Last year was a rollercoaster for many in the hospitality industry, including Alex Hunter.
The Newcastle chef opened his one-man, home-made pasta delivery business in March and it quickly gained a following. But a lot can happen in six months. Hunter is now head chef at Local Connections, a new restaurant that has opened at the former Godfrey Tanner Bar at the University of Newcastle's Callaghan campus.
"Yeah, I'm back in the restaurant game," he said, laughing. "It was a really, really good opportunity, too hard to pass up."
Local Connections is regularly booked out by university staff and guests and it "hasn't even opened properly to the public yet", says Hunter. That will happen this month. He has built the menu solely around Hunter Region suppliers such as Newcastle Greens, Shane's Seafood and Hungerford Meats.
"It's a locally sourced and sustainable style of dining, and the menu changes daily," Hunter explained.
"I get a text from the suppliers and I design the menu based on what they have available.
"There's a cafe menu and a dining menu. The cafe menu is between $10 and $15, and the dining menu is a little bit more upmarket, with three entrees and two pasta courses, entree or main size, and three main courses.
"I needed a strong template so that I could keep changing the menu. When something runs out, something new goes on."
He says changing the menu constantly "is a lot more work with more stress" but it "keeps things interesting for the chefs, front of house and customers". It also means he is doing more than paying lip service to the oft-used words "locally sourced, fresh and seasonal".
"It's a great way to cook and it's a great way to run a menu," he said.
"We are slowly building a kitchen garden and the aim is to show off local produce - all our beers and wines are local too."
The restaurant is run by the university and university students are employed in front of house and kitchen positions but it's a standalone business, not a training facility.
"It confuses a lot of people but it's simply a restaurant located at Newcastle university. It's a beautiful venue during the day with all the trees. We've got a big back deck with loads of seats and it feels like you're out in the Hunter Valley."
Read more:Al's Pasta is a one-chef show
As for Al's Pasta, Hunter says it will be back sometime this year.
"It hasn't gone, it's just sleeping. It's lying dormant," he said.
"Running your own business is really difficult. It's great, it's super rewarding, but it's also hard to make the improvements that you want to make.
"It's not that it wasn't going well, it was, I just missed being in a restaurant and doing service."
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