On June 5, 1989, Michelle Garnaut walked into a Central bank and asked for a loan to start a restaurant. It was the day after tanks had rumbled into Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong was like a graveyard. 'They laughed at me,' the Australian culinary entrepreneur recalls. Nobody is laughing today at the forthright woman who has created two of the most famed restaurants in Hong Kong and Shanghai. M at the Fringe, an ochre-green-red-and-yellow walled niche upstairs from the Fringe Club, is now celebrating its 10th anniversary. In Shanghai, overlooking the famed facade of the flood-lit Victorian-era banks and Edwardian counting houses, M on the Bund is on the cutting edge of that city's new gastronomy-led cultural revival. So successful is Ms Garnaut that she recently won the annual Business Entrepreneurial Award at the ANZ Australian Business Awards. Commuting between the two restaurants, Ms Garnaut is a constant whirl of new menus, wine lists, staff rosters and financial plans. 'I should have franchised the financial arrangements, not the restaurant,' she comments. Over the past decade, a number of hopeful professionals, financial investors and normally intelligent people who thought it would be nice to own a slice of an eatery plunged considerable money into dining establishments. Some have succeeded. Many more have failed. Ms Garnaut lays down a few of the ground rules she imposed. When the bank was not forthcoming with a loan, she gritted her teeth and raised half the needed cash from her mother, the other half from her sister Nicole (of Post 97) and 60 per cent finance from 20 investors. Seeing how some high-society Hong Kong investors plunged money into expensive restaurants, then expected to be fed there for nothing, she instituted the first rule: 'There's no free lunch!' All investors pay for everything they order. Getting the eatery on a strict business basis was probably a greater challenge to her than any problems that cropped up in the kitchen or with the decorating. When she started on what many regarded as a doomed mission to open her own restaurant, Ms Garnaut had already been a prominent member of Hong Kong's international foodie scene for several years. She was involved in Post 97 when that restaurant was making waves in 1985, striking out in new directions. She recalls being a one-woman kitchen brigade, juggling stacks of pans in one hand and frying steaks with the other. She worked, she talked to kindred-inspired cooks, she listened, she learned. By the time she was ready to go to the bank, Ms Garnaut had fixed in her mind pretty much the establishment she wanted to open. 'I was pig-headed,' she admits. 'I thought there was not a good restaurant outside a hotel in Hong Kong. And they were so stuffy! They were places you went only on a very special occasion.' What she wanted was a place of casual elegance, where the food was exciting and fresh, but not fancy, and the prices were reasonable. Ms Garnaut talks a lot about ethics and honesty. What has this to do with my order of pumpkin soup and grilled black cod? Quite a lot, she assures me. For her, ethics means giving people the best you have, providing customers with value. 'You set down rules and principles and follow them,' she says. That applies outside the restaurant, too. Having a good streak of Aussie independence, she was outraged a few years ago when France carried out nuclear tests in the Pacific. She promptly banned French champagne and all other French products. Not having French cheeses hurt the most, she notes. Some of her financial advisers and partners were dismayed. Wouldn't this cost money? Ms Garnaut replied that principles came first and she was determined to take her stand against what she saw as senseless attacks on the Pacific environment. As it turned out, M at the Fringe picked up business. People supported her. She was out on the street pouring champagne down the gutter as a sign of protest. Customers happily turned to bubbly from California, Australia, Spain and Chile. In 10 years, nothing much has changed. The decor remains the mixture of faded Tuscan shades you find in the back streets of Florence. Many of the staff have been there since the start, and some are now investors. 'We're not cheap,' she says, noting that prices have inevitably gone up, but have certainly not kept in tandem with rising costs. 'We're not fashionable,' she explains. 'People don't come here to be seen. We're not smart. We're about good food at fair prices.' Her girlhood ambition was simple: she wanted to be a waitress. 'I loved it,' she says, looking back at happily serving wedding and anniversary crowds in country towns in Victoria. She won a scholarship to Australia's Monash University, but found liberal arts boring. She yearned for the kitchen and dining hall. She travelled to Greece, did some cooking, went back to Melbourne to the noted William Angliss College which trains catering staff, then to London to work and study with the famed cooking guru Prue Leith. She cooked on the Orient Express and in a staid gentlemen's club in Melbourne, before coming to Hong Kong and instantly hating the place. That feeling has changed. At Post 97, she recalls, there was 'a team of four mad women, me included' working 100 hours a week trying to make it a success. The idea of her own restaurant bubbled into life. It was not an instant success; 'there's been a lot of work done'. But over the years, it has become one of the recognised icons on the Hong Kong food map. Next, Shanghai. 'I looked down the Bund and knew what I wanted,' she recalls. It was easier to imagine than to achieve. Finally, she got premises. Today, under the stewardship of the suave Bruno van der Berg, the northern M is twice as big as the one in Ice House Street and it pulls in virtually every VIP who visits Shanghai. 'Secret?' she asks. 'There's no secret. You serve excellent-quality food at a fair price with skilled staff in a pleasant atmosphere . . . well, it's not easy, but it's not a state secret.'