CityMag visited Max Mason at his new Basket Range residence, The Manor, to chat about his lofty ambitions for the 3,000sqm castle/wedding venue, and his recovery from The Henry Austin.
At home in The Manor
“Welcome to the craziest place in South Australia,” Max Mason greets CityMag, as we venture up the courtyard toward his new residence, The Manor Basket Range.
Our host wears a wide smile as he explains the history of the enormous property, and we catch a glimmer in Max’s eye of a boy who has been handed the keys to a kingdom. This is not far from the truth.
“Nineteen thirty-five, this all dates back to,” Max begins.
“Albert Pinchbeck, a guy from Britain, was determined that his future lay here. He was trying to persuade his loved one over here with him, and purportedly she said ‘I’m not fucking going there, it’s got no castles.’ So he built a one-third-sized scale model of Warwick Castle for her.
“[Though] it looks fuck all like Warwick Castle.”
Legend has it that on sight of Albert’s efforts, his paramour fled back to the UK (perhaps due to the failed likeness), casting a dour shadow over what would eventually become the Adelaide Hills’ premiere medieval wedding venue under the stewardship of Hans Racht, who bought the property in 1971 and expanded it to its current 3,000sqm.
Adelaide’s interest in medieval weddings eventually waned, and in the late ‘00s, Hans put Camelot Castle on the market.
“It was bought by a lady in 2013/2014 and she ran it with him for three years or so [and she’s now] rented it to a team, four of us, who are all – apart from me – hospitality experts,” Max laughs.
The assembled team is Max, Naomi Growden, Marcus Dewar, and Alfonso Alés, who all have a history of influence in Adelaide’s CBD and beyond.
Their plan for The Manor is to bring weddings back to the grounds, without niching themselves into such an anachronistic corner.
“I think the way we’ve tuned it, you’re able to have a fairy tale wedding with quite a blank canvas. The building is extraordinary, you can come in and do your own things with it,” Max says.
Along with a small chapel (with working bell) the property has two function rooms, fit for 120 and 240 people respectively, with 12 adjoining units of accommodation.
Alfonso will head up the kitchen, and therefore, Max promises, “the days of chicken or beef are long gone.”
“The whole thing that I like to do in hospitality is promise something and deliver more,” he explains.
“We’re calling it The Manor, you turn up and it’s a castle; we’re offering wedding packages… cooked by a five-star chef and an executive chef that was trained at elBulli; you come up hoping to get a maître d’, and sadly you get me,” Max laughs; “you come up for wines and you end up with Basket Range wines.
“There’s a chance to really set the precedent, and raise the bar.”
The Manor will also play host to non-matrimonial events, such as Fresh Wine Disco, which will take over the courtyard during Tasting Australia. The accommodation will also be open to the general public, and longer term, Max hopes the site will become a focal point for the still burgeoning Adelaide Hills wine region.
“FINO allowed the Barossa to have a huge moment, a rejuvenation; Chester’s cube is now allowing McLaren Vale to have a huge rejuvenation; and if we can have any role in allowing the Adelaide Hills and Basket Range to be next, then that would be fantastic,” Max says.
The Manor will initially offer a small tasting room, but will then expand as the business settles.
As for how the team behind this project has come together, for Max, this venture has been a silver lining to what was the stormiest moment in his hospitality career.
“The wonderful thing that has soothed so many of the bruises and scars from The Henry Austin is that both Marcus and Naomi appreciated the amount of risk I took,” Max says.
“They contacted me a couple of times on Facebook, and I was ignoring everybody, so I ignored it. Eventually I said ‘Ok, I’d love to come up and have a look,’ and I turned up here and… it was just the most brilliant, bizarre, quirky, British place in South Australia.
“They said ‘Would you like to run it?’ I said ‘I have a dog, I have wine, and I’m homeless,’ because The Henry Austin was where I lived. They said ‘Fine, live in with your dog, and we’ll sell your wine for you.’”
Looking back on his “turbulent year,” despite the bruises and scars he mentions, there is still little that Max would change about his experience.
“It would be nice if one learns from one’s mistakes, but I had such a clear vision of what I wanted The Henry Austin to be,” he says.
“I’m still content with the concept, I’m content with the food we were offering, with the service we were offering… and my stubbornness about how much I loved the very concept of The Henry Austin meant that I just left sad that it hadn’t worked.”
Salt to the wound was the announcement, post-closure of The Henry Austin, that his venture had made Gourmet Traveller’s list of Top 10 Restaurants in Adelaide.
“It was one of the greatest achievements any restaurants that I’ve ever had had achieved, and that… was really saddening, you know: ‘I knew this was good,’” he says.
“I think maybe it just wasn’t recognised. It’s a huge challenge to be new in a city that’s as beautifully parochial as Adelaide.
“[However], the thing that I’ve found absolutely beautiful is that affable parochialism that I was probably swearing about [has] now turned on its face, because all the people that know me and know that I tried to accomplish brave things at The Henry Austin are now being absolutely brilliant here.”
A failure in Adelaide can often mean the end of a career, or the start of a very difficult climb back into the city’s favour, and Max is under no illusions that the coin could just as easily have flipped against him.
“It’s the most delightful state/city, in that we all know about a tall poppy syndrome, and it’s very much alive and well,” Max says.
“I think if people appear too big for their boots, the city still regularly scythes them down, even if they’re a huge asset to the state. I think the Royal Croquet Club boys are incredibly brave; the quality of event that they deliver is almost unparalleled anywhere I’ve seen around the world for its scale and budget, and it upsets me how the city treated them.
“I had expected a similar treatment, because I tried something brave and failed in it in many ways, but there’s been a very different reaction thus far – touch wood – to my endeavours.
“Adelaide is certainly a city that’s growing up in its response to failure, and I think that’s a very important part of its puberty, because if it wants to become as brilliant as I think the state will [be] in the next four or five years, it has to allow people to do brave things and sometimes fuck it up.”
Max describes a steel that comes from weathering failure, and it is perhaps this steel gilding his ambition that will see Camelot Castle thrive in its new life as The Manor at Basket Range.