Davis Yu is the young man many doubted. In 2010, aged 20, he became Melbourne’s youngest restaurateur when he opened neo-French brasserie The Millswyn.
With the fearlessness of youth and the backing of his semi-retired property developer parents, Yu took on the lease of a Melbourne dining institution, Lynch’s, that had stood as a pillar of upper-crust dining for more than three decades in South Yarra.
Even before The Millswyn opened, all eyes were on Yu. Pens were poised for a predicted fail. “The amount of criticism was really difficult. I almost felt bullied,” Yu says two-and-a-half years later. ‘‘There were reviews saying I was a rich kid who had no idea what I was doing, and we hadn’t even opened the doors yet.”
Admittedly, he did have little idea. His hospitality experience was slight, other than having dined regularly at Flower Drum since he was a baby and working part-time at a Chinese restaurant in the city.
Working alongside notable interior design firm Hecker Guthrie, Yu trusted his instincts and persevered, stripping the weight of tradition from the double-storey Victorian and refurbishing it with a light, bright Nordic sensibility. “I had no fear,” he says. “I’m a little bit crazy like that. I’ll either fail or succeed, that’s my philosophy. You have one shot at it and if you don’t crack it you’re doomed.”
When we meet inside his third, and most recently launched restaurant, Claremont Tonic, it’s fair to say Yu has silenced his detractors. Earlier this year he became the youngest person to represent Australia on the voting panel of Restaurant magazine and S. Pellegrino’s esteemed World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. All going to plan, by year’s end he will have launched three businesses in the space of 12 months.
“Wow, that’s crazy,” Yu says, grinning. “I never thought of it like that. When the ideas fall into place it’s easy, but coming up with the ideas can drive me nuts.”
He says travel stimulates his imagination. His taqueria Touche Hombre, launched in April in the city, was inspired by the Los Angeles’ taqueria and street scene. The result is a youthful and lively eatery, pulsating with hip hop music and tattoo art.
“The minute I walk into a place I write down the things that jump out at me,” Yu says. “Then I come back to Melbourne and I think, ‘How can I reinvent that feeling in this space? Make it completely different but still really exciting?’.”
Claremont Tonic is far more grown up. Targetting the Melbourne fashion scene, Yu has blended pop art and Asian references to create the restaurant’s cheeky, contemporary feel. Then there’s his current project – a bar attached to Touche Hombre, which he hopes to open by year’s end.
It’s little wonder this kid from Toorak has had such success; sitting in one of the dark booths at Claremont Tonic, his enthusiasm is irrepressible. He lurches from one topic to another, drawing verbal pictures of the food, spaces and places he’s experienced. The serious pose he dons for our photo shoot comes undone when we glimpse his vibrant polka dot socks, and he breaks out in a sunshine smile.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was skiing, not dining, that held Yu’s focus through his formative years. From the age of 13 he spent every winter at Mount Buller, training with the Mount Buller Race Club, and later the New Zealand ski team.
His talent took him as far as Canada and Italy where he trained alongside some of Australia’s now Winter Olympic greats. But in 2007 his own dream of Olympic glory was sidetracked when he dislocated his shoulder in a fall, tearing his ligaments. A repeat injury the following year and again in 2009 ended his professional skiing career.
His close friend, Australian women’s ski-cross freestyle champion, Katya Crema, has fond memories of training alongside Yu in Italy when they were both just 15. The two of them would steal time after training in the afternoons to stock up on San Daniele prosciutto, bresaola, pancetta, and heady cheeses such as parmigiano reggiano, and taleggio. “He always loved food,” she says.
It was Crema who suggested Yu take over the Lynch’s lease. “When I found out [about the lease] Davis popped into my head immediately,” she says. “He’s young, passionate and was keen to start a restaurant. He’s also eccentric and never boring. I thought he’d be perfect.”
The Millswyn allowed Yu to test the waters in the restaurant business. There was an existing restaurant space and the lease was for a relatively short five years, so the financial risks for his family were minimised.
His parents, and constant supporters, David and Dominique, migrated from China in the early 1980s. His older sister Damita was born soon after.
Yu also has a touch of Spanish blood; his great grandfather had married the Spanish ambassador’s daughter in China. “For us food is soul,” Yu says of his family. “It’s everything. Our life works around what to have for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s when everyone is together and happy.”
Yu comes from a long line of self-starters; both his grandfather and father were property developers. “My grandfather left his family with one suitcase and made himself,” says Yu.
Attending Scotch College, Yu excelled in the arts and was accepted into both fashion photography at RMIT and architecture at Melbourne University. He accepted neither, instead flying to London to visit his sister, an architect, and determine whether architecture was his calling. He decided against it. “Architecture is visual and I wanted more than that,” he says. ‘‘I wanted to create experiences, not just objects.”
Still, it’s clear a strong interest in building, design and development are a family trait. “Mum’s visually crazy, Dad is more organised, my sister is all about form, and for me, it’s all about people,” Yu says.
Not one to rest on his laurels, just after opening The Millswyn, Yu established his own design, research and creative studio, Maison Davis. It provides not only a springboard for his design, photography and blogging pursuits, but also an in-house graphic and creative team to oversee the branding of the ever expanding Davis Yu empire.
Yu’s life indeed looks charmed. He travels regularly to Paris, New York and London, all in the name of research. His bedroom at his parents’ Toorak home is undergoing renovations by Yu, and he’s the proprietor at two of Melbourne’s hippest restaurants, which attract crowds of gorgeous young things. All this before he turns 23 later this month.
Still, it hasn’t all been easy. Before the hordes arrive for dinner at Claremont Tonic, Yu reflects on his greatest achievement so far – The Millswyn. Or is it his greatest hurdle? “Opening destroyed me,” he says. “Physically and mentally it ruined me. I was a shell. I was 19 when I signed the lease. This was my first project, I had no idea and I was going off pure gut instinct.”
As for the criticism, he says: “I feel I’m slowly proving myself. I still hear it but hopefully through the projects that we’ve done, and will continue to do, people will start to see me for what I’m trying to achieve, and not for my age.”
He flashes another of his sunshine smiles. “It’s a long, long journey and it’s still going.”