta Ria … Mood For Love where he openly shared some of his ideas, recipes for success and his view on where food trends are heading in Australia.

Malaysian loh bak at Sassy's Red, Westfield Sydney

Malaysian loh bak at Sassy's Red, Westfield Sydney

Chopinand: Firstly, thanks for your time in doing this interview.

Many of our readers, foodies and people associated with the food industry in Australia will be keen to take a closer look at what makes Simon Goh tick and to understand the formula of a self-made success that you are.

How did you get involved in the restaurant business?

SG:
I started very young. I did my initial training and “hard yards” in the hospitality industry with McDonalds.

By the age of twenty two, I was already responsible for the operations of an outlet and developing my leadership skills in managing people and understanding how business works as a whole.

Chopinand:
Despite its sometimes controversial business concept and philosophy, McDonalds is acknowledged as a great organisation in developing entrepreneurial skills and training. What is your view on this?


SG:
McDonalds taught me about systems and about managing people. Without an effective system of managing operations and people, a business cannot be successful and I have applied my knowledge and training from McDonalds into my businesses to ensure there is a focus on people and customers. None of us


Chopinand:
You are in the food business but you are talking about managing people and customers. How important is the food element in ensuring the success of a restaurant?


SG:
Many chefs who are also owners of their business fail to understand there is an intricate equation across the spectrum of food and business. To be successful requires the skill of finding the right people to do the right jobs and executing a plan to ensure customers are happy. Marketing and knowing how to sell your business is just as important as  good food without which, the best of your dishes will be unknown to the dining public. Therefore, although we are in the food business, food may not always be the most important factor.


Chopinand:
The restaurants that you have created have a hallmark of difference among diners that sets you apart from everyone else. Can you share your thoughts about what are the elements that make you different?


SG:
It is difficult to pinpoint my success formula because the restaurant game is based upon so many factors. Your skill as a restaurateur is to “align all the stars” and this include first developing a “winning concept” and then finding the “best location” to execute this concept. It involves visualising and understanding your mood and emotions and translating that into an ambience where people feel the conviviality. The restaurant business is a people business and my business is creating a special place for people to enjoy themselves. It requires patience, experience and most importantly, it requires passion.

As you can see from my restaurants, the ambience is very important to me but so are my key people. They are the lifeblood of my business and they must understand what it takes to make people happy. As far as my team is concern, some of my favourite sayings to them are “don’t work for me but work with me” and “none of us is as good as all of us”

There is an element of Simon Goh in every facet of my business and I take pride in making sure there is good coherence between the kitchen and front-of-house and the mindset of all my staff are aligned with the culture that is Chinta Ria.

Oh have I mentioned food? (He laughs … acknowledging that food is only one of so many different issues to be considered).

High moral and motivation ~ service staff at Chinta Ria ... Temple of Love

High moral and motivation ~ service staff at Chinta Ria ... Temple of Love

Chopinand: So what is the culture of Chinta Ria?

SG: The culture of Chinta Ria is founded upon teamwork, respect and a sense of belonging. I am the leader of my business and I tell my team that when the business is successful, they are responsible for its success. Equally, when there are issues and challenges, they must also be accountable. We like superstars but we prefer an all-star team.

It's nice to be important

Chopinand: I can see that many of your staff have been with you for a long time and they certainly demonstrate a high level of morale and enthusiasm for their work apart from being skilful at what they do.

There are new Asian restaurants coming into the scene and Sydney is well-known for its eccentric food trends and diners can be fickle and choosy.

How do you foresee the future of food in this city and what are the challenges that may arise for restaurateurs like yourself?

SG: Firstly, we take great pride in what we do. Apart from being notably different to many other restaurants in terms of our concept and our food, what I look for in my business is managing its continuity. This is important considering there are so many new restaurants with great concepts and innovative menus coming onto the Sydney dining scene.

Continuity means being in tuned with developments in food trends, understanding and giving diners what they want and at the same time creating a positive environment to bring out the best in my team. The dining scene appears to be returning to a taste for comfort food as opposed to high molecular gastronomy and fine dining. Customers are fussy and demand value and rightfully so. And I always tell my team that “you are only as good as the last meal served”.

Chopinand: Is that the reason for your latest venture Chinta Ria … Mood For Love to be predicated on a stylish setting that replicates a Malaysian village and serving comfort food with an edge of difference?

SG:
Absolutely. Just look at the new offerings in the market. The trend is moving towards smaller portions, tapas and food that are meant to be shared among diners so that each person can have a varied dining experience. Our dishes at the Temple and at Mood For Love reflect this Asian philosophy of dining together as a group. This way, every individual has the opportunity to enjoy all of the dishes on the table.

Nipple bar, Chinta Ria ... Mood For Love, Westfield Sydney

Nipple bar, Chinta Ria ... Mood For Love, Westfield Sydney

Chopinand: Is it true that Westfield has wooed and cajoled you into its flagship complex in Sydney because of your concept and ability to offer something unique to the Sydney dining public?


SG:
Westfield and I have been in discussions for a very long time. Over the years, I felt there were elements that were not suitable and I take pride in every business venture to make sure it has a unique point of difference that will succeed in this highly competitive market.

It was only until recently I felt that our discussions were merging towards what I like to create.

We eventually found a formula where “all the stars were aligned”, so to speak.

A friend in the same boat: With Kevin Kam, co-owner of Golden Century Seafood restaurant

Sharing the passion for food: With Kevin Kam, co-owner of Sydney's Golden Century Seafood restaurant

As you can see, Chinta Ria … Mood For Love is a unique restaurant on Level 6 and the senior executives at Westfield are very pleased with the concept that I have created.

Chopinand: What are your views about food reviewers in general and how have their reviews influenced your business?

SG: Over so many years of my career, I have met many different food reviewers and hospitality professionals. I have an extensive network of associates in the industry and indeed some of them have become my close friends. Food reviewers are an important part of the hospitality industry because they give an objective view about F & B.

The account of their experiences at restaurants based on their knowledge about F & B is an important guide for the benefit of the general dining public.

I acknowledge the importance of their role and contribution to the industry. But at the end of the day, we run a business to satisfy customers. Our customers are the ultimate judges of our business, not food reviewers.

Beef rendang, Chinta Ria ... Mood For Love, Westfield Sydney

Beef rendang, Chinta Ria ... Mood For Love, Westfield Sydney

Chopinand: What are your views about the recent phenomena of food bloggers and social media? How do these elements influence your business?

SG: Food bloggers are becoming a more influential form of media among followers in the food industry. The very nature of its interactive and flexible platform has introduced a new and exciting medium compared to traditional media and advertising.

Indeed, we have to embrace new developments and changes in our industry. We factor all these changes into the way we run our business. Like most things, there are pros and cons and food bloggers and social media are no different.

We predicate our business on satisfying our customers and see bloggers and social media merely as part of the medium on how we market and sell our business. We obviously have our own marketing strategy which takes these elements into account in achieving our goals.

Larger than life - seductive and sexy ambience at Chinta Ria ... Mood For Love

Larger than life - seductive and sexy ambience at Chinta Ria ... Mood For Love

Chopinand: Now for the question that so many people would like to know. What makes Simon Goh tick?

Man about town - Sharing happiness with good friends

Man about town - Sharing happiness with good friends

SG: (He laughs out loud and then thinks for a moment).

Being a Buddhist, I should have simple needs and I certainly do.

I believe in sharing and spreading love and passion among my friends and family.

This is part of the reason why Mood For Love is what it is, a place where I can hang out with all my friends and family apart from giving our customers a taste of Malaysian food in a very different way, through Simon Goh’s way.

I am thankful because I have been successful but my success has been based on a lot of hard work and dedication. My family has played a huge part in my motivation but I am also a passionate person by nature.

I am in the food business but I have a deep passion for music too. I have spent many years presenting soul, funk and fusion to music lovers on Melbourne radio. As a result, I  can also count many professional musicians in the music industry as really good friends.

With professional musicians Freddy Washington and Cindy from Steely Dan

With professional musicians: Bass guitarist Freddy Washington and singer Cindy Mizelle from rock band Steely Dan

I am creative and I enjoy beautiful things in life because it brings me happiness and gives me faith which is central to the teachings of Buddhism.

Chopinand:
Thank you Simon for your time and your candid remarks in this interview.


SG:
Thank you!

Hot food cool jazz! Slide McBride band at Chinta Ria ... Temple of Love

Hot food cool jazz! Slide McBride band at Chinta Ria ... Temple of Love

So dear readers, 

What is the most important element of your dining experience in a restaurant? (You may choose up to a maximum of 4 votes)

View Results

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Disclosure: Simon Goh is a personal friend of the author.

Related ChopinandMysaucepan posts:

Chinta Ria Temple of Love
Roof Terrace, Cockle Bay Wharf
201 Sussex street, Sydney, 2000
Tel: +612 92643211

Chinta Ria - The Temple of Love on Urbanspoon

Lunch: 12.00pm to 2.30pm
Dinner: 6.00pm to 11.00pm
except Sunday 6.00pm to 10.30pm

Reservations: Lunch Only

Fully licenced – BYO wine only (Corkage charge $10 oer bottle. (Limit for groups  -  12 bottles for 20 people)

Arrive at Chinta Ria Temple of Love by ferry – See ferry timetable here.

Chinta Ria … Mood for Love
Level 6, Shop 6009, Westfield Sydney

188 Pitt street, Sydney 2000
 Tel: + 61 2 8072 8888

Chinta Ria... Mood for Love on Urbanspoon

Sassy’s Red
Level 5, Shop 5002, Westfield Sydney

188, Pitt Street, Sydney 2000
(02) 8072 8072

Sassy's Red on Urbanspoon

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18 Responses to Interview: Simon Goh, Sydney’s restaurateur extraordinaire

  1. I’m glad that the Jellyriffic Month introduced me to your interesting take on dining out etc. As an ex-Sydney-sider I envy your easy access to the locales you talk about. Putting this guy on my To Visit list. Thanks for an interesting, comprehensive review!

  2. nice interview, well done! :) I don’t think I would want to open a restaurant because I know how much hard work is put into it!

  3. Spoken like a true veteran “the restaurant game is a complicated equation of balancing risk, people issues, finances and often to the surprise of many wannabes, food may be the least important factor in this relationship”

    Simon Goh is truly inspirational. He sounds like a very well balance person who has seen so much success!

  4. I enjoyed your interview and loved your review of Chinta Ria… Mood for love (had me giggling). I too have a secret desire to open a cafe. Maybe one day (sigh).

  5. Mika says:

    Thank you for this amazing interview of Simon Goh….I am coming from France and I had the opportunity to meet Simon in Sydney…he is the essence of cool, the quintessence of funkyness and a groovy buddhist….He is definitly the most generous restaurateur ever! Eating at Simons restaurant is about food but also about passion and love, and these days it is not so common….longue vie a Chinta Ria In the Mood for Love and Merci Simon Goh!

  6. Ann says:

    It’s amazing how a small portion of his time in the food industry (McDonalds) had such an impact. I agree – while the food is the “star” it’s not the only player!

    GREAT interview and it’s nice to see the face behind the restaurant you reviewed a while back. I remember what a cool place it was!

    Thanks!

  7. Eleanor Tan says:

    A well and truly radical column! Thank you Chopin for the insight.

    Simon has such vision and of course a sui generis identity to be able to steer the flourishing Chinta empire with triumph. Been to MFL recently and the milieu itself charmed me, food had dandy presentation and tasted great as expected.

    So I wonder what the next opus will be? Chinta Ria Forevermore? :)

  8. Sissi says:

    Both the interview and your introduction are very interesting. I see I live in a completely different restaurants’ world. Between France and the French-speaking Switzerland most people don’t care much about the decoration, the concept, the ambience… Only very expensive restaurants have elegant interiors (but often not changed for ages, only renovated if necessary). There are also “fashionable” restaurants of course. People who go there are usually served awful food, but can meet some stars and other people who like to be “seen”. The restaurant will close in a year or two when the customers will move to another “more fashionable” place where they can be “seen” :-)
    I don’t really hear about famous French chefs closing down restaurants because of financial problems (although maybe now, with the crisis, it will change). (Although I have seen situations similar to what you describe in other European countries, where the concept of going out to a restaurant is different).

  9. Celia says:

    He’s so right, of course. A successful restaurant is one that is run as a proper business, not one that is run as an artist’s showcase. We love the latter, and love to eat at them, but at the end of the day in our relatively small Aussie market, they’re just not viable. Great interview, thank you!

  10. Fiona Novak says:

    Thank you for a wonderful and insightful interview.
    What came through for me was that whilst Simon has had an excellent grounding in business principles, it was (and still is) the application of these principles that make him a savvy restaurateur and businessman who understands the marketplace .
    There was a particular sentence that jumped at me when Simon said ” an element of Simon Goh in every facet of my business and I take pride in making sure there is good coherence between the kitchen and front-of-house and the mindset of all my staff are aligned with the culture that is Chinta Ria.”
    I truly believe that at the core of every successful business, it is imperative that everyone within understands the mission & vision of that business/leader and are fully aligned towards the same outcomes. When that translates well, something extra emerges from the team…it is not simply the desire to succeed as a whole but the desire to fully understand your customers and grow the business with them.

  11. Carolyn Jung says:

    McDonald’s may be much maligned, but it’s true — it has taught a lot of valuable business sense to many folks who go on to open their own establishments. Good for Simon for doing the same.

  12. Awesome interview! What a great opportunity :)

  13. Great interview! My grandpa has restaurant business so it was fun to read how others run the business!

  14. Thanks for the insightful read. It is hard work to run any business, but especially the restaurant business. I love going to restaurants, but I don’t have what it takes to own one…

  15. Hotly Spiced says:

    Yes, I am one of those who has entertained the idea of running my own restaurant. But it is just such a tough industry and if someone as outstanding as Tony Bilson can’t make it, I’ll be giving my idea a big miss.

  16. JasmyneTea says:

    I’ve only been to Chinta Ria, but I always thought it was an exceptional restaurant, and I loved learning about the background and philosophy of the creator. I also found that your questions were well thought out and insightful, and I enjoyed reading this interview.

  17. Thank you for this fascinating and profound insight into this “culture” (I believe it really is!) – it’s amazing how many things are to be considered and take place in the background of restaurant business. I also love that he’s a Buddhist and expresses his philisophical believes in what he does.

  18. Pingback: Amber Road Design, Chinta Kechil | Developing Senses

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