How Brigitte Hafner steered her hospitality business through the worst of the pandemic

How Brigitte Hafner steered her hospitality business through the worst of the pandemic

Brigitte Hafner

We’re profiling female chefs, cafe and restaurant owners over the next few months, thanks to the support of Uber Eats. These women are running incredible and innovative food businesses all over Australia, but many have been doing it tough due to the pandemic and in some areas the bushfires.

At the start of this year, Brigitte Hafner’s dream of having her own restaurant, Tedesca Osteria, was just beginning. In the months since, she’s faced a tidal wave of challenges as Victoria faced the worst of the pandemic. Here, she shares more on how she’s pulled through to the other side, and how she created a place where art, wine, food, architecture and theatre collide. 

There was a pivotal moment in acclaimed chef Brigitte Hafner’s life that sparked her passion for unforgettable dining experiences. 

Brigitte grew up in Templestowe, Victoria, in a family where everything centred around food and she was just eleven years’ old when she first discovered the excitement of entertaining.

She was asked to help with a glamorous dinner party for an English family. 

As Brigitte served drinks and helped in the kitchen, she watched the host float across the room in lavish silks and bright lipstick.

“I would be listening to the magic of what was going on in the dining room, the laughter, the cacophony,” she said. 

“[The host] created this amazing atmosphere. It was like backstage and frontstage. 

“That for me was when I realised the power of entertainment and hospitality.

“When you get the food, the atmosphere, the timing and everything right…it’s exhilarating.”

It’s this magic that Brigitte wanted to recreate at Tedesca Osteria in Red Hill, a place where art, wine, food, architecture and theatre collide. 

When Brigitte and her husband Patrick Ness, a renowned architect, purchased the property it was little more than a dilapidated 1940s English cottage. 

“It took us a year to renovate,” she said. 

“We took out one huge wall and replaced it with a brick wall of a woodfired oven and woodfired grill. 

“My kitchen is in the centre of this space.

“When you walk into the restaurant, you look at a fireplace and when you turn left you [see] my chef and I cooking for you.”

In January 2020, Brigitte’s dream of having her own restaurant to entertain, wine and dine guests was just beginning. 

Weeks after opening, whispers about travel restrictions began. 

When Victoria eventually went into lockdown to stop the spread of Coronavirus, Brigitte was stunned out of action for an entire week. 

“I was just shocked and I was just so depressed,” she said. 

“I just froze.

“We had a very small team. Three of them are visa workers so I was really in a pickle because they had no rent relief, no assistance from government and they couldn’t fly home. 

“We had to do something.” 

Brigitte and her business partner James Broadway went back to the drawing board. 

They watched what other restaurants were doing and considered deeply what people in the community really needed. 

“We just felt that people wanted something nourishing,” she said. 

That’s when she decided to launch take-home boxes to not only keep the wheels turning and preserve her team but to also give everyone a sense of purpose during an incredibly rough time. 

Their takeaway menu featured comfort foods like her mum’s German apple cakes, old school pies, potato gratins and homemade dumplings. 

“People loved it and we just sold heaps,” she said. 

“They were at home, there was a lot of fear out there and uncertainty.

“They just wanted simple, good home cooking.”

It was an aha moment for Brigitte that traced back to one of her most powerful life lessons in food.

Many years ago in the village of Rioca, Brigitte and James were served a very simple meal of lamb out of the oven.  

It seemed effortless but everything from the selection of meat to the way it was cut out of the wood fired oven exuded great craft.

“Something so simple can be so special,” she said. 

“Food can make you feel amazing.” 

“It just rocked my core.” 

What really matters at the end of the day

At the time of this interview, Brigitte was facing the reality of a second wave of Coronavirus with hundreds of new cases being detected in Victoria every day. 

The first lockdown had given her a deep understanding of the importance of gratefulness, community and hope. 

When asked what her goals for the months to come were, she laughed and responded with one word. 

Survival: both as a business owner and as a mother. 

Figuring out a way to maintain work-life-balance will be Brigitte’s biggest challenge in the year ahead. 

“I’ve learned that it’s important to keep perspective in what all of this means,” she said. 

“The business has shown us that it can be agile, it can turn around and do different things and continue [but] it’s been really hard with a family. 

“Restaurants are big, big businesses so juggling the two and still being the person that centres the home has been a challenge.

“My focus in future is getting this ship steady so I can still be creative, still steer this beautiful ship that I’ve created but also be on the home front so that I’m there for the family.”

Check out stories from more female restaurant owners in this Uber Eats supported series here and here.

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