Against the Grain

08 February, 2018

Hamish Smith meets the contrary trailblazer Luke Whearty, just about to embark on a new venture.


LAID-BACK manner, Tarzan hair and a childhood spent riding the waves of the Australian coastline, Luke Whearty appears every bit the surfer dude. Except things aren’t that clear-cut. Whearty actively avoids cliché, always choosing the alternative path to the norm.

Coffs Harbour, where Whearty grew up from the age of 10, is a small coastal town a couple of hours south of the Gold Coast. When all the other kids were picking up surfboards, he went for the much-less-cool body board. “I’m attracted to sub-cultures,” says Whearty. “I like to go down the road less travelled.” It’s been that way in adulthood too. “I think of bartending as a subculture of chefs,” he says.

That less travelled road is where Whearty has found success. He’s competed at national level body boarding and in bartending he’s run two of the most famous bars in their respective countries – Der Raum in Australia and Operation Dagger in Singapore.

But back to Coffs Harbour: “I lived there till 18 or 19, but unless you marry your childhood sweetheart and have kids there’s not much in the way of career opportunities.”

Brisbane, to the north, was the closest big city so Whearty, naturally, headed south. Jobs such as dishwashing and waiting on tables kept him in coin, but he was soon plucked out of the shadows. When the restaurant he was working at was a bartender short, Whearty filled the breach. “I loved it. For the first time, I had the licence to affect someone’s night directly. I was making something from scratch – there are not many industries where you can make something and see their reaction and gratification.”

Bartending was a path of discovery that sated Whearty’s youthful curiosity. At 19, in Lime in Newcastle, NSW, an early opportunity came his way. He was tasked with creating his own cocktail menu to help attract the cool crowd during happy hour. Whearty’s cocktails were a hit, even if most of the customers were his friends.

About now, Whearty had disappeared down the cocktail wormhole – he was hungry to learn more and couldn’t think of anywhere better to head than Melbourne. “In 2008/2009, you couldn’t touch Melbourne in terms of bars. There was a hospitality culture throughout the city – good service, good food, good drinks. I really wanted to learn from the best. That was Der Raum.”

This wasn’t just the best bar in Melbourne, it was a member of The World’s 50 Best Bars from 2009-11. When Whearty visited he was “blown away”. His enthusiasm opened the door and by 2009 he was working there. Whearty was at Der Raum for almost four years. The bar’s pioneering work in seasonality and tasting menus had become world famous and by the end of his tenure it was hard to separate Whearty from Der Raum. One day in 2013 their inseparability was put to the test. Whearty left, his staff followed and Der Raum

Then came Singapore. “We helped open a British pub called Oxwell & Co and part of the deal was that Aki (Whearty’s fiancée) and I have this basement space.”

Install a few hundred lightbulbs and a menu of non-branded homemade potions and that space would become Operation Dagger. When it opened in 2014 it had no marketing, no social media and not many customers – and that’s why Whearty loved it. Until Alex Kratena visited a few years in and declared it to have the best drinks he had tried in ages – suddenly Whearty’s quiet life got busy.

Now, though, for a new chapter back in Melbourne. The plan? Overseeing Operation Dagger remotely and building a new bar brand: Bunjil. The bar will have sustainability at its heart and will tap into Australia’s bounty of native ingredients. “No one’s heard of stuff like lilly pilly, wattleseed and rare Australian juniper in drinks. Suddenly I’ve got this whole new palette of colours to work with. I’m super-excited on a creative and personal level.”

Personal, because Whearty is expecting a child this year. And for that reason he’s in no rush to build his new bar. First will be a bottled cocktail business under the Bunjil name and concept that will both establish the brand of the bar and help fund it. Not the orthodox approach, which is just the way Whearty likes it.

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