“A meal can ruin someone’s day, or it can make their day very memorable. It’s a big responsibility, I try to remember that.”
So says Damian Brabender, the name and face behind OTIS Dining Hall, which has gained a loyal following among locals since it opened its doors in late 2016.
Brabender was already a familiar face in the capital prior to opening up at OTIS, thanks to his former role as head chef for Sage Restaurant. His interest in the food industry dates back to his childhood though, growing up near Portland in regional Victoria as one of a family of 12 children.
“Cooking and eating was always a big part of our family’s dynamic. It was the one time that the circus stopped, and everyone stood still or sat down at the same time,” he says.
“Every single meal, the whole family would sit down together. And that still happens now, at every Christmas, and every Easter, and so on.”
Of deciding to pursue a career in food, he says, “I got to the stage of thinking, well, we all have our own chores to do. And I decided I’d rather be the one in the kitchen making the mess, than having to clean up someone else’s mess!”
After completing his apprenticeship in Portland at quite a young age, Damian made the huge move to work overseas in London, and was “lucky enough” (he says) to land a job there working for the Royal Family at the Grand Opera House, Covent Garden.
He continued working in a number of Michelin-starred restaurants across the UK before moving back home to Australia to work at the luxurious Lizard Island resort in the Whitsundays.
His career then took him to the Blue Mountains to become executive chef for the prestigious Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort, where he remained for several years before finally settling in Canberra to open OTIS Dining Hall, as well as The Truffle Farm at Majura (where the team was later able to host a visit from his old customers, the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall).
It’s reassuring to those true Canberraphiles out there, that a chef of such esteemed global experience might consider Canberra a highlight of his career so far. Upon arriving here in 2015, he says he was struck by the opportunity to lay down roots in “the capital city of the luckiest, greatest country in the world”.
“The dining scene here has exploded in the past five years, definitely. So to be part of that from the ground level is something that’s pretty important to me, and I feel lucky to be here,” he says.
“I always knew I wanted to own a restaurant, ever since I was a little kid, and I always want to own a restaurant that was cool. And I know cool is such a subjective word. What I wanted to do was something more classically cool, classically charming, in its own way.
“The idea of the restaurant was based upon what I thought a cool restaurant was like before I became a chef. Once you become a chef, once you’re in the industry, you tend to hear more from other people in the industry. It’s harder to keep in touch with what guests actually want.
“And I think, when I was that kid, if I had drawn the restaurant I wanted to own one day, it would look a lot like this.”
Long-term Canberrans would recognise OTIS’s location as the former home of the Belgium Beer Bar. OTIS is also flourishing under the talented leadership of head chef Adam Wilson.
Damian says he concept of the ‘dining hall’ came about because it’s just such a large space.
“It is a massive restaurant – we seat up to 80 people. We’re the architects of the product, not of the building, so we didn’t necessarily want to change that aspect.
“It was a beer hall, so now it’s a hall for fine food and wine. And we can do some amazing long-table events as well, that gives it a very, very cool vibe too.”
With deep coloured, recycled wood panelling and moody lighting, the warmth and character infused into the interior continues to pay off.
On the sunny summer afternoon of my visit, the space is light, cool and airy, thanks to the big open glass windows and lots of mirrors, but “it’s still really warm and comforting in here. You see a lot of restaurants that don’t have the soul and substance this room has”, says Brabender.
“I know a lot of restaurants in Canberra are actually very quiet during winter, but for us, it’s the busiest time of the year. I think that’s because it does have that nice warming feel as well,” he said
With an unashamed focus on fine dining that – unsurprisingly – also harks back to a childhood experience, Damian says of his approach to the venue, “I wanted to make it as honest and as ‘neighbourhood restaurant’ as possible”.
“I remember going to a restaurant for a family event when I was quite young, and somebody poured some sauce at the table, and I thought that was the fanciest thing I’d ever seen! And we do that here now. It’s just about those small touches, that little bit of class,” he says.
“I think a lot of restaurants and a lot of chefs moved away from fine dining, and I feel as though the industry almost convinced itself that fine dining was dead. And that’s rubbish!
“Like anyone, we in the industry are guilty of talking too much among ourselves and talking ourselves out of things. And look, fine dining is hard, it’s hard to do – it does take a lot of restraint, a lot of self-control, a lot of knowing what’s what and taking care not to over-embellish and so forth. And that can be difficult,” he says.
“Sometimes it seems like everyone is trying to be interesting rather than delicious. But people don’t necessarily want to go out and have 15 courses, trends like degustations and share plates and bubbles on plates and deconstructed food and whatever else, those trends come and go.
“Diners generally want the same thing: they want good quality produce, they want to be respected, they want to have freedom of choice, and enjoy themselves properly.”
If you have the chance to fine-dine at OTIS, you’ll likely be able to actually ‘meet the chef’ yourself as Damian makes a point of regularly coming out from behind the kitchen doors – greeting regulars, chatting to others diners, and hand-delivering food and drinks to tables.
“I’ve got three or four hundred people coming in every week to, what is basically, my lounge room, to sit down, have a meal and have a chat. The people you meet are amazing, from politicians, music stars and rock stars to people on their first date or their wedding anniversaries. That’s pretty cool,” he said.
Describing his restaurant as his ‘lounge room’ reflects Brabender’s personal approach to his work, and a commitment to providing a satisfying experience for every guest.
“As a chef now, I probably leave the kitchen about 50 per cent of the time that I’m working. I spend that time hosting in the restaurant, being a waiter and being a bartender, just to see people and how they’re enjoying the dining experience.”
Asked if this sets him apart from his colleagues (many of whom might consider walking the restaurant floor to be about as much fun as sticking their hands to the hotplates), Damian says, “I generally like serving people and meeting people. Food tastes better in better company, so if you’re cooking for someone, you want to be part of the whole experience – you don’t want to be a vending machine out the back”.
Damian admits choosing a name to represent that focus proved unexpectedly challenging.
“I didn’t realise how hard it would be to choose a name. I take my hat off to my mum now, naming 12 children!
“It was something I chose to be a little bit ambiguous and personally non-personal, if that makes sense. OTIS can mean a million different things to a million different people; some people think of Otis Redding, some people think of an elevator, some people think of Milo and Otis!
“I didn’t want people to read the name and go, ‘I know what that means’. I wanted to take a word and create a definition with our product behind it.
“Now, I hope when people think of OTIS, I hope they think fine dining.”
OTIS Dining Hall is located at 29 Jardine St, Kingston. Open for lunch and dinner.