Michelle Garnaut – AO, Restaurateur, Philanthropist

Attended Elwood High School 1970 – 1975

Michelle is an internationally respected restaurateur, pioneer of modern fine dining in China and a philanthropist. She was awarded an AO in 2018 for “distinguished service to Australia-China relations as a restaurateur and entrepreneur, to the promotion of Australian food, film and design, as a supporter of literary and cultural programs, and as a role model”.

“Elwood High was a wonderful melting pot and we all managed to get along pretty well, we had so many wonderful dedicated teachers and of course it is they who made all the difference. I loved going to school, I loved nearly all of the classes I did and most of the teachers were a fabulous bunch of people who really cared about their students and their subjects, and through this were able to infuse a love of their topics into the students of the time.

It was an invaluable experience in my life to have gone to such a mixed school, I had to learn to get along with everyone, from all walks of life and it prepared me well, giving me an open mind, enthusiasm for many subjects and a zest for all the experiences life has to offer”.

Michelle was one of the earliest pioneers of modern fine-dining in China, opening M at the Fringe in Hong Kong in 1989 and M on the Bund in Shanghai in 1999. Today, her M Restaurant Group includes three restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing. Michelle also founded the Shanghai and Capital Literary Festivals, the Shanghai Chamber Music Festival and Competition and the M Literary Residency. The Shanghai International Literary Arts Festival is attended by over 1,000 of the world’s leading writers and thinkers.

Michelle was a founder of the Village People Project, dedicated to building solar-powered bathhouses that are then run as businesses by local families. Four bathhouses have been opened. “Living and working in China I wanted to do something that was not just restaurants. There is enormous rural poverty and I wanted to work with women and children there. The lack of access to bathing facilities in poor rural areas leads to great physical and mental problems,“ said Michelle in an interview with magazine “Women going places”. Now the Village People Project is working to install bathrooms with solar-powered water heaters in the homes of more than 2,000 families in Qinghai Province. “We want to provide solar panels to everyone in the village and help individuals to build their own household bathroom. It is a communal project with 3 out of the 5 committee members being women. It empowers the local women,” says Michelle.

In Beijing and Shanghai, she spearheads Mentor Walks, where up-and-coming professional women can seek advice from experienced mentors. These groups have now spread to Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and even Wagga Wagga. The idea is that on a monthly basis, women Mentors from a range of professions, take a walk with 3-4 women starting out in business and the professions and answer any questions they may have. Michelle believes the Mentor Walks are effective because “You get snippets (of information) that resonate with you and stay with you…I think it’s very important for all women to encourage and mentor the next generation. I laid the groundwork in my industry and I’m happy to share that with anyone who wants to learn from it.”

Mentor Walks raises money for an education project for girls and young women in China, known as Educating Girls in Rural China (EGRC). EGRC supports girls from impoverished rural regions in Western China to attend high school and receive a university education by providing them with financial sponsorship, personal support and mentorship. To date, 842 girls from the poorest regions of China have been supported to attend high school and university with a 99% graduation rate.

Michelle is the recipient of many international honours, including the inaugural award in Food at the Advance Global Australian Awards in 2015. She sits on many boards including the Advance Global Board,

In 2015 Michelle was invited to the “Legends Hall of Fame” which pays tribute to the leaders, ground breakers and visionaries of Australia and Victoria’s food and wine industry.

She was made an “Officer of the Order of Australia” (AO) in the Australia Day Honours List in 2018.