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Sunday, February 28, 2010

A look back at Launceston's Fee & Me

While I was cleaning up my computer yesterday I came across some articles I wrote a couple of years ago, including this one about Launceston culinary institution Fee & Me.  Fee & Me shut its doors for the last time in late 2009, after 20 years and countless awards. I contemplated editing this article as a retrospective, but I thought it best to run the article just as it was written originally - it's how I remember Fee and Peter. 

An old recipe for new success

It has been almost 20 years since Fiona Hoskins and Peter Crowe began their Launceston restaurant Fee & Me, a business venture that formed from a love of fine food and exceptional produce.

Over the last 20 years Fee & Me has accumulated an awards list long enough to make any restaurateur jealous. Since opening, the restaurant has been nominated for, and received many awards for the quality of its food, service, and wine list including: Best Australian Restaurant of the Year in the 2000 American Express Awards and Best Tasmanian Restaurant in the 2001, 2002 and 2003 American Express Awards. More recently, Fee & Me has received a place in Fodor's Top 100 Eating Places in the World every year since 2003.

But executive chef Hoskins and maitre d Crowe say there is no secret to their success, they just do it for the love of it – their success was just an unexpected, though inevitable, bonus.

It was a series of happy accidents that led to the pair becoming the owners and operators of the most successful restaurant in Tasmania in the '90s. Fee & Me is a restaurant that is renown worldwide and revered by locals, and is still the pride and joy of the two long-term Launceston residents.

The couple both worked in hospitality when younger to support their university studies, an industry they would keep coming back to over the years. The idea of owning their own restaurant was always on their minds, and the pair would often to go to restaurant auctions, just to keep abreast of who owned what, and what was a success or a failure.

Hoskins, a former primary school teacher, and Crowe, a former accountant, bicker playfully in disagreement, over if they came to own Fee & Me by accident. The first version of Fee & Me, on the corner of Kingsway and York streets, was "going for a song," says Crowe. They pair won the auction under the reserve price, and suddenly became responsible for their own restaurant, which for Crowe had been a lifelong dream.

Crowe insists that they never intended to run a "fine dining" restaurant, accidentally earning the label by putting tablecloths on the tables to hide their battered surfaces. "In 1989, tablecloths set you apart from causal dining," says Crowe. They still use the same tables bought with the premises at auction, along with many of the other fittings.

In the beginning, Hoskins only intended to fill in here and there while she worked out what she wanted to do in the long term. She was a jack-of-all-trades, jumping in where and when needed, from dishwashing and waiting tables, to pushing around the vacuum if the cleaner was off sick.

It wasn't long before Hoskins – who has no formal chefs training – was playing around in the kitchen, in the early days giving the professional chefs her personal recipes to adapt for the restaurant menu. A little trial and error later, Hoskins was creating many of the dishes on the menu, and had begun working her way towards a chef's position by watching and learning. "I have always loved cooking, always," says Hoskins.

Hoskins eventually began what she describes as an informal apprenticeship – under then head chef Mark Lunnon. "Once I had him (Lunnon) talking about food, you couldn't shut him up, so he told me everything, and taught me everything he knew."

One evening, with 94 people booked into the restaurant, most of the kitchen staff came down sick with a mystery virus. Hoskins had no choice but to jump in and cook for almost 100 people, and has never looked back. "We haven't been able to get her out of the kitchen since," jokes Crowe.

Much of the fame and attention for Fee & Me has stemmed from their unique degustation style menu, a system still in place today. The menu is divided into five brackets of dishes, all entrĂ©e size. The menu selection begins with lighter items – like pan fried trevalla with beetroot hummus, cumin and yoghurt salad and a pomegranate dressing – and moves to richer, more filling items – like the spring lamb loin with pumpkin puree and crisp potato garnish.

The menu is designed so the customer can put together their own dining experience without the restrictions of a traditional degustation, where the chef will choose set dishes for the meal. Hoskins and Crowe say they created their menu as a reflection of the way they like to dine. "We thought 'wait on a minute, we can't be the only people in the world who want to eat like this', that it must be possible to have small courses but choose what you want to have," says Hoskins.

Crowe is responsible for the award winning wine list, where wines by the glass are helpfully divided into sections to match the menu. He says that they intend the dining experience to be unique every time, by letting the customers design their own experience. 

Crowe and Hoskins consistently seek the freshest high quality ingredients. "If we get a great product, the cooking is easy, just don't ruin it," Crowe says. Seasonal and local produce is used in the kitchen when available, and they prefer organic or natural products when feasible.

Hoskins also recently signed the GM free chef's charter for Tasmania, opposing the use of genetically modified products in her kitchen. The charter, a Greenpeace initiative, calls for the thorough labeling of all food products containing genetically modified ingredients, and opposes the introduction of genetically modified canola in New South Wales and Victoria.

Life for Hoskins is not just restricted to life in the kitchen. With the restaurant running consistently, she is now able to step back and pursue other interests, like saving the Tasmanian Devil.

Hoskins has been working as a volunteer with the Devil Island Project, which she says is her way of giving something back to the community that has given endlessly to her.

"Tassie has been good to me. I love it here. I love Tasmania, I love the seasons, I just think it’s a beautiful place," she says. Although Crowe insists Hoskins doesn't have much love for the cold Tasmanian winters.

Last year Hoskins ran the London marathon, a yearly fundraising event for charities.
Hoskins has raised $47,500 to help save the Tasmanian Devil, and has raised almost $200,000 from other fundraising activities with the Devil Island Project.

While the couple now have time to pursue other interests, both insist that there is no end in sight for Fee & Me. "It doesn't really feel like work, because this is what we love," says Crowe.

The restaurant is still going strong today, with a full house more often than not. It is a fine example of dedication and longevity in an industry that is fickle at best, where you are only as good as your last review.

Fiona Hoskins and Peter Crowe don't care for the critics these days, most of which were instrumental to their initial success. They know that most would now consider them "old news", but they don't mind. "At the moment we don't always please the critics, but we please the customers," says Hoskins.

1 comment:

Eating Melbourne said...

I had one of my very first, and still most memorable, "fine dining" experiences at Fee & Me about 8-9 years ago. I'd love to go back.