Luke Mangan finds the recipe to develop a food empire

Being a chef isn't as simple as it used to be. Just ask Luke Mangan.

Being a chef isn't as simple as it used to be. Just ask Luke Mangan.

The talented chef used to be a one-man operation, but now he heads a food empire overseeing 630 staff in Australia and overseas.

Mangan, one of Australia's most renowned chefs and restaurateurs, is spinning more than just a few plates.

In addition to his signature Glass Brasserie in Sydney, there are Salt grill restaurants in Surfers Paradise, Singapore and Jakarta, and Salt with the adjoining World Wine Bar in Tokyo. Then there are the commercial agreements with P&O cruise liners, three of which have Salt grill restaurants on board, and Virgin Australia, which has Mangan as its consulting chef.

His latest venture is Headquarters, a warehouse unlike any other in Australia. It will bring Mangan's head office and warehouse, at separate locations for the past four years, under the one roof in Sydney. "It's a big open space, a versatile space, and having everything under the one roof cuts down on overheads," he says.

Headquarters will also house Mojo Wine Bar, a casual wine and tapas bar, and the Test Kitchen, which will be used to develop new dishes and train kitchen and service staff.

Mangan speaks with relief when he talks of the opening in mid-May. "We've been working on it since September last year and I can't wait for it to open," he says.

Mangan started his career in Melbourne's Two Faces restaurant after dropping out of school at 15. He worked as a chef until 35 when he resolved to branch out.

"I decided I didn't want to be chained to the kitchen," he says. "Since then I've had a lot of luck, been in the right place at the right time."

Now 42, Mangan says he learnt that chefs have to be multi-dimensional. "Margins in restaurants aren't what they used to be," he says. "It's a tough business. Chefs need more outlets, more streams of income."

And Mangan has plenty of streams. There are the four best-selling cookbooks, corporate catering, the speaking circuit, his signature range of gourmet products, a weekly spot on Nine's Today show and, just recently, baby food.

Mangan launched Baby Bites a month ago with Aussie Farmers Direct distributing the new range. "There is no other preservative-free baby food on the market, so to me it was just common sense," he says. "I went to Heinz with the idea about two years ago, but they weren't interested."

Mangan has plenty of other fish to fry. Based in Sydney, he takes three weeks out of every month to oversee his international operations, including P&O and Virgin.

All are performing well - some more so than others.

"Glass does $10 million a year in revenue, but Singapore is double that," Mangan says. "The biggest profit margin is in Asia because of the labour costs. Australian labour costs are incredibly high compared with Asia."

Each restaurant has a head chef, in whom Mangan places a lot of trust. "The head chefs are all people who've been with me for a minimum of eight years and I treat it like a partnership and give them a lot of freedom," he says.

"I know I wouldn't be where I am today if I was tied to the kitchen and didn't have the supportive staff. We've got a great team."

Four years ago when P&O approached him to come on board, Mangan had his doubts.

"Initially I thought being involved in P&O wouldn't be a good thing," he says. "When we met, they told me they really needed to lift their game. Then they agreed to my terms of having a separate restaurant with separate staff. It's something I never thought I'd do or could do, but it was an opportunity that came about and I went for it."

A year after signing with P&O, Mangan sealed the deal with Virgin - a deal that came about after he cooked for Sir Richard Branson on Branson's private island in the Caribbean. Mangan is now the consultant chef for Virgin's first, business and domestic classes, plus the Virgin lounges.

So now that he has restaurants on land, sea and in the air, what could possibly be next?

"I'll have to talk to Richard about food in space or food underwater," he jokes.

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