‘A woman of so shining loveliness’ W.B. Yeats
Mietta O’Donnell (1951-2001) had a profound impact on almost every aspect of Melbourne’s life. Indeed, she was a knitter of the fabric of Melbourne and a catalyst for much that has made Melbourne what it is today. Mietta inspired people and ideas, not only about food, but also about the physical fabric and vibrancy of our city and its culture—from town planning policies and practices, to opera and cabaret, to literature and politics.
Mietta was a profoundly influential figure in the arts and cultural world. From the stage of her celebrated and iconic restaurant, Mietta’s, which she and her partner Tony Knox established and ran in Fitzroy and then in Alfred Place, Melbourne, Mietta orchestrated a salon where an astonishing range of art forms was performed—from comedy to art song, poetry to play readings, with music ranging from jazz to opera alongside forums for social and political issues. Her support for the arts and artists was recognised with a Green Room Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Performing Arts in Melbourne.
Mietta O’Donnell’s contribution to Melbourne and its life is reflected— not just through the Mietta Foundation and the Mietta Song Competition—but more importantly through the diverse memories and experiences of all those people she touched and inspired. Some of these people's recollection are below. There are many others with other memories and experiences—memories and experiences which are still shaping Melbourne.
I am reflecting on good times shared. Many will remember Mietta O’Donnell as the elegant host of Mietta’s Restaurant in Alfred Place, exquisitely dressed and with a gentle smile. I remember her like this too but I also worked with her at the first Mietta’s in Brunswick Street.
Almost every rule in the book was broken there and Melbourne restaurants would never be the same again. She and partner Tony Knox created a restaurant with personal style in the middle of a then unfashionable working-class suburb in an old butcher’s shop. Mietta was in the kitchen in the first years and I remember the magical chocolate cake she made, (recipe published in my book The Cook’s Companion), and the huge and generous Apple Crumble, and her insistence on fresh vegetables, and the large starched napkins, and the lush crimson underskirts on the tables, and how she served boiled whole artichokes with melted butter, and baked fennel (never seen before in a Melbourne restaurant in the early 70’s), and Bollito Misto, and, hitherto unknown save to Italian families, mascarpone whipped with powdered sugar and Strega liqueur, and the parties that she and her partner Tony Knox threw every Christmas, for friends, family, suppliers, entertainers, cleaners—everyone who had become part of this large family. And the Sunday nights with jazz and the memorable singing of Peaches la Crème, and the energy that Tony and Mietta displayed in their dancing. The hospitality at such evenings was the stuff of legend. I also remember the night Mietta slipped on the fiendish three steps down into the dining-room and came to a graceful halt at the first table minus her fine wool wrap-around skirt! And the afternoon she locked herself in the coolroom for about 6 hours in her empty restaurant and survived the ordeal by wrapping herself in plastic film and reciting French verbs.
They were grand days! Our passion never cooled and we shared many an evening discussing and arguing how best to improve the food scene in our city, usually over a good meal and a fine bottle of wine. After finally closing Mietta’s Restaurant, Mietta and Tony went on to travel the length and breadth of the country to sample, assess and record what they found.
Mietta was a determined enabler of the arts and sometimes engaged in what might be called strategic dining. One night eight or ten of us were invited to a dinner at which one of the guests was Richard Alston. Richard was about to become Broadcasting Minister and Mietta sat quietly at the head of the table while musicians, producers, artists, writers and others enjoyed a beautiful meal and sought to impress upon Richard the importance of the ABC. This latter aspect of the evening was not an unalloyed success but for Mietta this was important work. She was serious and resolute and yet soft, considerate and attentive. She noticed everything and her impact on the evening she had brought into being was so light she was sometimes almost invisible.
Every memory I have of Mietta is warm, and that includes my memory of the time she slapped my face. I suspect that slap makes me a member of a very select club. Perhaps the only member. The circumstances of the slap were these: I was married at the time to Rosalin Sadler and seeing a fair bit of Mietta and Tony. The four of us laughed well together. On the night of the slap we were all meant to go out but Ros and I had argued too badly to be able to socialise. I went round to call the evening off. Mietta answered the door and, being told about the argument, slapped me, without premeditation, across the face. When I asked why she told me that, whatever the details of the fight, I must have been in the wrong. So the slap was an act of solidarity with the woman. And yet in a strange way it felt like an act of solidarity with me as well. It was more disappointed than angry—an expression of the sadness of the things. If it is possible to speak of a tender slap, then this was one. She slapped me fondly, out of the exquisite gentleness of her nature.
I’ve always believed I was born in the wrong time. My idol was Billie Holiday and my ideals were tied to the romance of the period. That’s when Mietta came into my life. I was seventeen. Clifford Hocking, one of the last great Australian entrepreneurs came to my gig in Carlton. ‘I want to introduce you to one of my girlfriends’ he said. That girlfriend was Mietta O’Donnell. Mietta and Clifford then set a gig for me at her restaurant, invited their address books and a dessert called La Ceberano was created for the night—a warm chocolate tart—now who would have thought? Moi? It was turning point. From that night, all the occasions of my life—the musical moments with my band were celebrated at Mietta’s. But what I miss most is the romance of Mietta’s. I mourn that our food and wine culture is so romance averse. And oh, the art of the soiree—that’s what Mietta taught me. So now as Artistic Director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival—that’s her legacy—the art of food, wine, conversation and art in perfect equilibrium.
To the public Mietta O’Donnell was known as the Queen of Cuisine, the grand Dame of dining, a cultural figure and an ambassador for Melbourne. She was all these things but also, quite simply, the most charming, warm, gentle and loving person you could ever wish to meet. I have read that Mietta ‘patrolled her domain in the upstairs dining room in ‘expensive gowns’, with a personal style variously described as ‘aloof’, ‘austere’ or even ‘forbidding’. But those of us who watched her night after night came to understand that what we were seeing in Mietta was pure attention in the pursuit of absolute perfection. Night after night after night, year after year that’s exactly what the restaurant achieved. Mietta’s eye for detail was extraordinary—an almost extra sensory perception that intuitively alerted her to what was out of place.
Every evening she would walk through the room setting it as her stage—straightening a napkin here, removing a speck of dust from a glass or adjusting a flower until it was just so. Then the performance began. The lights would be dimmed, the music would swirl through the room and as the first diner arrived all the staff would strike up a symphony for the senses—a symphony that was sustained until the last person departed.
The Magic of Mietta
Before I got to know Mietta she was the mysterious queen of Melbourne hospitality to me. Hovering somewhere on the grand staircase she scrutinised everyone and occasionally shifted her expression into a Mona Lisa smile.
As I got to know her as one of a group of Melbourne CBD residents working to keep the city interesting and different to the suburbs, I realised her stair routine was a highly complex nightly curation of the bars and dining rooms. We loved hanging out in Mietta’s lounge because you got a sense that you were part of something bigger, part of the conversation of the city. In the 1980’s that was so important because it was so rare, and allowed us to escape the isolation of suburban nights.
With Six Degrees and a group of friends, we started a bar in Meyers Place that aimed to generate our own conversation, down a lane one block away from Miettas. Despite the fact that this and the many bars and bistros ultimately priced out the Mietta’s model, Mietta and Tony were fascinated by the changes and supported the shift. Mietta was on the jury that awarded our little bar the Melbourne Prize, for what it did in adding another layer of complexity and intrigue to the city.
The loss of the Alfred Place venue was in a way the city’s gain. Mietta and Tony took the strategic decision to explore and write about other restaurants and bars, ultimately resulting in the Mietta’s Guide to Eating and Drinking around Australia—the national conversation. In a taxi last week talking about restaurants, the driver told me he still uses that 2000 guide, to navigate the unknown food territory he finds himself in.
I often wonder what Mietta would make of our current national obsession with Master Chef and the rise of the celebrity chefs. I’m curious because she was always much broader in her approach to eating and drinking. The food and drinks were important, but Mietta’s hospitality was also about feeding the mind and the soul of Melbournians, and together how they sustain the city.
The first time I met Mietta I was cooking in Hong Kong. As a young chef cooking abroad it was a thrill to have such an esteemed restaurateur and food writer in the restaurant, a day I will never forget—Mietta in the dining room and Tony hovering about in the kitchen taking photos, scrutinizing the mis en place and service.
After my time overseas I returned to Melbourne to open my first restaurant in Brunswick St Fitzroy. In the first week of opening Mietta was invited by a friend to dine with a large group. I don’t think she would have ever chosen to visit or review a restaurant so soon after opening, preferring to give the chef and restaurant the time to open, train staff, and settle the gremlins.
To cook for any food critic is a nerve racking experience after only a few days of opening, and even more so with Mietta’s experience in the hospitality game. From memory the evening went well, no real disasters, or hiccups. A week later I spoke to Mietta, her frank words of encouragement were a joy. Mietta’s understanding of the dining experience as a whole was more comprehensive than any one I had ever met. I had a lot to learn and as a young chef Mietta was highly influential. She gave me the reassurance to trust my instincts and more importantly the confidence to believe in my culinary ideas and claim them as my own. This was pivotal in helping me develop my style of cooking.
It’s terrible, but I can’t quite remember the sequence of events but I do remember that it was in the mid eighties; I’d been putting on literary events at a theatre in Fitzroy and Mietta rang and said why don’t you try some here, we’ll provide the venue and support, you bring the writers. ‘It’s hard getting the writers’, I said. ‘We’ll ask some people to help, just organise an event’, she replied. So we had an event in the grand lounge, the writers had never been looked after so well. And in the audience Mietta had organised an audience that included the head of Telecom and Australian Airlines, James Strong. We came away with a promise from James Strong that he’d fly interstate authors in to the events. I had to book the flights through Geoff Dixon; I didn’t get the impression that he approved, but Kate Grenville arrived to read. ‘I flew First Class!’, she told us. And then Mietta invited her for dinner upstairs. Mietta and Tony valued the writers, valued their creativity, their contribution and enabled them to present their work in very special surroundings. In Sydney, the writers spoke at a pub, in Melbourne they were feted at Mietta’s.
Mietta opened her kitchen to me when no one else would. I had been the chef de partie at France’s three-starred La Cote Saint Jacques restaurant —and had been crowned La Reine de la glace—and we (Donovan Cooke and I) returned to a city where everyone seemed to be serving pub food. As soon as we met Mietta, we knew were in the right company. Menus of three-star Michelin restaurants were displayed on the wall. We only worked there for nine months but during that time, as a measure of her confidence in us, she organised special dinners with the likes of Tony Bilson. Now in my own restaurant I remind myself of the importance of meeting my diners. When I was working at Mietta’s she seemed to be everywhere—it was as if she had a clone. It was quite remarkable.
Three memories: The elegance, the hospitality and the laugh
The Elegance: When you went to Mietta’s it was like being on a beautiful ship steered by Mietta. With a secret hand signal or a raised eyebrow she attended to every detail creating elegance I have rarely experienced.
Hospitality: There was always a sense of being cared for, looked after respectfully and a coherence to form that was comforting. This hospitality was born of pure generosity. Mietta defined hospitality.
The laugh: I remember her laugh—a guffaw really—a real belly laugh. Yes she had a fantastic belly laugh—a laugh few could believe.
Before My Friend the Chocolate Cake first performed at Mietta’s in 1994, I always thought of the restaurant as a little bit hoity toity venue—a little bit humourless and proper. But Mietta had a sense of humour beneath that austere presence, and also handed me a single malt whisky within ten minutes of the gig finishing, so that pre–conception changed. It wasn’t so much the whisky but an invitation to a new circle of good Melbourne people. Mietta invited me into a circle which was always expanding and open. She arranged a dinner for John Clarke and me to talk with the Howard Government’s Arts Minister, Richard Alston (I suspect with tongue in cheek). Then this openness extended to the range of music I wanted to perform there—like bringing George Telek from PNG—that sort of generous open door vision was rare and still is.
I always remember a lingering vibe at Mietta’s—relaxed, comfortable conversation in a place that was always chockas—people simply did not want to leave.
From an early age I was captivated by the style and presence of Mietta and in fact the whole O’Donnell family. I spent every summer while at university working at Mietta’s Queenscliff Hotel on the desk and in the restaurant. Every New Year’s Eve I would turn into the singing waiter and I am not sure if any new year’s celebrations have ever come close to the magic of those evenings. Beautiful food, sumptuous flowers, long ribbons hanging from the balloons that filled the dining room and quality of staff that I have not worked with since.
It has given me a life long respect for good service and quality hospitality that I have rarely found since. I worked mostly alongside Patricia and she gave me a work ethic that I still live by today. She also taught me so much about the industry that I was then able to walk in to almost any restaurant around the world and know that I could handle the work load and responsibility. Mietta and Tony visited often and I was always struck by Mietta’s quiet strength of character and complete commitment to a style and level of quality in all of her endeavours whether they concerned food, design or song.