Irina was born in Russia and came to Melbourne via Adelaide to study law and finance, but fell in love with hospitality. Her career has included restaurant manager roles at venues such as Arintji at Federation Square, gastropub Saint & Rogue and Brighton Baths. Since 2017 she’s been restaurant manager at high-end steakhouse Steer in South Yarra, which celebrates its 10th birthday in 2020. As part of a small team she also finds herself doubling as sommelier and functions manager, and has responsibility for everything from hiring and training to managing the wine list, writing the weekly newsletter or organising essential repairs.
What does a ‘good day in the office’ look like to you?
It starts at home first thing in the morning, checking emails and review platforms. This sets the mood for day. I am at the restaurant by 10am –answering emails, confirming bookings, checking the close-down from the night before – and by 11am we set up for lunch service.
After lunch is my most productive time. Menus and wine lists are reprinted daily, it’s also the time we look at new wines to add to the list. I love to get as many staff involved as possible, including the head chef. I think it really helps to have more than one palate present. Depending on the day we either write up our weekly newsletter or run a staff training. Then the real work begins as we open for dinner.
I like to be hands on when it comes to service, so most nights I host or lend a hand where it’s needed. Lots of cocktail orders in the bar? Jump in and clear the dockets. Large tables plated at the pass? Time to coordinate the food. Almost time for a second seating? Better check that the tables have been cleared and re-set. And so it goes. I believe it is paramount to set the pace; if your staff are well trained they will follow.
What’s the best thing about what you do?
I feel there is no limit to where the restaurant can go and I find that inspiring. When you see tangible results, you feel an enormous sense of pride and accomplishment. But of course when things go wrong, there is really no one else to blame but yourself.
We often hear about the challenges of being a woman (and a mother) in hospitality. Can you identify any of those challenging areas? What have you done to overcome them?
Today I feel secure and supported in my career and at home, but it definitely wasn’t always the case. I can still vividly recall, as a 19-year-old bartender in my first job, a general manager saying: ‘I will never hire a woman as a manager, because they cause too much drama.’ I was so offended it made me work twice as hard and got me through some of the most challenging times in my career. That comment really stuck with me.
Occasionally there are funny moments, when a customer asks for a sommelier or to speak to the manager and I say: ‘That will be me.’ The surprise on their faces is priceless.
Right now, I am facing the ultimate challenge being a working mother of my three-month-old son, Elias. Sometimes it feels like a balancing act with not enough hours in the day. You really need to have your priorities sorted and be prepared to delegate. I am putting a lot of trust in my team at work and have my family supporting me at home. Being time poor can lead to higher efficiency and some truly creative solutions. The trick is to be as organised as possible and to have a plan B. But also be prepared that all plans might go out the window and you just have to adjust and make the most of it.
What are your tips for aspiring chefs, restaurant managers or women in hospitality?
Support each other and build a team around you who will be there for you no matter what. These connections can last a lifetime and it’s more rewarding to share your successes.
What advice would you give your 16-year-old self about forging a career in hospitality?
You can do it. There were definitely days where I wondered whether that 16-hour shift was really worth it. The answer is yes, and it will be what you make of it.
Why is it important to mark International Women’s Day?
I think everyone has a woman in their lives who does an incredible job, whether it’s in her career, as a mother or at home, but who is under-appreciated. It is important to have recognition for the efforts that go into being a woman. We deserve to be celebrated.
Book your table at Steer Dining Room here.