Interview: Getting to know Mr. Henry Austin – Max Mason introduces us to Adelaide’s new CBD hot spot

Welcoming me to The Henry Austin on a Monday morning, British restaurateur and one of the establishment’s head honchos Max Mason is positively chipper as we sit down in the empty dining room.

Within five minutes of being seated, I’ve received more compliments than I’d normally get before lunchtime on a dreary Monday, met Mason’s gorgeous dog Phở Shizzle and have witnessed a successful lunch booking made for for later that day. In any other case, I’d wonder if all these factors were put into play on purpose as a way of impressing a journalist, but as Mason opens up about the restaurant’s journey and continues to show me around the beautiful heritage-listed space, I quickly got the impression that this is just the vibe The Henry Austin has naturally conjured for itself.

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Opening in June of this year, the Chesser Street restaurant and bar has already generated much hype surrounding its launch with Adelaide’s social set and eager foodies wanting a new haunt to immerse themselves in. Originally the iconic Chesser Cellar, the site had been left empty for five years when it shut its doors back in 2012. As Mason explains, he was hesitant about re-entering the restaurant world when approached to look at beloved space.

“I was making wine in McLaren Vale,” Mason says. “I was indeed reluctant to re-enter the restaurant world but eventually, I did look at it and just fell in love with the premises. I thought, ‘There’s no way on earth I can refuse it; it’s stunning.’”

“The place became empty five years ago when the last restaurant closed and nobody’s wanted to touch it.” He adds. “Renew Adelaide, this brilliant local scheme, is Government-backed and it tries to get landlords to allow idiot businessmen like me to come in, look at the premises and work out if we can do anything with it. I was invited to come look at it; I came and just was blown away, it was like a hospitality museum, it’s amazing.”

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Together with Tess Footner, Mason took on the ambitious project of reinvigorating the old Chesser Cellar and bringing a new space to life that would establish its own notoriety and reputation of its own. The concept behind The Henry Austin is that you can come in and enjoy some stellar modern Australian cuisine, dished up in a style akin to yum cha or tapas.

Small dishes packed with flavour and character, not to mention the 8000-bottle wine cellar at the restaurant’s disposable, makes for not only an accessible dining experience, but one people have been quick to spread the word about. Situated just minutes from Rundle Mall and in the heart of the business district, The Henry Austin sits in a cosy niche that people will seek out.

“We’ve tried to design a place that rewards people for that,” Mason says. “There is something a bit special at the end of the quest. It’s really cool. For me, that transect between Adelaide of that Oval/Entertainment quarter, up through Leigh St and Peel St to us hopefully, up to Ebenezer Place and then up to the Botanic Corner with Botanic Bar, Golden Boy and Africola…you’ve got a beautiful line all down the city, which is really interesting. From Rundle Street all the way down, with Orana and heaven knows what and Blackwood. It’s become a really interesting gastronomic centre.”

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“It’s way better, way warmer and way more accommodating than I thought it would be,” he says of how the The Henry Austin’s matched his original vision for the site.  “I’ve been amazing at how people love it. People come in for a snack for 20 minutes and they’re still there, six hours later. Most restaurateurs who are driven by spreadsheets and balance sheets probably don’t like that, because they’ve forgotten that, within that word ‘hospitality’, there’s the word hospitable, which is all about us trying to host people.”

“If we lose $20 because someone stays there three hours longer than they’re meant to, it doesn’t matter. You’re being hospitable and that’s the key to it. If you’re hospitable, then actually, the figures should follow and you should make money. Trying to kick people off their seat because they’ve been there 20 minutes too long when you’ve sold it to someone else, it’s greediness. It shouldn’t have to be. I’ve been delighted that it’s been welcomed so warmly.”

As he shows me through the restaurant, there’s a sense of unique character and history that oozes from each wall and room; from the handmade bowls on the tables (made by University of Adelaide students and to be auctioned off to charity), to the ‘Feed Me Bar’ established to ensure food doesn’t go to waste, The Henry Austin has gone to lengths in making sure every detail is attended to carefully.

“Upstairs, we’ve got a function room that seats 40 people,” Mason says. “On this floor, it’s obviously a dining room, and it seats 100 people. Then in the basement, you’ve got a bottle shop with 8000 bottles and a cocktail bar. Out the back, we’ve got an area that can be used as an alfresco dining area next year.”

An impressive collection | Photo: Instagram
An impressive collection | Photo: Instagram

“As I walked out of the building for the very first time,” he remembers. “I stood across the road and looked back it and was daunted by the scale of it. I thought, ‘This is really huge, how am I going to manage this?’. I looked right to the top of the building where it says ‘The Henry Austin’ and I had this overwhelming feeling that, as The Henry Austin, it was exactly the right name for me to do it by.”

“It’s always been called The Chesser Cellar and I know that Adelaide is very particular about people messing with the history of the things they love! To be able to look above where it said The Chesser Cellar and realise that I was able to delve into something with even more history at The Henry Austin…the excitement then began.”

There are parts of The Henry Austin that still have an air of exclusivity to them, while the rest of the establishment has a very welcoming all-inclusive vibe. The cellar itself stocks high end world known names while also supporting the incredible local winemaking talent South Australia has at its disposable, while the HA Bar adjacent has a skilled team of bartenders on hand to cater to your cocktail needs. With each room both upstairs and beneath the restaurant able to be booked for private functions, the space has been used incredibly well.

“I can’t imagine being anywhere else for a good long while.” Mason enthuses. “A few months before I took the keys for this, I ended up making up a couple of wines with Brash Higgins down in McLaren Vale so within the next month, I’ll be bringing up my own Grenache and my own Sangiovese to pour in my own restaurant, in my dream city. It’s the most ridiculous thing.”

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If it wasn’t for another well-known Adelaide food name, Mason’s current dream project wouldn’t even be in motion. First setting foot on South Australian soil with a job at The Adelaide Festival’s pop up venue Lola’s Pergola, Mason was quick to fall for the city and its charms.

“I was invited by Duncan Welgemoed [of Africola fame] – who’s an absolutely brilliant chef, he’s great.” He says. “Duncan and I worked together 10 years ago; I was a maître d’ of this brilliant restaurant in Buckshire in England and the whole concept was that we would kill whatever would go on the menu the following week. As a maître d’, to be able to say that even 10 years ago, ‘Yes, I know about the provenance of this place – we shot it, we fished it,’ was so exciting.”

“Duncan got in touch with me and asked me to come and play with him at Lola’s Pergola, so I came here for that and when asked me how I’d get paid for it, I said, ‘You can’t pay me for it, I’m here on a tourist visa. If you would pay for my flights, I would love to meet all the food and wine producers on the other end,’ so I spent three months of pure bliss just travelling around the wineries! I fell in love with produce, the proximity to the sea and the proximity to the hills, the vines and the beaches – I didn’t think there was anywhere like it on earth.”

'Duncan's Dungeon' at Lola's Pergola | Photo: The Hungry Australian
‘Duncan’s Dungeon’ at Lola’s Pergola | Photo: The Hungry Australian

As a British naval officer, Mason admits that his time in the forces also gave him the opportunity to explore an interest in food on a global level, an interest that he would eventually further explore once he’d finished his decade-long tenure in the navy.

“I’ve spent 10 years in the navy travelling everywhere,” he adds. “Just eating in the greatest restaurants I could find worldwide. I’ve not seen anywhere that has a more intelligent dining group of people than right here. It’s a beautiful place to be; you’ve always got to be on your best performance and that’s rewarding as a restaurateur, I think.”

With attention turning more and more in on South Australia in terms of its identities making moves in culinary and creative circles, not to mention its long respected and esteemed produce and wineries, Mason is a strong believer that Adelaide is riding a really positive wave at present.

“The starkest thing that I’ve noticed about here,” he says of The Henry Austin’s creation. “Is that people are as interested in finding out about food and the drink as they are in my trajectory – why a British restaurateur, who’s had a pretty good restaurant for 10 years, should choose this place. For me, this city has the very best food, drink and the most intelligent dining demographic outside of a capital city of anywhere I’ve been in the world.”

“I always love to trust in trajectory,” Mason adds. “To trust in the path that you’re pushed along. It’s a fun city and it’s on its way somewhere; even watching how it’s developed over the last 18 months, I think this city’s always had a bit of a personality complex inflicted upon it by its bigger neighbours, but now she’s starting to realise that she’s really beautiful and she’s got some amazing strengths. I think that as she continues to develop, the city becomes a more and more exciting place to live.”

The Henry Austin is open Monday through Saturday for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as coffee and drinks. For more information, visit www.thehenryaustin.com.au.

Photos: Kate Pardey Photography