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Ikaria On Courage Through Covid, Community And Great Saganaki

January 14 / Australia

The adage goes it takes a village to raise a child, well, it takes a community to open a successful restaurant, says the co-owners of Bondi hotspot Ikaria.

Bondi Beach is a boom-and-bust kind of town, a place where restaurants and bars can spring up and shut down quicker than you can sink a Tommy’s margarita. It’s a cutthroat neighbourhood, one where landlords demand high prices and the local’s the highest quality.

It’s for this reason that any new opening, especially one coming off the back of a nationwide lockdown or two, draws attention. And, Ikaria drew the gaze of press and punters alike when it opened earlier this year, a buzz that co-founder husband and wife duo Joaquin Saez and Emily Abay brought about ‘a welcome honeymoon period’. One that came to a rather abrupt end when the second Sydney lockdown rolled around.

Joaquin turned to hospitality to pay the bills when he first set foot on Australian soil eight years ago. He quickly fell in love with the vibrancy and energy of The Victoria Room, the iconic Darlinghurst cocktail bar and has since gone on to spend time at other illustrious eateries such as The Apollo and Cho Cho San in Potts Point as well as a plethora of Bondi-based joints before co-founding La Palma, part of the Milpa Collective of venues which includes local faves, Taquiza, Carbon, Calita, Sonora and Santa Caterina.

“I think that one of the most important things
is to address issues as they arise.”

Be it fine dining, Japanese or South American share plates, Joaquin says he began to refine a recipe for what he saw as the perfect dining experience, one that fuses food with ambience and the type of service that creates die-hard fans and devout regulars. His wife, a fashion photographer was drawn to Joaquin’s vision and together they crafted the look and feel of the space, creating a venue that delivers on style and substance.

Inspired by the food and fairy-tale of the Greek island of which the venue shares its name, Ikaria is a shiny space on the less shiny side of Bondi’s South. It was a move that came with a warning. “It took some time to bring it together,” says Joaquin, explaining that it took some time to find the right space.

“I was advised not rush into anything,” recalling a phone call he had with Jonathan Barthelmess, owner of The Apollo, a former employer and now mentor. “I was warned off South Bondi. Too full of fast-food places and banks and not a place for a nice cool venue.”

“I talked to a few people, and they were like ‘no man don’t take it. I spoke to a friend, and he told me that spot was the first Hugo’s like 20 years ago… I walked in with Emily and I was like, ‘we are going to make this work’.”

Joaquin has approached Ikaria much in the same way a top tier sports coach might. Having worked beneath a swarth of managers, he learnt various styles and approaches to running a restaurant business. Now in the hot seat himself, he has developed his bravura and is pulling in handpicked talent to bring it to life.

“What we are trying to do at Ikaria is combine everything. Food? We need kick-ass chefs. Fun? Let’s create a place where I want to hang and eat with my friends. It needs to be interesting and shared, controversial but also approachable. The bar? I knew I needed the boys from Porteno and Continental Deli and we are stoked to have Omar from Cantina OK!, which made the World’s Top 50 Bars.”

“We want everyone’s experience to be incredible
and consistent all the time.”

Abay states that you don’t become successful solo and believes you can’t cut corners. “You need to put a lot of love and effort into your venue,” she exclaims but acknowledges that no matter how hard you try, things will go awry. “We’re constantly putting fires out,” she says, conceding that problem-solving is just part of running a bustling hospitality venue, especially in the early days. She cites using rationality and common sense in these situations and setting the right examples for staff.

Ultimately the duo believes experience and community is the secret behind a great restaurant, one where the onus is put on the customer. Ikaria has initially made the decision to not to offer a delivery menu as they wanted to focus on the dine-in experience but did on occasion make a special dispensation for residents who lived beside or above the venue. “We’ve made the odd exception, with a Saganaki or two,” Abay laughs. “A plate of something out the front door!”

That said, lockdowns have posed problems for a dine-in only venue and their new purpose-built delivery menu has become a crucial crutch in an industry not entirely protected by the funding available to restaurateurs. “During the lockdown, we have had to rethink our stance and create a menu that delivers and after some trial and error it has proven popular,” says Abay who says they limit their offering to the busier Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night periods. “We’ve created our twists on homely favourites like spaghetti Bolognese and gluten-free chocolate brownies and have a ‘do it yourself’ saganaki that’s become somewhat a house speciality.”

Beneath the sharp exterior and dishes of keftedes is an understanding that running a food business provides a turntable of problems and requires a community and support network of mentors and staff to overcome them every day. “You need to listen,” Saez impresses, “I think there’s a lot of ego in food and people often choose not to listen to their customers. You’ve got to listen to the very end. They’re all your bosses, you know, you’re working for them, and you’ve got to listen to what their needs are.”