NAÏM On How To Open And Keep The Fire Burning

Editorial Team | Interviews

The co-owner and head chef of NAÏM has successfully brought a little San Francisco chic to a trendy neighbourhood in Brisbane.

Born in Manilla and raised in the US, 30-year-old Vince Estacio came to Australia with Le Cordon Bleu training and Michelin-star experience but admits he always had his eyes set on a place of his own, one that fused people and purpose.

NAÏM, pronounced ‘nay-eem’ like ice cream, is the culmination of opportunity and experience coupled with a heavy dose of “hustle”. Taking its name from the Arabic and Hebrew words that translate to happy and pleasant Estacio took over the NAÏM business from its previous owners and injected his personality into every corner. “The training wheels came off!” He laughs. The café concept offers a modern twist on Middle Eastern cooking, puts an onus on ingredients that pack a flavour punch.

Estacio says working in San Francisco’s competitive restaurant scene forced him to push boundaries in Brisbane. ‘If your restaurant is random or it doesn’t understand what it represents, you best prepare to be eaten alive,’ he explains, hence his reluctance to fall into the trap of running ‘just another Aussie café’.

“You can’t stop, you can’t have a bad day.
If you crumble everything else crumbles.”

Since taking over, Estacio has built a reputation for his signature spin on Middle Eastern brunches and plant-based degustation dinners which go far beyond the standard local fare, marking them out as different to anything else in their Paddington neighbourhood. “They’ve been successful,” he says. “We’re rethinking plant-based cuisine, giving it a more wholesome spin.”

Part of what makes NAÏM different is their collaborative approach to putting on special events and dinner nights with creative conspirators such as Fable Foods, a wholesale producer of mushroom-based meat alternative products. By co-hosting one-off events, customers get the opportunity to experience something unique and allow the chefs to experiment and test the market with new concepts and dishes. “We have a gluten-free night,” Estacio states proudly, a concept that was created in partnership with Victoria’s TWØBAYS Brewing Co who have a line of gluten-free beers.

When asked about the lessons learned through Covid-19, Estacio can’t help but veer towards the word “pivot”, because in his opinion, there is no better term to describe their shift in focus. Like many chefs and restaurant owners, he was unsure of the best approach to negotiating lockdown the first time around. Forced to reduce his overhead from 20 staff to just himself and with no takeaway menu on offer, Estacio turned NAÏM into a temporary local grocery store in a bid to sell some of his excess stock. “I was like, ‘you need flour, I got flour. You need toilet paper. I got toilet paper.”

“Understand what you’re trying to accomplish.
That big picture is really important.”

Recognising that the approach wasn’t sustainable, Estacio reached out to a variety of vendors, specialists, and platforms to set up the necessary elements to move the business online. Estacio and his team hurriedly created NAÏM’s first takeaway menu. Almost serendipitously as he does so, loud dings ring out behind him, a signifier of the orders continuing to flow in online.

Of course, Estacio put his spin on NAÏM’s takeaway menu. Humus bowls were an instant hit and have become a staple menu item but it was his ‘posh’ versions of Australian favourites like his snack packs that generated extra interest. “It’s still wholesome cooking,” he explains, referencing how the frozen chips are replaced by home-cooked potatoes. Essentially, the pressure and problems presented by Covid proved a tipping point for Estacio. “It’s like, all right, are you going to fail or are you going to go at it?”

One of Estacio’s biggest learning comes not by way of advice but by a warning. He acknowledges that passion and enthusiasm drive a restaurant business in the earlier months and years but admits that the wheels can start to slow down. “You’ll see a lot of energy in the first year and then it’s onto next project because the opening is so fun. When it’s up and running, sustaining something is hard”.

He owes much of his success to his network of friends, family and colleagues that give him the necessary lift when he needs it to keep going. “Unfortunately, you cannot have a bad day. if you crumble everything else crumbles.” Estacio is proud to have three and a half years of operations under his belt and banner with NAÏM and sees his position within the local community as a duty as much as he does a business.

“You’re feeding people, that’s a responsibility in itself.”

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