In the summer of 1999, about six months after she’d opened the first fine-dining restaurant on Shanghai’s Bund since 1949, Michelle Garnaut was on holiday in Europe when a friend rang and asked if she’d seen the Chinese papers. The head of the Jin Du group, which had leased her the top floor of the 1920s Nissin Shipping Building from which M on the Bund had such an excellent view of the Huangpu river, had been arrested for corruption. The friend suggested she return immediately. She did. Garnaut had never met the accused man; she’d dealt with a woman further down the chain who’d agreed to grant the lease on discovering they’d been born four days apart, in 1957. Destiny now looked less accommodating. The building was barely occupied and utility and maintenance bills, including one for 750,000 yuan from the company that had just restored the lift, were piling up on Garnaut’s seventh-floor doorstep. While Garnaut had been looking at properties around Shanghai, she’d offered the job of her assistant to a highly capable property agent, who’d declined but knew someone who might be good for the role. This was Carey Liu Xiaying, whose official title is now operations manager. As Garnaut likes to say, Liu interviewed her and began work in December 1998. When the summer crisis blew up, it was level-headed, unflappable Liu who kept things going. “I think that was the turning-point,” says Garnaut, re-enacting it with a grin in her Mid-Levels flat. She has a taste for retrospective drama; when she gets really worked up, her low-ish voice rises until it sounds like the cockatoos swooping beyond her window. “Carey would come to me and say, ‘Today, the High Court came.’ The what? The who? The High Court came to visit? ‘Yes, they came and they said don’t worry.’ Oh good … worry about what? ‘They said we pay our rent now to them.’ We had instructions from the court if anyone wanted to claim we were to report them immediately, we weren’t to pay anything, and they sorted it out.” In September 1999, she signed a new lease. “Even though I knew a hundred more things might go wrong, I thought, ‘Oh, all right.’ I think there’s this accusation about China that it’s completely corrupt, that everyone’s corrupt, and it’s not true. Yes, there’s corruption but you don’t have to deal with it. I said, right at the beginning, ‘I’m not bribing anybody, I’m not paying anybody, and if we go broke, that’s how it is’.” This year, it’s 30 years since M at the Fringe – originally Michelle’s at the Fringe – opened in Hong Kong. It’s 20 years since M on the Bund opened in Shanghai. It’s 10 years since Capital M opened in Beijing. Those neatly spaced anniversaries suggest 2019 will be the year a new M-opening – in an original setting, stylishly cosy, with a menu offering M’s “famous pavlova” among many other favourites – will take place. Plenty of diners would be delighted to hear that that’s the case. But no. M at the Fringe closed in 2009 and its loss is still felt by some long-term Hong Kong expats. Capital M closed in 2017. It, too, was mourned (people cried during the final week) though not quite so keenly, which was part of the problem. M on the Bund has survived, still in the Nissin Shipping Building. The Glamour Bar used to exist on the floor below but that closed in 2014, after a huge rent increase. Now, when you get out of the seventh-floor lift, you can either turn left for the restaurant or right for Glam, the lounge bar. The lift, incidentally, isn’t the same one that needed fixing in 1999. A new one was put in some years ago and its buttons bear the labels of the building’s food & beverage outlets: Royal China Club, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Taihedian Hotpot. These days, there’s even a spa on the second floor. But M still reigns at the top and, when you stand on her terrace, you can still hear the chimes of the nearby Shanghai Customs House playing The East is Red . Little has changed in the restaurant’s decor: loosely arranged flowers, screens, unadorned windows, thick tablecloths and napkins, decent cutlery, comfy seating. Glam has mismatched chairs and mismatched art and copies of the Shanghai Literary Review . (Garnaut has been running the Shanghai Literary Festival since 2003.) Only a handwritten sign suggests the passage of the decades: “Hey there! Don’t use our WiFi for Tinder – talk to our customers instead.” Anyone who has visited Garnaut at home immediately understands where the restaurants’ style originated. I first interviewed her in 1999 and since then I’ve been to M’s restaurants, and her various residences, in Shanghai, Beijing as well as Hong Kong. Her taste – a mash-up of old silver teapots, new art and oddities culled from Asia’s bazaars, as if Freya Stark had taken up decorating with the Bloomsbury group – remains consistent. To witness Garnaut in action at a Shanghai antiques market is a lesson in vision, possibility and determination. You and I might see a useless, ugly lamp; she sees an object that, with encouragement, will bring beauty and a retro glow to some bookish corner. “I wanted to be an interior designer,” she says, having set out separate trays with vintage teacups and toast (she’s a big believer in comfort food), a silver tea-pot – always loose tea, never bags – and various marmalades, including one made by her “Auntie Di”, better known as Diana Marsland, who runs a cooking school in Australia. “My wall had pictures of Mick Jagger interspersed with Frank Lloyd Wright houses. I wasn’t up with who designers were, I just loved beautiful rooms. The first thing I ever bought, at 15, was a sofa – a 1930s, massive sofa.” That was in Melbourne, where she was born the eldest of nine children, a family position that she says explains certain aspects of her character. “Somebody said to me at the last Literary Festival, ‘You’re quite bossy’, and I said, ‘If I wasn’t bossy, this wouldn’t be happening so sit down and shut up!’” She doesn’t have children but her childhood may also explain a strong nurturing quality and an emphatic, it’s-good-for-you generosity. She adored her good-looking, extravagant father; he adored restaurants, the high life and food though he cooked only twice a year “and made the biggest mess you ever saw and the biggest drama you ever heard; typical male”. He had, she says, an enormous ego. “And he was an enormous philanderer.” She’d used this word in a Sydney Morning Herald interview last summer and I knew it hadn’t gone down well with some members of her family, but when I point this out, she says, “Why do we have to lie? It’s completely unacceptable that men should get away with this and everyone should be quiet.” Her maternal grandparents, with whom she stayed frequently when she was a child, were, by contrast, “very Catholic, very stable”. They’d moved into their Melbourne house in 1939, and never left. Her grandmother was an excellent plain cook who timed each dish by how many cigarettes she smoked, and taught her granddaughter to make scones. Garnaut loved her, too. Which side does she resemble? “My father – the ego. You’ve got to have a pretty healthy ego to be entrepreneurial.” And also, presumably, to name a restaurant after yourself. “I didn’t want to call it Michelle’s at all! Michael [Nock, her business partner] insisted on two things. He insisted I call it Michelle’s because then I had to be there, I couldn’t be disappearing. And he insisted we had pavlova on the menu.” (Nock, a Hong Kong-based Australian financier and trained artist, says that his inspiration for the name came in Los Angeles after an “absolutely divine” meal in a place on Santa Monica’s 3rd Street called Michael’s. And he’d asked Garnaut, then doing private catering, to make a pavlova “like my mum’s” for his 30th birthday, which is how it ended up on the menu.) As it was part of the Fringe Club, in the old Dairy Farm cold-storage godown on Icehouse Street, officially it was Michelle’s at the Fringe. “But everyone called it Michelle’s until we went to Shanghai and I called that one M on the Bund.” The Chinese translation for M on the Bund still bears her name: “Michelle’s Western restaurant”. Garnaut arrived in Hong Kong in 1984 with – the expat cliché – no intention of staying. She was 27. Her father had died when she was 16. She’d left home at 17, halfway through her final year at school, and moved into a sufficiently dodgy area that she slept with a knife under her pillow. Many flats followed. When I suggest that the instinct to create a wraparound home environment began then, she replies, “I used to be able to do it in a day. I had vases, pictures in frames, any bit of old crap for a dollar in a junk shop.” Although she’d eventually gone to Monash University, she’d dropped out, travelled, then enrolled at Melbourne’s William Angliss Institute to do a diploma in catering management, which she also didn’t finish. Instead, she went to Leiths School of Food and Wine in London with Auntie Di; the pair of them shared a flat in which they dined on the day’s lessons. In Hong Kong, she initially cooked for 97, the restaurant named for the then far-off year of the British handover to China. She had a brief marriage. She was a transient person who’d come to a transient place and she wasn’t the first to find it suited her. She says she fell into the food & beverage industry because she’d been waitressing since she was 15. “I’ve had 40 years of being a glorified waitress.” Is that really what it’s felt like? She considers this. “I would say for the first 20 years. And that last year in Beijing, I was basically waitressing, I was working on the floor. I had to.” The day before the Hong Kong unveiling, in November 1989, she was crying when her friend Annabel Graham, who wrote about food for the South China Morning Post , arrived “and slapped me around the face and said ‘Stop that! That’s enough!’” Graham, who now lives in New Zealand, says, “I remember, very clearly, it was uncleaned, silver cutlery she was stressing about. I don’t remember slapping her but I was quite stern.” Yet, the M brand seemed to land fully-formed. It’s true that the man from Wing Lung Bank, who wondered why no cash was being lodged, was astonished to learn it was being stored in a black bag in a fridge every night. And when journalists began ringing for interviews, she was baffled and cranky. (“Don’t be ridiculous, I haven’t got time.”) But its eccentric, yet traditional, furnishings and its lighthearted, yet serious, approach to food have – like that whimsical, yet insistent, curly M – never changed. Eve Roth Lindsay, then working as a fashion designer for Allan Zeman, was asked to design uniforms around the M logo. Eventually, she did all three restaurants and The Glamour Bar. (She also set up image consultancy Colour Me Beautiful in Hong Kong; Michelle’s mother, Angela, was her first client. Anyone who spends time with Garnaut is soon clasped to the family bosom.) “She had a vision and saw it through from the [Hong Kong designer] Paola Dindo wall paintings to her famous three-legged cello chairs,” says Roth Lindsay, who was also an early investor. As older Hong Kong residents will recall, those wobbly chairs became five-legged after diners, including the wife of HSBC chairman Sir William Purves, fell off them. “That only happened for the first five weeks,” Garnaut maintains. “If people said they fell off in the second year, it was because they were drunk.” Every year there was an effervescent shareholders’ lunch. Once, when extra shares became available and Garnaut held a draw, Roth Lindsay won. Garnaut asked her if she’d mind offering them to the staff. “Which of course I did,” writes Roth Lindsay. “Her staff were loyal and she wanted them to be part of the success. She held them forever which is a hard thing to do in the restaurant business.” Lots of people say, ‘Oh you made so many people happy.’ And I’m, like, ‘Well, I’m glad you were happy – I wasn’t happy’ Michelle Garnaut The majority of those shareholders were bought out in 2012. “Most of them were not in the region any more and not involved so we decided to simplify matters,” Garnaut explains. According to Nock’s calculations, original investors made 54 times their money – “unheard of in a restaurant”. By then, other aspects of her business life had become complicated. She knows restaurants feed emotions as well as stomachs, and so she’s often associated with wistfully tender memories of cheerful occasions. “Lots of people say, ‘Oh you made so many people happy.’ And I’m, like, ‘Well, I’m glad you were happy – I wasn’t happy.’” At first, she’d hesitated to expand into China. But she felt that her manager, Bruno van der Burg, and her chef, Andrew McConnell (now a culinary star twinkling in Melbourne), might not stay without a challenge. There was no shortage of those in Shanghai. Initially, she had to contend with old China hands sagely stating it couldn’t be done on the Bund; later, she had to contend with the culinary competition deciding the Bund was the only place to be. “I think fear of failure keeps you going,” she says. She does a brief imitation of her M persona – genteel chit-chat out front, squawk-swearing in the kitchen – that’s like a Chengdu face-changing performance, alternate masks of charm and stress. And failure did come to Shanghai, in 2001: Rollo di Pollo (where Glam is now located) briefly served rotisserie chicken and pizza, was intended to attract a cheaper, younger local crowd and was “a disaster”. Still, M on the Bund was making money. Garnaut had been seriously looking in Guangzhou but she began to focus on the north. Although she spent years carefully assessing possibilities, Beijing would become “a bloody nightmare”. What happened? There’s a pause. (Listening to the tape afterwards, I can hear her swallow and the vehement rattle of a teacup.) “It was the wrong time, the wrong place, the wrong location, the wrong size with the wrong people. What else would you like wrong?” She’d decided on a space so close to Tiananmen Square you could see the Zhengyang Gate from its terrace; it looked spectacular, especially at night. The location, however, was both the attraction and the problem. From the beginning, there were security issues when access became difficult. The year she opened in Beijing, 2009, was also the year M at the Fringe closed, during renovations at the Fringe Club. Shutting down her first-born took up more of her attention – and emotion – than cultivating her newest addition. For years afterwards, she kept someone on to look at properties all over Hong Kong because she truly believed she’d be back; it was supposed to be M followed by a comma, not M full stop. Capital M closed its 1,600 square metres in 2017. “Somebody said, ‘Ah, but you wouldn’t not do it again.’ If I had a crystal ball and saw that’s what it was going to be like, there’s no way I’d do it again. What I really want to put on record is that it was not the government. The government inadvertently made it difficult because they blocked roads but that had nothing to do with us, zero. It was a location for Chinese provincial tourists and that’s not our customer.” I’d like to roll what we do, the M brand, into some like-minded, bigger organisation. I’d like to still have a say but I don’t want to be entirely responsible Michelle Garnaut In her Mid-Levels flat is a stack of M Lunar New Year cards, which she hands out to departing visitors, as she would if she still had a restaurant here. She mails 6,000 of these cards annually, including one to Edith and George Piness, from San Francisco, who were in M on the Bund the night of 9/11, who found comfort at a time of trauma and who kept in touch. Not everyone’s M memories are, necessarily, happy; but they’re often heartfelt. These days, given the speed with which Hong Kong’s culinary scene mutates, she’s M on the fringe. After a lengthy, fruitless tango with the Jockey Club and its Central Police Station project, Hong Kong’s bureaucracy means there won’t be another M restaurant here. Meanwhile, some of her former staff run a venture using M recipes, including pavlova, in a Sheung Wan cooked-food market. When I ask about this, she refrains from comment; amid all the frank laughter, certain hurts in this anniversary year are best ignored. There’s a sense of taking stock, that she’s waiting for the right proposal to move on. “I’d like to roll what we do, the M brand, into some like-minded, bigger organisation,” she says. “I’d like to still have a say but I don’t want to be entirely responsible.” At the end of 2017, Van der Burg moved back to the Netherlands. To him, Garnaut had been mentor, flat mate and global companion. “We travelled half the world together,” he says, when we meet in Amsterdam. But after 18 years in China, he wanted a break. Garnaut, of course, continues. “All the staff in Shanghai are her children. She would never walk away from it.” Last year, Canberra awarded Garnaut the Order of Australia for “distinguished service to Australia-China relations as a restaurateur and entrepreneur [...] and as a role model”. Among those present for the ceremony at the Australian embassy in Beijing were her mother, Auntie Di, Graham and Van der Burg; Nock gave her a painting he’d done of M on the Bund, still sailing high on top of the Nissin Shipping Building, still weathering storms. Now in Hong Kong, she fastens the AO pin, which is supposed to be worn in public, to her outfit, ready to face the camera. “Have you eaten?” she asks the photographer.