In 1998, German-born Fred and New York-born Leslye Thies took over a private residence originally built in 1857 as Heathcote’s Emeu Hotel. The original building, with a concert hall and a butcher shop, was one of the thirty pubs in Heathcote in the late 1850s.
“People often comment on the spelling of Emeu,” says Leslye. “Emeu is the Portuguese word for ostrich. We have been told that there were Portuguese in the area during the gold rush days. When they saw an emu they thought it was an ostrich, hence the Emeu Hotel name back in 1857.” One hundred and forty years later, the name Emeu was restored, along with the building.
“We initially had three bed and breakfast suites and a twenty six seat restaurant. By 2006 we added three more luxury suites, a self-contained cottage, and a twenty six seat restaurant with an additional sixteen seats for al fresco dining. Our Wine Centre had over 70 wine labels from the Heathcote region.”
Leslye grew up in New York where her mother worked in the banking industry and her father was a house painter. “I had two younger sisters, and I used to help a babysitter look after them when our mother was at work,” she says. “When I was around fourteen years old my mother spent a long period in hospital and I then looked after my father and sisters.
“There was a school for blind children near our home. From the age of twelve I did a lot of work with kids at that school. I decided at that early age that I wanted to teach blind kids. As well as teaching I also worked for an accreditation agency for blind teachers, and managed a rehabilitation program for blind and deafblind people.
“I was working for the American Foundation for the Blind as a low vision consultant when, in 1990, I travelled to Australia to present a paper at a Low Vision Conference in Melbourne. I thought that I might never get to return to Australia so I took some leave, toured around Sydney and North Queensland, then travelled to Melbourne to present my research before returning to the US.”
Fred was born in Frechen, a town that dates back to the ninth century. “My father was an independent businessman who, among other things, invented a copying machine. He was a keen traveller, as was my mother. We discovered late in her life that she had developed a hankering for big American motorbikes!”
Fred started his chef’s apprenticeship at the age of fourteen in Germany’s Black Forest. He had uncles in that area who were involved in the food industry. “One was a well known chef, another was in charge of the dining cars on German railways. My father had an extensive wine cellar, so I grew up in a wine culture.”
In 1962, at the age of seventeen, Fred emigrated to Australia with his family, after finishing his chef training. “We were effectively German ‘ten pound poms.’ We brought with us our Volkswagen Beetle, which travelled on the top deck of our ship. When we first arrived, we received two pounds per week plus our keep, but we had our car so we could tour around the countryside. My parents had friends in Adelaide and decided to buy a house there.
“I worked in the bakery at Myer where I had the challenge of lighting the oil-fired oven. The oven had a sump on the lower level and we mixed oil and gas to light it. One day it blew up, just after all the freshly creamed sponges were laid out on the table. There was cream and cake all over the floor, the tables and the walls.”
Fred became the first apprentice to work at the Southern Cross Hotel in Melbourne, later supervising eighteen other apprentices. He travelled extensively as a chef, working in Durbin, South Africa and in Germany. In Australia he worked for Chrysler in its corporate kitchen in Adelaide and at Flemington Race Course where he supervised food preparation for the Melbourne Cup.
He was working at the Mornington Hotel when he realised that he needed a higher salary. His then employer could not afford to pay him more, so Fred left. The problem was that it was not so easy to get a higher paying job. He needed to find a way of making some money. Armed with a kitchen whizz and his vast food knowledge, he “came up with a recipe by luck ” which led to a whole new career as an entrepreneur.
“In France, pâté is based on duck liver, but in Australia it is based on chicken liver,” explains Fred. “I experimented with a bit of this and a bit of that and came up with a recipe for chicken liver pâté. I tested it at the Caribbean Gardens market, selling it in little plastic cups, and discovered that I had invented a very profitable product.
“I found a factory, bought an old Colonel Sanders stove with big wok burners and built the pâté manufacturing business into a multimillion dollar business making three tonnes of pâté per week. I was exporting Australian pâté to Europe and it was thrilling to take my product to the European Food Exhibition in Cologne, close to Frechen where I was born.
“Austrade assisted my company with its export activities, and we were featured in a book titled ‘Australia’s Best Products’which Austrade published and distributed to embassies around the world. When I was approached by Don Smallgoods to make a pâté product for them I suggested that they might like to consider a take over, which they did. I ran a larger factory in Dandenong for Don, then they moved production to their Altona site.
“My next brief entrepreneurial move was into land development, then I worked for a small speciality company called The Vital Ingredient, now The Essential Ingredient. In and out of the best kitchens in Melbourne, I got itchy feet. I wanted my own kitchen.”
One day, Fred was in Brisbane, waiting for his ‘mystery flight’ to return him to Melbourne. Leslye was on her flight to Melbourne after touring North Queensland. Her flight had a scheduled stop at Brisbane where Fred sat down in the seat next to her. “By the time we reached Melbourne I knew I wanted to marry her,” says Fred.
How could you know so quickly? “Simple,” says Fred. “Her charisma. Who would not want to marry her?” Leslye took a little longer to make up her mind. She returned home to the US and they conducted a long distance romance for a year or so until Leslye agreed to marry him. They lived in Melbourne for seven years before moving to Heathcote to open Emeu Inn where he could have his own kitchen again.
They decided to open a new business offering accommodation and food. “We had a long list of criteria including proximity to Melbourne, the airport and the snow. We looked for a town with history, no restaurant and an interesting building in the main street. Heathcote met them all.
Leslye and Fred arrived when the Heathcote wine region was just starting to take off. The October Heathcote Wine and Food festival is now an annual event that attracts some three thousand visitors. Fred was the brainchild for the event and Emeu Inn was the venue for the first festival.
“One day in 2001, Fred said, ‘Heathcote needs a wine and food festival,’ says Leslye. “The first one happened in 2002, here at Emeu Inn. There were twenty two exhibitors. We had yabby races and jazz music as well as wine tasting. It was buzzing for two days, such good fun, we got very positive feedback. We invited Heathcote Winery and the Yabby Farm to be our partners in the event, and the rest is history. I continued to write the grant applications for the festival fgor the next two years, and Fred sat on the organising committee for a few years as well. It’s gone from strength to strength, moving to the Heathcote Showgrounds in 2003.” Leslye has also been involved in other community groups such as the Heathcote Hospital Board.
“After thirteen years we are closing the Emeu Inn public restaurant,” says Leslye. “We will continue to run the accommodation business and provide meals for our inhouse customers. We’ve enjoyed watching the community grow. We’ll be sad to retire from the public restaurant business, but we’ll be more free to travel and attend family events such as watching our grandchildren in their school plays and concerts. We look forward to seeing Heathcote continue to develop as a tourism destination.”