When I became the Deseret Morning News food editor in 2000, one of my first stories involved a new Australian restaurant called Matilda's.
With the 2000 Summer Games grabbing headlines in Sydney, the public was interested in all things Aussie. The Outback Steakhouse had already cashed in on the Land Down Under theme.
So, it seemed like perfect timing for a restaurant dedicated to "fair dinkun" ("absolutely true or genuine") Australian cuisine, and Larry Miller's new Jordan Commons seemed like a great setting.
But the timing wasn't so great for the chef, Australian native Peter Osuchowski. A couple of months before the opening date, he was in a motorcycle accident that bruised his spine. Instead of shelving his dream, however, he picked out china and linens from his hospital bed, sandwiched the menu planning in between rehab sessions, and supervised the cooking from a wheelchair.
"From the first night we opened, I knew I was in trouble," Osuchowski said. "I was learning in a new body, and it was so hard not to be able to be the chef. I was very unhappy with the quality of the food, and I went through the first chef in a few weeks."
The restaurant closed within a few months of its opening. A Ruby River Steakhouse moved into the space, and Osuchowski spent the next six years working in the Jordan Commons purchasing department. Then, he said, in September 2006 he received a call from Larry Miller, telling him a restaurant tenant, China Lily, was moving out. Would he like to try reopening Matilda's in that space?
So, Osuchowski pulled Matilda's aboriginal decor out of storage and started planning a menu.
The restaurant reopened in March of this year, but it's been a tougher sell this time around. Sydney's Summer Games have been eclipsed by Salt Lake City's own Olympic memories. People barely remember the "Crocodile Dundee" movies. And there are more restaurants in the Jordan Commons area.
"Last time we had major media exposure, and we were the first of the four restaurants to open," he said. "This time we're the new guy on the block with all these established restaurants. We haven't had masses at the door the way we did the first time."
But he's building fans from Australian transplants and returned LDS missionaries who want "Chook on the Barbie" or a "Burger With the Lot" a fried egg, cheddar cheese, bacon, pineapple, beets, lettuce, tomato and onions. For dessert, there's the fluffy meringue Pavlova, or Lamington, a coconut cake named for a past Queensland governor.
The local sausage company, Colosimos, custom-makes the pork sausages to give the "Bangers and Mash" authentic flavor.
The lamb chops are another signature dish. "I am so partial to Australian lamb," Osuchowski said. "It's very pleasant and mild-flavored."
Fish and chips are the restaurant's top-selling menu item, and the seafood chowder can be bought in take-out containers.
He's striving for casual ambience. "So, you can get a sandwich for $7, or pay $26 for lamb chops, and feel comfortable."
There's even Australian-themed music ("Waltzing Matilda," anyone?)
On a personal note, Osuchowski has worked to expand his body's limits. "I've been able to walk a little, with a crutch."As with his restaurant, he's had to take it slowly, one step at a time.