Robb Read: Fine Dining’s Future
Where to from here in the post-pandemic dining room?
Fine dining is dead and has been for some time.
At least that’s what we were told prior to the pandemic, the ‘casualisation’ of dining plating up an unsavoury decline in the interest of elevated establishments and those delivering heightened menus.
In Sydney alone, Oscillate Wildly and The Bridge Room, alongside broader players such as Billy Kwong, ACME, and Paper Bird all called time in 2019.
Sydney’s famed Quay, meanwhile, ditched the starched-white tablecloths.
If fine dining wasn’t dead it was certainly wounded. And then came along a certain global pandemic that forced the lockdown of all restaurants and which has seen some, such as Hobart’s Franklin (a destination that held hands with MONA in luring ‘mainlanders’ for weekends) close the doors for good.
“No denying it’s been devastating,” states Peter Gilmore, executive chef at Quay and Bennelong. “Packing down everything was very raw, but it was particularly difficult to be so unsure of the future – it was very hard to answer questions from staff about when we would be back, would they continue to have jobs, all while not having the answers.”
Matt Moran, owner of Sydney’s Aria, uses similar language in regards to what’s occurred.
“It was the end of the world in many ways,” says Moran. “It was a massive shock to the system and the uncertainty around not knowing how we would do things, how we would survive in the long term, one word – devastating.”
Those who have survived are now eyeing off new beginnings.
“We’ve taken this time to assess what we were good at, what we were bad at and rebuild the menu,” offers Hugh Allen, executive chef at Vue de Monde. “When we re-open we’ll be doing a few practices runs, like a soft opening – it’s a bit like opening a restaurant again.”
“We’re looking and hoping that we will reopen by July,” he says. “But it will definitely be a different kind of service – we might run a tighter menu, we will run a tighter staff, we might not be open every day.”
Adds Moran: “Opening is going to be a lot hard than closing… it’s more expensive and in many ways, it’s like opening a new restaurant. With all these restrictions that are forced upon us we have to be smart about how we open.”
Lessons to Learn
With chefs such as this lauded trio set to button up their whites, sharpen their knives and get back behind the burners – there comes some hope that the pandemic will deliver some positives.
“There are a lot of lessons to learn out of this,” offers Gilmore. “I think that within the industry we’ll learn what we take for granted locally – the access to produce and some of the best ingredients and a platform to showcase that – and the diner will look at the experience and the produce as well as something they have taken for granted.”
For Moran and his Aria team, it’s about looking at business models in relation to the obvious fragility of the industry.
“The positive is that we can really have a good hard look at those models and whether they are viable. It has made everyone realise that our industry is much more vulnerable than we thought it was,” explains Moran.
While many look at the books and crunch the numbers, Allen believes pandemic learnings need to also extend to customers, citing the disconnect between pricing and value.
“I don’t think people pay enough,” he claims. “People have an expectation of how much they should be paying, but if the food is cheap, somewhere along the line someone is either not getting paid properly or not doing their job well. People have to realise that from the source to the end plate there are a lot of unseen costs.”
As for new booking processes, adds Allen: “People should pay for their seat before they go, or at least put a deposit down. If you bought a ticket to the opera and you didn’t go you wouldn’t expect your money back.”
Fine Dining’s Future
In all of this, that original question continues to simmer – just what is the future of Australian fine dining?
Allen firmly believes the familiarity and established nature of Vue de Monde is enough to bring customers back – and that the exclusivity of fine dining will remain a lure.
“I’d much rather be somewhere spacious, with only 50 or so seats, somewhere I’ve been before and I’m comfortable with, than somewhere new and hipster that’s filled with a 100-plus people.”
Moran predicts an immediate uptick in bookings – though tempers such by outing the reality that new restaurants will not be seen in the foreseeable future.
“There probably won’t be as many [openings] as there were, and it’s going to be tough. But there will always be a place for fine dining, how that looks economically for the restaurants though is yet to be seen.”
Gilmore points to the growing accessibility that had come to blanket more traditional fine dining – expecting further, more positive change to blanket the market.
“Fine dining was evolving anyway and there will always be a place to experience something out of the ordinary.”