When COVID-19 left Ella Stening and her two friends Anna Ugarte and Elizabeth Mitchell jobless, the trio wasted no time in putting their years of hospitality experience to good use.
“All of a sudden the three of us were spending a lot of time talking about what was happening in our industry, forced to assess what we really wanted, where we were going and what we were good at,” says Ella, who previously ran a bottle shop. Elizabeth had been working as a restaurant chef while Anna’s plans to open a restaurant in Ibiza were put on hold.
The global pandemic had forced Ella’s housemate to move home, freeing up a room in her Sydney terrace house. “It was an appropriate size for a dining room and I thought, why not a one-night restaurant?”
Two weeks later, Ten Hats was born. The bistro, which now hosts events once every six weeks in secret locations across Sydney, features decadent seven-course meal menus (think ‘70s-themed dinner party with French chicken galantine, cold melon soups, sauternes custard-filled eggs, aspics and jellies), curated wine, live performance, art and music.
“The time away from work really allowed us the space to create and be creative,” Ella says, adding the first event at her home was an Italian trattoria with red-checkered tablecloths, bow ties and Italian dinner songs. “It was magnificent. The girls prepared and cooked everything in my kitchen, I played the flute and my partner sang. We rolled out seven courses and plenty of wine — it was so warm and beautiful. Everyone felt so inspired afterwards and we knew we had to do it again.”
Since then, the trio and Maddison Costello, who works in administration, have held several themed events including “House of Prime Rib” and “Club Ibiza”, which featured a pig on a spit and a dish called Treasure Island — a tartlet filled with salted egg yolk custard, handmade pastry, sea grapes, caviar and tuna and kingfish sashimi. Each event is held in a different location and space depending on the event concept, energy and mood and is always kept a secret.
While it has been challenging figuring out how to organise an event within a time limit and budget, Ella says the highlight has been seeing the glow on people’s faces when they eat and make new friends at Ten Hats events.
“Someone said we were dealing in intimacy and collective joy, something we’ve been denied all year,” she says. “To put a group of strangers in a room and they all end up as mates? That really stunned me. It is not like that in normal hospitality and I really hope it stays.”
For magazine editor, Francesca Wallace, dinner events have always played an important part in bringing friends and family together. When the COVID-19 lockdown forced Sydney into isolation, she decided to combine her love of dinner parties and home interiors to create Thekla, a small and sustainable range of bespoke napkins and tablecloths.
“I had the idea during the COVID-19 lockdown as we were preparing to come out of heavy restrictions and starting to have people over again,” Francesca says. “In those first weeks when we were allowed to socialise, I was having lunches and dinners with friends and doing a lot of table settings, which is when I realised there was definitely a market for Thekla pieces.”
Inspired by her travels, particularly to Italy and Denmark, each product is handsewn together by Francesca, her mother and another local seamstress at her home in Sydney. With a sustainable philosophy in mind, Thekla’s threads are mostly sourced from vintage fabrics or supplies of designer deadstock, fabrics that have been discarded by brands and designers that usually end up in landfill. The few fabrics that are newly bought are purchased from small boutiques with the aim of supporting local suppliers and artisans.
“Working in fashion as my day job, I know there’s a huge environmental impact on the planet due to textiles,” Francesca says. “It’s notoriously one of the worst industries for pollution, so I wanted to try as hard as possible to minimise the impact of any textiles I used on the environment. I give the fabrics a second life and ensure we’re maintaining as circular an economy as possible. It’s not perfect and no product can ever truly be sustainable, but I hope that given the handmade nature of Thekla pieces that people will keep them forever and use them for as long as possible.”
Despite Thekla’s first collection selling out in two days, Francesca has no plans to scale up the business anytime soon. “Keeping our pieces in small batches and handmade, Thekla is able to avoid the pressure on the environment that bigger businesses face. And, prioritising deadstock, vintage or locally sources fabrics helps adhere to that ethos.”
Creating a nice space to host family and friends has become even more important to Francesca this year, following lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions. “Being locked away from friends and family has really tested the importance of connection. And with restaurants closed for quite a few months, I think we all discovered how intimate and special it is to host your loved ones at home,” she says. “I know it’s made me appreciate the simple things and having a group over for a home-cooked meal now really reinforces how lucky we are to share not only a beautiful meal, but also the safe space of a warm home and company.”