For those of you who’ve been following our story for some time, you might remember last year when we produced several events at Melisah May’s art studio. We got to meet Tony Harrison, who was already doing brilliant stuff at Bistro Lowlands while he did the catering for our event. Since then we’ve heard about his success with Urban Mess, so we wanted to hear what was next.
It was a mid-week lunch time when I decided to drop in early to Lowlands to enjoy one of their brilliant craft beer selections and grab a burger (with fries of course), soaking up some atmosphere before a chat with Tony. The place was really busy – especially busy for a Thursday lunch – so many different types of people all in to enjoy some bowls, maybe a drink and some food. Once he finished service, Tony and I sat down for a chat…
If you’re at a party, how do you introduce yourself?
Tony: I try and avoid it and just say I’m just a chef.
Just a chef?
Yep. Just a chef. At a party you want to try not to get roped into the kitchen. You very often end up behind the BBQ or ‘Come check this in the oven, is it OK?’ You just want to be there and be part of it. A lot of people seem to be quite intimidated having a chef around to eat with them, but it’s the complete opposite. You’re just happy to not be at work, cause we’re at work a lot. It’s nice for someone to cook you anything, even if it is a party pie.
So you’ve got Bistro Lowlands and another place just started?
Yeah, The Ostler. It’s just starting to move now, which is really really really good.
How long have you been there for?
And it’s in the Royal Crown Hotel in Dudley?
Yep. On the soccer field side. Totally different menu – completely different concept to Lowlands; not a hamburger and schnitzel venue, it’s a dining venue. They don’t have any restaurants in Dudley – they barely have a fish and chip shop. So we figured we would do something that people would drive out of Dudley for normally. Typically, people from Dudley go into town for a night out or a restaurant meal, whereas now they can stay exactly where they are.
It goes back to my past at Nor’East: cooking good meat, cooking good seafood, upmarket pub food. It really operates on the weekend, whereas Lowlands really is a mid-week monster – a local haunt from Tuesday to Friday, more than we are on the weekends often. It’s probably why Urban Mess was successful, because local people that are Cooks Hill, Newcastle East – they can walk down the street to [Lowlands] and have good priced food, so close to everything.
Can you fill the gap in on what got you to be a chef?
I went to university and started PE teaching, decided it wasn’t for me; started working in a fruit shop, got offered a shift on the dishes somewhere, and in the first night I was helping in the entrée section. I got offered an apprenticeship, started working in Newcastle, went to the Hunter Valley for seven and half years to work for a French chef called Robert Molines at his restaurant. Then after that came back to Newcastle, opened up Nor’East, which was a really big success, and then had some success at The Albion and Bar Petite. Few good awards that we chipped away at.
It’s an interesting pathway. We know you through your connection to Melisah May, arguably one of Newcastle’s best visual artists. It almost feels like this event series, Urban Mess at Lowlands, is a creative outlet for you?
Yeah, totally, absolutely. It’s something we thought about to do at a separate venue, and then we couldn’t find one, so I said to Melisah, ‘Why don’t we just do it here?’ The whole concept isn’t about getting people to turn up to look at our amazing food. The concept is about getting people to turn up when they don’t know what they’re going to eat. We didn’t have one gluten or dietary problem, people that came knew that if they didn’t like something, they could just push it aside. It was amazing to see what people liked. It’ll return again in March . Melisah does the styling of the room – candles, paper flowers, special menus, all of that kind of stuff – so it’s a creative outlet for her as well.
[As for] where the idea came from, Melisah and I were having a conversation about our goals and I said that ultimately, I’d like to have a venue that doesn’t have a menu. Just have, like, a mess hall where you just turn up and the food is good. You don’t know what you’re gonna have, it’s different every single night. There’s no posting on Instagram, it’s just word-of-mouth. So that’s where the idea came from. We just said ‘stuff it’ and created Urban Mess at Lowlands. Then pairing it with live music was even better this year as well.
Urban Mess was six Monday night events through the winter months where guests paid $25 for a four-course dinner, with only a theme as a guide to the dishes that would be served.
So it’s back in March. I don’t think you’re sitting on your laurels – any more tips you can give us on what’s coming up?
Looking forward to some catering opportunities. Also maybe a pop-up burger thing as well. Maybe take the Lowlands thing on the road.
Why do you think we love burgers?
I think that Americana is here to stay for a while. Ribs, wings, burgers all seem to have stuck around for a while already. [There’s] a lot more to explore about it as well.
When you aren’t eating in your restaurants, where do you like to go?
Favourite café is Moor. Talulah, really love their food. For simplicity, Welsh Blacks. Really great staff and great coffee. Good cheap eats, bit of a favourite.
Someone comes to visit, where do you need to take them?
Koutetsu, Coal & Cedar, Bronx Pizza, here (Lowlands)… Hahaha.
Hot Tip: Tony also recommends Nigel Milsom, Archibald Prize winner, as a local artist everyone should check out!
If you’re anything like me, you’re already aware of the amazing burgers that Bistro Lowlands serves up every week, especially tasty for lunch at the $10 price tag. It’s also worth signing up to their newsletter and getting the inside track to Urban Mess in 2017!