My friends often comment on how they would like to swap jobs with me. They know that I travel constantly and that I try to dine in all the ‘hatted’ restaurants in both Melbourne and Sydney each year. I do this for professional reasons, mind you; not as a purely hedonistic pursuit (although I am a hedonist at heart). I have to stay abreast of the fashions in this industry for my occupation. I probably do as much dining as most of our main professional restaurant critics do, but there’s one big difference between them and I — I have to pay for myself, so when it’s not right I feel the pain so much more acutely.
I have to admit that for the first few years in the late 80’s it was fantastic fun. For a start the interstate travel was a lot simpler. There were no long, painfully slow queues at the baggage counter, no ill tempered security staff wanting you to strip in public, no forty minute wait at the taxi rank for a car that’s done 750,000 km and stinks of BO, and no ranting discourse from the swarthy immigrant driving the cab about how to solve all the problems in the Middle East.
A simple business trip has now become a bloody nightmare that can go on and on. A supposed one hour and twenty minute flight to Sydney can often stretch out to five or six hours after you go through all the other rigmarole. Over time I have come to hate airports and airlines with the same passion I reserve for Telstra and the banks. The saving grace used to be the dining experiences I had in the various locations I visited.
The 'classical' fine dining era
When I started doing a lot of fine dining about thirty years ago it was the tail end of what I call the ‘classical’ dining era. The top restaurants were mostly formal affairs which featured quite a bit of theatre in their front of house service. The gueridon trolley was one notable example. How many people today have experienced a beautifully trained, professional waiter/entertainer/diplomat, dressed to the nines in a dinner suit, make a custom Caesar salad, deftly fillet a fish or cook a crepe and its accompanying sauce at their table?
To be fair, the food was mostly less complicated then, consisting of dishes that have passed into folklore and are sometimes the butt of jokes by the
cognoscenti, such as Steak Dianne, Chateaubriand and Tournedos Rossini. I’ve observed with some amusement that these ‘old faithfuls’ are slowly creeping back onto menus, albeit in a modern guise — which means you get a quarter of the portion for four times the cost. This is what we call economic progress.
I have become very critical
They say familiarity breeds contempt, and I’d have to say that when it comes to fine dining I’m pretty hard to please these days, although contempt is probably too strong a term. There is such a thing as knowing too much, and when I get 25 cents worth of raw ingredients on an entrée plate for $25, no matter how artfully it is arranged, I start to get bitter and twisted and begin to wonder where the world is heading. Likewise, I have a similar, negative attitude to the quite ordinary quality bottle of wine from the boutique winemaker with the 350% margin, not to mention the dickhead sommelier who recommended it.
It’s not that I’m accusing those who operate at this market level of profiteering. I see the books of too many restaurants to be under many illusions as to the very slim margins to be had from fine dining. In most cases the only people making any money out of these businesses are the key employees and the landlord. At the prices being charged to pay the rent and the wages, the dining public are certainly not the winners — and with regular frequency I’m the dining public, and I feel like I’m being stitched.
It's a joy when someone gets it right
Every now and again someone gets it right, and on those occasions I’m more than happy to pay serious money for the experience. The attention to detail needed to deliver a flawless performance from initial impression right through to warm farewell is worthy of the utmost professional respect. If you can run a fine dining restaurant really well you are right up there with the very best of leaders — and should be running Telstra, a bank or an airline.
You can't charge a premium unless you get it right
Maybe I’m off the beam but what I look for is balance — in both front of house and back of house — not only does the food have to be special and the wines well chosen for quality and value (while still delivering a good margin), but the waiters have to be technically skilled, warm, and very knowledgeable about their products. It’s the latter that seems to be lacking in most of my recent up-market restaurant experiences. The ‘art’ seems to have drifted backwards, away from the front of house over the years I’ve been dining (ever since the demise of the waiting apprenticeship, perhaps?).
I’m not pitching for a return to the good old days mind you. God forbid. I applaud the gradual ‘casualisation’ of dining in Australia. I love the fantastic range of produce and wine now available. I appreciate the status the industry has in the public eye — but if I pay serious money for a dining experience, I want to leave with an appropriate feeling in my happy valve, and I’d also like to think the owner was doing alright as well.
I’m so glad I got that off my chest . . .