We chat with Matty Opai: Our 2023 Bar Manager of the Year talks hard work, hospo & mentors

Story by Andy Ratcliff. Reach him andrewjohn@me.com

Photography: Nikki To (supplied) Christopher Pearce (Bar Awards)

Matty Opai is the Bar Manager of Icebergs Dining Room in Bondi. Possibly the most iconic restaurant in the country with sweeping views of our most famous beach. If you’ve met Matty, you will never forget him. A giant amongst men with a smile to match, he has forged his career through a friendly and skillful approach to serving his guests. After nine years at Icebergs, he recently won bar manager of the year at the Australian Bartender Magazine Bar Awards.

Where did you get your start in the industry?
Back home in New Zealand, hospitality wasn’t my thing. But when I had a chance for a three-month holiday in Australia, I landed a kitchen gig at Northies in Cronulla, washing dishes for the summer. I arrived in December, planning to head back in March with a newfound appreciation for life.
I climbed up the kitchen ladder, realizing I was better at crafting pizza, pasta, and salads than scrubbing plates. The manager offered me extra hours as a glassy, and I found joy in carrying glasses, competing to hold as many as possible, all while having a blast. Within eighteen months, I became one of the duty managers.
After a change in ownership, I took a break and landed a job at the Rum Diaries in Bondi, but it wasn’t my vibe. Luckily, a friend hooked me up as a barback at Icebergs. Those initial shifts blew my mind! I hadn’t anticipated the level of difference and the concept that the more you learn, the less you know. It was one of the best summers of my life.

The iconic view at Icebergs

You’ve made some great drinks over the years, how did you learn your craft?
As a barback, I’d collect every spec from every menu and plaster them on the scullery wall. I’ve got a decent memory, but I’d read and re-read those specs every chance I got.

This year marks your ninth year at Icebergs. What has it been like to see the venue evolve over the years?
I’ve seen some serious characters over the years but due to the transient lifestyle in Bondi, we can turn over around eighty casuals a year. It’s heartbreaking not being able to sponsor all these incredibly talented people that work with us but I’ve forged some great relationships and I’ll always have a place to stay when I’m in Europe.

Do you have a mentor that has helped you through the years?
Oh yeah! Lenny Opai, my cousin. I don’t want to give him more of an ego boost (and you can print that!) but he’s taught me everything I know. We butt heads constantly but we’re good together and it’s worked well. He used to work at the Bayswater Brasserie back in the day and has trained some of the best talent in the industry.
Another is Rachel Duffy, who is a hardass Kiwi that busted my balls but once we got to know each other I realized she has a heart of gold. I’m pleased to say we are great mates.
And of course, Maurice Terzini. He’s an icon, a genius and a savant. He’ll rock up some days, set the room up depending on where the sun sits in the sky and I’ll try to copy it and paste it in my brain. He’s a genius for the tiny details. He really cares about the people who work for him. I feel like he’s almost too far ahead of the times. He predicts trends years before they happen.

“A friend hooked me up as a barback at Icebergs. Those initial shifts blew my mind! I hadn’t anticipated the level of difference and the concept that the more you learn, the less you know. It was one of the best summers of my life.”

You probably get more celebrity guests than any venue in the country. How do you navigate that and keep them coming back?
We have a really good core of people who are in every week. It’s a community vibe with hugs on the door and positivity. We have a lot of well-known people who come in and we offer them complete discretion and a place where they can relax and be themselves without having to worry about the judgment of the outside world. We protect our guests and we’re very professional.

Do you think you’ll stick around for a while or do you have plans to do your own thing one day?
I’ve got no plans of leaving but one day it would be good to open my own place I’d love to do something similar to what the boys at Chuck Trailers are doing. I like that sort of small bar vibe.

Winning Bar Manager of the Year with Hendrick’s Ambassador James Macrae

You’ve recently won Bar Manager of the Year. Have you got any advice for the younger bartenders or managers out there?
The most crucial bit of advice I could give that shaped what I do was given to me by Len. It was my first few weeks barbacking and thinking I could be a bartender. I had a bit of a whinge to him and he flipped around and said, ‘If you don’t like something, work your ass off, get to the top and change it!’. So I worked my ass off and got to the top and realized, fair enough, he was right all along.

Can you talk us through the experience of winning the award?
To be honest it took me ages to get up there on stage as I wasn’t expecting to win it and was then mobbed! I have a great memory of Toby Hilton putting my jacket on me and then picking up Wee James on the stage. I couldn’t have done anything without the team around me so this is as much theirs as it is mine.

You can visit Matty at the recently refurbished Icebergs Dining Room & Bar.