Mark Labrooy, co-owner and chef, Three Blue Ducks
We like to think that everything we embark on can have some kind of positive impact ...
If we’re being honest, it would take a red-hot idea to tear us away from a life gallivanting around Europe. For Mark Labrooy, the opportunity to put his considerable culinary skills to the test in a new cafe concept back home was enough for him to put down the surfboard – and thank the stars he did! Alongside his two lifelong friends Chris and Sam, Mark founded Three Blue Ducks – a cafe situated in Bronte that helped establish a new standard in ethical dining. Since opening, Three Blue Ducks has gone on to open new locations in Byron Bay and Rosebery, adding a few more ducks to the flock and winning numerous awards along the way. The boys are on the cusp of opening their next Three Blue Ducks location at W Brisbane next month, which is shaping up to be a huge addition to our dining scene. We managed to catch Mark for a chat in between moments of manic preparation to talk about the Three Blue Ducks journey, the importance of being ethical in the kitchen and what we can expect from the Brisbane eatery when it opens on Friday June 1.
Before we get to the new restaurant, take me back to the beginning of Three Blue Ducks. I understand the idea came about overseas?
Well, I’m one of the original boys along with Chris (Sorrell) and Sam (Reid-Boquist). We were kicking around in Europe, spending a summer surfing in Portugal and carrying on in Morocco. We started tossing around the idea of a farm-style restaurant. It was one of those wishful-thinking chats where we imagined that we had a farm, an how it would be nice to grow our own produce that you could serve in the restaurant.
So, when did the idea transform into a concrete plan for the three of you?
Eventually we were all back in Australia at the same time. Sam had a small fruit box delivery business and that was going quite well. I was living in Zurich at the time, but had decided to take six months off and do some surfing and snowboarding and I was stopping off at home before making my way back to Europe. During that time I was helping Sam with these bloody boxes and he got in my ear a lot about doing a cafe. I had come to Australia with a few pairs of board-shorts, a wetsuit and three surfboards – I had nothing with me! But then Sam found a space in Bronte where he and Chris grew up. It was this run-down chicken shop – really badly neglected – but we met with the owners and the stars aligned. The thing is, Chris and Sam had no hospitality experience. I told them they were jokers, mate – it is hard work! We got out hands on the shop and then we set off with three months to open. We built it ourselves and laid the foundation down for what the Ducks is today. We stripped the joint out, built a kitchen and then we opened the doors and were a lot busier than we expected.
In terms of building a vibe and approach from the ground up, what was the core ethos of Three Blue Ducks in the beginning?
I think it goes right back to those times in Europe when we were kicking around ideas. We were discovering how the world works and the impact large corporations have on the way we live and interact. We decided to come up with a list of things that we would and wouldn’t do, like boycotting large companies likes Nestlé and Coca-Cola and Monsanto baked products. We wanted to run our kitchens chemical and spray free and were looking to be as environmentally protective as we can. Now, we can’t do everything and we don’t claim to do everything – it’s just not financially viable to do it. But we do the best that we can and I think we struck a chord with the locals and started discovering what it was like to feel a part of a community. It’s very nourishing to be a part of that.
You mentioned that the other guys had no hospitality experience coming into it, but that people were starting to respond quickly regardless. Was there an immediate learning curve that you all had to overcome in the beginning?
Oh my god – that is putting it politely! (laughs) Yeah mate, there were some learning curves. It wasn’t without us having a couple of goes at each other and finding out feet, but at the core of it all there was a really beautiful friendship between us original three – and there is a beautiful friendship with all of us who are partners now (which has grown to include Darren Robertson, Jeff Bennett and Andy Allen). We all know each other extensively. We’ve always had a policy of being able to speak our mind and that’s why we don’t have to deal with a lot of conflict. The demands of the job quickly made us realise where we needed to improve on a personal level or from an academic perspective. I never had to fill in an Excel sheet or work on a computer – I was a chef and then all of a sudden there was a lot of my life that was office based! But you have to roll with what the demands of the job are and what’s going to be beneficial for the business. The good thing was that everyone picked up that same mentality and got on with the job. The guys that didn’t have a lot of experience very quickly got that experience. Our community was also very forgiving with our mistakes in the early days and we built this rapport with them that was really accommodating.
How did Three Blue Ducks grow from the original Bronte location?
We did some pop-up restaurants up in the snow at Falls Creek, which went well, and at some point after that I got an email from a mate regarding a connection to a property up in Byron Bay. I flicked it on to the boys to see what they thought, then we looked at the space and all of a sudden we were embarking on what would become The Farm. I think that was when the business started to get some real legs and momentum and we decided to professionalise and grow from a small business to a medium business, if you will – just as far as turnover, staff and the intricacies of being involved in a business that size. That was another big learning curve, but we were winning a lot of accolades along the way. And then we had an opportunity for a Rosebery location with a space in the old Kitchen by Mike site, changing its concept from an Ottolenghi-style lunch experience to an a la carte breakfast, lunch and dinner one. It’s a really beautiful function space, so we do a lot of weddings out of there and that side of things has got some legs now. That also catapulted us into another category, another learn as we go thing. Then along comes the W Brisbane and they contact us and say we’d like to sneak you into $700-million build. We’d never been attached to that type of resource or that size company before.
What were your thoughts as a group when W Brisbane approached you to be involved?
We asked a lot of questions about whether or not we should be involved in something like this. Like, is this going to move away our original ethos of anti-corporation mentality? Are we now coming closer to those larger companies and turning into something we didn’t want to be? But the W showed us who they are and what they represent, and we thought it could be a good fit. We also thought there could be a huge amount for us to learn from a business perspective, especially by being involved with such a large international company that has a lot of resources at their disposal. We decided to have a crack!
When the opportunity to do a new location arises, what are the key factors you consider to ensure it aligns with your vision?
Well, when you’re young you tend to take on every opportunity that you can. As you get older you learn a lot more about yourself and you learn about what adds value to you and the repercussions of those choices. You come into a headspace eventually that says, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to.” I think the same starts to apply with the business. Just because an opportunity arises, doesn’t mean to have to do it. We look at a space and see how we all feel about it. We talk about a concept and we think whether or not it will be financially viable, then we do some rough estimations on what we believe it will cost to pull off the vision. We look at what the space has on offer from a visual perspective as well. Finally we ask each other, do we want to do this? Is this a good idea? Why are we doing this? Are we doing this just for money? If we ever come to the conclusion that we’re doing it just for money, we say goodbye to it. We like to think that everything we embark on can have some kind of positive impact.
Obviously the ethos W Brisbane has aligned with yours enough to proceed, but what was it about Brisbane as a destination that made sense for your next restaurant?
You go out into the car park at The Farm and 90-percent of the license plates are from Queensland. We realised that there’s a passion in the city that we’re only two hours drive away from and so many people are saying, “you’d do really well in Brisbane,” or, “you should come to Brisbane.” (laughs) We didn’t really search for this – the W suggested it to us – but we thought that the idea might have legs. We came up and had a look at the space – I’m standing in the restaurant now – and it overlooks the river and when you see it at night-time the view of the cityscape is just stunning. We thought that this could be something interesting. The thing is, we came into the game late and the restaurant had been largely designed and the equipment for the kitchen had been chosen an it was multiple stations – it was designed to be used for a buffet but we are turning it into an a la carte restaurant because we think that a buffet restaurant has a higher volume of waste attached to it.
Well, you’re not too far off now from officially opening Three Blue Ducks in Brisbane. What should diners expect when they come in for the first time?
I think you can expect a little bit of chaos! (laughs) Opening a new restaurant is always really tough and particularly when you go into something that’s large scale. This is a 160-seater restaurant – there are 40 or 50 staff members that need to be indoctrinated into a Ducks culture that has taken us eight years to put together. We need to work very hard towards trying to bring everybody into that headspace as quickly as we can. What can you expect? We got a big grill that we’ll be cooking out of, we’ve got lots of seafood that’s going to be available and we’ve got a double wood oven that we’ll be cooking a lot of breads, whole fish and meat will be going through there. We’re pretty excited about the prospects of what can be cooked here and some of the techniques available as well.
Three Blue Ducks was one of the early adopters of the sustainable and ethical food movement. In your opinion do you see the hospitality industry moving in regards to this trend
That’s a really good question. I actually think that things can get quite cyclical. You have a movement or way of thinking – like using nose-to-tail and honouring every part of the animal – and you have periods where food goes molecular and everything need to be pretty and perfect. Essentially, there is a lot of waste with making things look perfect. I think that as we realise our impact of human on our planet and our place in it – the damage we are doing to it as a collective and the ways we have been living – we need to lighten the load. I do think that we’re transitioning towards eating animals that are reared in a way where we are proud to eat it. If you saw how hens are treated when they are trapped in a cage for caged eggs, you wouldn’t eat that chicken and you wouldn’t eat those eggs. I think the public demand and their awareness, plus the way technology is changing, enhances the accountability of our industry and changes its behaviour. There is a lot more literature available that shows that food is medicine and your health is in direct relation with what you put in your body. The single best thing you can do is nourish yourself with good food, and I think that is getting a lot of traction and that that information is passing down into the restaurant world.
Three Blue Ducks Brisbane is set to open on Friday June 1. Keep your eyes peeled for a closer look soon!