At only 22, Davis already owns three restaurants across Melbourne. If this isn’t novelty enough, they all specialize in diverse cuisines and couple with different music genres. His string of investments grew from a love of music and travel.
Claremont Tonic manages, somehow, to move smoothly between very different styles of eating. There are elements of an elegant, sophisticated dining experience but also a feeling akin to enjoying street food with your hands, standing up in front of a colourful graffitied wall. The first fixture you see as you walk up to Claremont Tonic is a pink neon tiger roaring through the glass wall. This motif is edgy, interesting and affective but also a decadent piece of interior design which insinuates quality and attention to detail.
READ COUTURING’S REVIEW OF CLAREMONT TONIC HERE.
Their food is much the same. Claremont Tonic has a number of gourmet, refined mains and cocktails, to which every flavour has been added for a reason and sometimes over a lengthy period of time. However, every dish and drink has a bit of a twist, an injection of Asian flavours and a little something that represents contemporary Melbourne. Davis was relaxed and suavely dressed for our meeting. He glided in humbly greeting the staff members by name and pouring himself some water before having a chat with us. After explaining his adventures at great length, Davis rushed off to organize things. His head chef, Dylan, and I were left to have a laugh.
Dylan said that the way Davis was going, he would probably be able to retire at 35 to play golf and think fondly of the empire he had by 22.
HANNAH: I’ve heard your dishes are inspired by your travels across Asia. Do you find that people are stumped by the unfamiliar ingredients and names?
DAVIS: Five to ten years ago maybe, but Melbourne is now quite a fast moving food capital. There are lots of exotic ingredients that weren’t common but now they are. In a way, you can educate the public, but there is so much they already know. The eating and cooking methods can be a bit new to people sometimes. We have turned to Hong Kong for inspiration on how to shape the experience. It’s all about sharing and small portions, the tradition of having one entree and main and saying “this is mine!” is so impersonal, eating should be interactive and enjoyed between loved ones.
HANNAH: Any interesting stories behind a particular dish?
DAVIS: The double duck Blinis! They represent (my chef) Dylan’s multiculturalism and background. He is Welsh. Blinis are usually reserved for salmon but we did it with Peking duck, it turned out to be a perfect dish for the blending of cultures.
DYLAN: European and Asian food combine really well. Our double duck dish is taken from traditional Peking duck but there’s a bit of a twist with the Blini, served as a spring onion pancake type thing. We dip the Peking duck in rice malt and hang it up for four days. Afterwards we slow roast it for 15 minutes to get a glazed crispy skin. Then we slice it up with a little bit of hoisin, duck liver pate, cucumber, spring onion, aioli and caviar.
HANNAH: Is food the best way for people to engage with a culture?
DAVIS: As a vessel of culture, food is great. I really wanted to make a restaurant that still had a distinct Melbourne feel though. The food might be representational of elsewhere but at the end of the day you’re in Melbourne.
DYLAN: Yeah, absolutely! Especially with the whole sharing concept. Food really brings family values back because everyone feels positive and happy that they’re around, talking about all the different ingredients, tastes and flavours they’re experiencing together.
HANNAH: Who was the Claremont interior and logo designer?
DAVIS: We had a company do the shell of the place but I actually have my own design house called ‘Maison Davis’ who do all the little details and branding. I wanted somewhere that had that cliché Melbourne fashion culture but with an eclectic nature to it. The neon signs, gold details and menus were all done by my design team.
HANNAH: Has owning restaurants always been your goal?
DAVIS: No, my original life scheme was very different. I was working full time at Mount Buller until I destroyed my shoulder in 2008. Around 2009 one of my friends introduced me to the owner of The Millswyn and they let me take over the joint! That led to this space. After that I worked on Touché Hombre, which ended up opening sooner than Claremont. Food has always been part of who I am though. It has always been a big part of my family, everything really is based on food and the social interaction that comes with it.
HANNAH: You’re very young to have a string of restaurants to your name, have you found your youth to be an advantage?
DAVIS: The advantages are that I see things from a different perspective. I travel and get to see culture from a different age group. The bad thing is when you’re young and doing stuff you have a lot of haters. You just have to fight to get respect. I’m on the board for the world top 50 restaurants now with some big people, doing the same stuff they’re doing but half their age. That’s helped win some respect.
HANNAH: What’s the difference in feel and clientele between here, The Millswyn and Touché Hombre?
DAVIS: Touché is all about street artists and that crowd. In LA tacos are street food and they represent poets, artists, people, everyone who breathes street art. Touché has embraced that. South Yarra is more about fashion, MSFW just happened and a lot of the stylists and artists came here over the week which was cool. The Millswyn is an older clientele. The music there is different across all three. Touché is hip hop, here is rock and The Millswyn is more…Frenchy and eclectic. It has an old world, Sinatra goes to Paris feel.
HANNAH: A mix of cultural niches is a strong part of Melbourne’s nightlife, what’s your favourite subculture?
DAVIS: I like everything; everything fascinates me. Melbourne is so vibrant, rich and progressive. You can go to Richmond and have traditional pho but then we have the contemporary version of each culture too; the old and then the Melbourne take on that culture. Places like Chin Chin and Golden Fields are taking different cultures and giving a sense of Melbourne identity to them. In Melbourne everything feels authentic though; with all my places it must feel real. Each venue targets a different music and food culture. I like to embrace and love all culture.
HANNAH: Your tagline is Asian food, island drinks & rock ‘n roll. What’s your favourite food, drink & music combination?
DAVIS: This will sound strange but I think natural background sounds. The ultimate seafood experience would be like fish I’ve just caught, grilled over coconut husks on a cliff with the sound of the ocean. When I think of food I think nature.
HANNAH: Any pearls of wisdom for other young entrepreneurs?
DAVIS: Do what you love. You can only focus all your energy when you do something you absolutely love. Learn and read. Before you do something, research as much as possible. Once you’ve learnt it, just breathe it and live it completely. I always try to work with people better than me, people who will teach me. You should surround yourself with intelligent people and keep trying to be better.