His father turned out basic pub fare – steaks, schnitzels, roasts – but also Greek rissoles, casseroles, spanakopita. “Our pubs were near the wharves in Geelong,” says Lucas. “A builder’s labourer would turn up and say, ‘What’s this wog shit, Kon?’ He goes, ‘Just eat it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay for it.’ Later they’d say, ‘Wow, this wog shit’s all right.’ ”
When he was 12, Lucas and his mother spent a year on the Greek island of Lemnos; she wanted him to understand the homeland she had left in 1956. His dad stayed behind to run the pub. “I saw a life I’d never seen,” Lucas says. “Everything was built around food.” He was particularly struck by communal wood ovens that were as much local newsrooms as food hubs, where people swapped gossip while waiting for their bread to bake. “I was amazed by it, especially the smell,” he says. “I’d grown up with Tip-Top.”
He developed a vision of what food was meant to be – “amazing, delicious, not complicated” – but decades would pass before he had a chance to create his own wood-oven heaven. When he was 15, his father died of a heart attack. “We struggled,” he says. “The pub was sold, we nearly lost the house and my mother brought me up on a widow’s pension.”
His father had seen university as a path to a better life for his son, so Lucas studied for a pharmacy degree at Monash University: “At the time from a sense of obligation but in retrospect, I’m glad I did it.” As much as his mother hoped he’d become a doctor (“She’d tell people at church I was like a doctor”), dispensing drugs was never his passion. Every university holiday, he worked in kitchens. “I was never a very good chef but I can cook,” he says.
Lucas gave the first indication of his gift for spotting a trend in 1981. When IBM brought a roadshow to Monash University, the student jumped at the chance of a job marketing computers after finishing his degree. He stayed with the company until 1992, working in Sydney, Silicon Valley, New York, London and Tokyo, taking full advantage of a generous expense account that allowed him to eat at great restaurants, and party in famous clubs such as London’s Annabel’s and New York’s Studio 54.
He soaked it up but always felt there was something not quite right about the attitude of highly rated places such as Le Cirque, which would become notorious for treating The New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl with disdain when she arrived anonymously and dressed plainly. “Those places were a big buzz and definitely fascinating but gee, they were snobby, rude, the epitome of non-hospitality,” he says. “It never sat comfortably with me. There was always that provincial Greek boy that thought, ‘Just stop with the bullshit.’ ”
Those were heady days for the burgeoning computer industry. Lucas recalls a young Bill Gates presenting a conference paper on MS-DOS, the operating system that would make him the world’s richest man. “I asked the guy next to me what it was all about. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’re not going to sell that many of them.’ ” He visited the research centre where Xerox PARC had developed a prototype mouse – “a big box that you could barely shove around”. It took Apple’s Steve Jobs to turn it into a ubiquitous palm-sized object.
Unlikely as it might seem, hearing that story was a foundation moment for Chris Lucas, restaurateur. “Jobs built a bridge between the technology and the average person,” he says. “He gave it a form humans could relate to. It taught me about being able to see things as they’re not – or not yet. It’s not necessarily about the idea. The real skill is to take the idea and re-create it in such a way that it gets greater acceptance.”
Lucas also emerged from IBM with the courage to think big. “I was exposed to the international world of marketing and big business at an age when many people are still finding their way,” he says. “It gave me a global perspective and I guess it taught me that if you’re going to do something, do something significant. It gave me the confidence to be a little more fearless and to go up the food chain.”
In 1992, Lucas returned to Australia, ready to put his marketing skills to different ends. He stuck with IT for a while but had his sights set on hospitality. In 1995, he launched One Fitzroy Street, a cafe and modern Australian restaurant with bay views. “I was on the floor, learning the basics,” he says. “I rolled up my sleeves and got started.” There’s a view that Lucas made a motza in IT and used his tech millions to indulge in an expensive hobby. “I didn’t,” he says. “There’s no Mark Zuckerberg story. Sadly.”
By 2003, the year Lucas opened Botanical, he’d been in the restaurant business for almost a decade. But he still had to borrow from the bank, mortgage the family home (with then wife Tracey and their three children) and tap family connections for the $7 million it took to purchase and renovate the hotel. In 2007 he sold the leasehold for a reported $15 million, while holding on to the building. (He’s still landlord but has no involvement in the business.)
The move provided a handy foundation for future businesses. “It gave me the capability to do other things but there’s no simple answer to where the money comes from,” Lucas says.
“It’s taken 30 years of hard work. “A lot of people are happy to throw around ‘He’s lucky’ but there’s no real lucky. You make your own luck.”
For all his success, some mutter that Lucas is more marketing gun than restaurateur, a non-chef with more interest in trends than great food, and more business acumen than is perhaps considered seemly in the art of hospitality. Roslyn Grundy, co-editor of the Good Food Guide, reckons that’s a little unfair. “I think he’s a restaurant enthusiast,” she says. “He’s very clever at tapping into trends and giving people what they want.”
Does it matter that he doesn’t run things from the kitchen? “Many successful places are chef-driven but it doesn’t mean the soul is ripped out of a restaurant just because it’s not run by a chef,” she says. Indeed, many of Australia’s top restaurants are part of large multi-venue conglomerates: think Justin Hemmes’s Merivale (the Ivy, Fred’s), the Fink Group (Quay, Bennelong, The Bridge Room), even Neil Perry’s Rockpool Dining Group, which is now owned by a private equity outfit.
Lucas tells me about a trip to Pompeii a decade ago with his three then-teenage children. The ruins of restaurants caught his eye. “Even 2000 years ago, socialising in restaurants was commonplace,” he says. “They showed us wood ovens, big stone woks with log fires underneath, like induction cooking. You could see that the art of running restaurants wasn’t much different to the way it is today – give or take a point-of-sale machine. The principles are ancient.”
Lucas credits that realisation as part of the inspiration for Chin Chin, though that isn’t immediately evident when you stand there surrounded by tattooed young waiters ferrying green papaya salad to gaggles of diners yelling over the music. But that’s pure Lucas. “He’s a genius with concepts,” says John Kanis, general manager of The Lucas Group since 2009. “Chris is like an artist and a businessman and a conductor put together. It’s a rare skill set.”
The motivation to partner with Martin Benn is part of his long game. “I’ve always harboured an ambition to work with a great talent, like a Hollywood actor might say they want to work with Steven Spielberg,” says Lucas. “Martin is my Spielberg. I’ve never seen anything like his food anywhere in the world.”