A SYDNEY CLASSIC
With a long held reputation as Australia’s most acclaimed restaurateurs, Michael and Judy McMahon have remained on top. Opening Catalina Rose Bay 22 years ago, the dining experience has remained a major player in the Australian fine dining scene with a lengthy list of accolades and awards. We spoke exclusively with Michael and Judy:
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DOMINIC LONERAGAN
How did you first get into the restaurant business?
Michael: I started working for wine legend Len Evans, who owned 2 restaurants and I was approached by Anders Ousbach, a very well-known restaurant maître d’ of the day, and he asked me to come and work at Berowra Waters Inn, owned by Tony and Gay Bilson at the time, which was unquestionably the best restaurant in Australia at the time.
From there we were offered a lease on Barrenjoey House at Palm Beach in 1983, which we took up, and employed a young Neil Perry as the Head Chef. At the same time, we opened another restaurant in Paddington, where Neil was also the Head Chef, and we called it Perry’s.
In 1988 I became involved with Leon Fink at Kinsela’s, moving to take on the final construction of and General Manager position at what is now Quay and formerly Bilson’s.
During this time Judy and I were on the lookout for a business of our own, and I had always been keen on the site that is now Catalina and set about to find the owner, and make an offer before then completely rebuilding the site into Catalina.
Judy: Being from New Zealand, I met Michael at Len Evans Wines at Bulletin Place while on a working holiday. I waitressed there before joining him at Berowra Waters Inn. I was the first and only female wait staff ever to work at Berowra, and I learned so much about food and hospitality while I was there.
This experience gave us the confidence to branch out on our own at Barrenjoey House in Palm Beach in the 80’s. We then worked at Bilson’s at Circular Quay from 1988 - 1993, which gave us the experience we needed to finally build our own restaurant venue, Catalina, in Rose Bay.
Tell us about the current Catalina menu
Michael: Our menu draws from many styles, both classic and modern. It doesn’t follow fads, and the food on the plate is never a case of form over substance. The core ingredient is always allowed to shine.
The menu is produce driven. We are not a seafood restaurant as such, but there is, due to market forces and our position, a strong emphasis on sustainably sourced seafood of the very highest quality. We are particularly interested in featuring our fabulous 4-year-old single seed Sydney Rock oysters sourced from some of the best growers on the east coast of NSW which are delivered daily and opened to order.
At Catalina everything is made on the premises – our bread, our butter, our pastries and desserts. We also cure and smoke our own salmon, and all fish is delivered twice daily, whole, head on, and is filleted in-house.
Although we have a strong emphasis on seafood, we are also well known for our wonderful suckling pig dish which was inspired by a visit to Etxebarri Restaurant in Spain. We make every effort to ensure that all meat and poultry products we use are ethically raised and slaughtered, and in the case of beef and lamb (with the exception of Wagyu), pasture fed.
How would you describe Australian cuisine?
Judy: Australia is a great mixing pot of virtually every major cuisine style in the world due to our multicultural heritage. I don’t think you can really describe an “Australian” cuisine because of this. But across the board I think you can eat, given the exceptional produce available, some of the highest quality food in the world.
Where is your all-time favourite travel destination, and why?
Michael and Judy: Rome and Paris because of their great history, and it seems that both cities have a heart and soul.
As a place to stay for a holiday, we don’t think you can beat the Amalfi Coast. The produce is fantastic (particularly the lemons and tomatoes), the restaurants are great fun, you have wonderful sun and water, and you’re only boat ride away from the Isle of Capri.
Where to next?
Michael and Judy: We have a full travelling schedule next year - France in June, and Africa on safari in September.
In terms of where our restaurant is headed, hopefully more and more into the hands of our two children, James and Kate, who are both very capable, seasoned hospitality professionals. Which will give us more time to travel!