Pièce de résistance

Melbourne chef and restaurateur Shannon Bennett takes Business State inside his most ambitious project yet: reinventing the concept of hospitality by restoring the historic Burnham Beeches in the Dandenongs into an internationally unique venue.

                                

Since 2000, when at the age of 24 Shannon Bennett opened the first iteration of Vue de monde in Carlton, his career as one of Melbourne’s most renowned chefs and restaurateurs has gone from strength to strength.

Vue de monde relocated to Normanby Chambers in the CBD in 2005, then again to the top of the Rialto, where its stunning panoramic view was joined by Lui Bar and function facilities. Normanby House is now the site of the more casual Bistro Vue as well as Café Vue, of which further incarnations now reside at Heide Museum of Modern Art and Melbourne International Airport.

Add to that Jardin Tan at the Botanic Gardens, which explores the fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine, and the mind boggles almost as much as the mouth waters.

There’s one consistent thread linking all of Bennett’s accomplishments in the Vue de monde restaurant group together: a farm-to-table, sustainable ethos. His most recent and ambitious venture takes this ethos to its logical conclusion.

Bennett has dreamed of creating a place that encompasses everything he likes to do on days off, and one that provides an internationally unique experience. And he has found a perfect home for it about 45 minutes from the city, in the Dandenong Ranges.

On the 22.7-hectare estate on Sherbrooke Road, Sherbrooke, sits an exquisite art deco mansion, first built in the early 1930s by aspirin sales magnate Alfred Nicholas. He named it Burnham Beeches after the forest of ancient woodland near his factory in England.

After Nicholas’ death, the building served as a children’s hospital during World War II, then as a research facility. The gardens were given to the state and are now open to the public as the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens.

In the 1980s the building was converted into a luxury hotel. From the early ’90s, however, the magnificent property lay dormant, until Bennett and business partner Adam Garrisson purchased it.

In Nicholas’ day, the mansion was said to include a ‘private theatrette with talkie equipment’, an ‘electric pipe-organ’ in the music room, orchid houses, a dairy with prize Jersey cows, and gardens complete with artificial waterfalls, a lake and floodlighting at night.

The Burnham Beeches of today combines Nicholas’ eclectic taste in hobbies with the property’s more recent history as a communal leisure venue.

It was this ‘all welcome’ spirit of Burnham Beeches in years past that attracted Bennett to the place. “I’ve heard a lot about it from people, about their parents or grandparents bringing them to Burnham Beeches as children in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s and I really want that tradition to continue.

“We wanted to create a place that was accessible to all – young, old, highbrow, backpackers, bushwalkers and also struggling artists–by running annual scholarships and residential stays for talented, fledgling artists from around the world.”

The vision for Burnham Beeches is a culmination of Bennett’s experience up to this point. In the context of his body of work and philosophy towards business and food.

“It completes it,” he says. “It helps tell the story of what we put on the plate at Vue de monde and the other venues. It also provides great training for the team and makes their roles feel complete.”


Currently, two parts of the multi-stage project are up and running.

The Piggery Cafe provides the first glimpse of Burnham Beeches’ focus on promoting the best of Australian culture – from heritage and architecture to food, art, hospitality and inspiring landscape. Working with global architecture firm Woods Bagot, the design is warm and rustic with touches of modernity.

Housed in the same building is Burnham Bakery, serving up bread “as it should be”. Outside there are lawn bowls, bocce and croquet.

Next up is a collaboration on a micro brewery with Tasmanian craft beer maker Moo Brew. After that, a steakhouse, too.

Burnham Beeches also flags the future evolution of Bennett’s empire: hotels. The hotel game is basically “only two steps further than what we already do at Vue de monde and Bistro Vue,” he says.

In true Bennett and Burnham Beeches style the hotel experience will be unlike any you’ve experienced before. The plan is, by 2018, Burnham Beeches will be Australia’s first six-star luxury retreat, comprising 58 hotel rooms and suites.

Bennett’s goal for guests is for them to stay at the hotel and come away with more knowledge than when they arrived.

“You can have the opportunity to be paid while staying at the hotel by learning to bake bread, handling truffle dogs in the 500-tree trufferie, foraging for emu eggs or work in the market gardens with our horticulturists.

“Think a luxury kibbutz,” he says, referring to the Israeli collective communities, which were traditionally based on agriculture.

When Bennett is asked how Burnham Beeches will fit into the Victorian hospitality scene, the most honest answer is, well, it doesn’t. Replace ‘Victorian’ with ‘global’ and the answer doesn’t change. “There is nothing else like it currently in the world,” he says.

If Bennett’s grand vision is even half realised, it will breathe life into a hidden gem of Victorian tourism. “It will be another reason to visit Victoria,” he says. “Especially the Dandenongs, which is starting to emerge from the tourism mothball cupboard.”

A project of this scale and ambition has seen Bennett join forces with developer Adam Garrisson. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that, in 15 years, the Vue restaurant group has never had a partner.


Having spent the last 17 years applying strategic investment and bespoke development over a diverse range of projects in Victoria, Garrisson’s resumé tells a story of projects with unique histories and locations – from hotels and hospitality to retail and residential, such as the Melbourne GPO, the Hotel Windsor and Red Court, all of which needed resuscitation.

On Burnham Beeches, Bennett looks after creative concepts and execution of the hospitality while Garrisson works on the development and construction side.

“We both love design and are passionate about leaving legacies,” Bennett says.

When the vision for Burnham Beeches is realised, that legacy will cement Bennett’s position at the vanguard of sustainable food and living. From composting to integrated water management to solar power and state-of-the-art Tesla Powerwalls, the goal is to waste nothing.

The chemical-free property will not only grow produce for its hotel and restaurants, but for other venues in the Vue de monde restaurant group too. The aforementioned emus will be joined by chickens in Australia’s longest chicken run, and a herd of 16 A2 jersey cows with automated milking.

At first glance, it could be tempting to categorise Burnham Beeches as a passion project to put sustainable hospitality on show, rather than build a commercially viable business. But Bennett says those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. “It is both… it will be proof that sustainability is profitable and not just something token.”

A portable sawmill, for example, will save the company around $60,000 a year in timber supply costs.

It’s a passion project, all right, Bennett says. “Passion is why we should do anything in life.”

Victoria’s multicultural heritage has inspired some of the country’s most exciting hospitality venues. At Bank of Melbourne, we are proud to provide banking services to the industries that make Melbourne the world’s most liveable city. To find out how Bank of Melbourne can help with your hospitality project contact Dean Cleary, Relationship Director, Hospitality and Leisure on 9296 4353.