Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The West Australian: October 2012

picture: Rob Duncan/The West Australian

Growing Pains for Perth Food Industry

Few could argue that these days, Perth’s food and beverage scene is fast-tracking at a blistering pace.  There’s the recent re-branding of Burswood Entertainment Complex to Crown Perth and its conga line of big names – Rockpool, Nobu, Guillaume – making the pilgrimage West.  Jamie Oliver is set to land in the city early next year.  On the home-front, the CBD’s new Brookfield Plaza has brought with it a level of world-class sophistication previously lacking locally, with The Trustee, Heritage and Print Hall openings derailing any further talk of the city being dismissed as sleepy.  Eclectic small bars are opening on a seemingly weekly basis, and even our fast food is becoming more gentrified.  And that’s not to mention all the bells and whistles that the ten hectares of Elizabeth Quay will bring with it, including pop-up kiosks, restaurants and cafes.  Phew. 

While Perth is unlikely to ever rival larger, more established food-centric cities such as New York, its hospitality industry nevertheless seems to be going gangbusters.  There’s a wider selection of eateries for diners to choose from, an increase in job creation and a shake-up in terms of food, service and venue quality.  So how are our local chefs faring with all this upheaval?

“With all the new places opening up, it’s certainly making staffing tight for the industry at the moment,” says Clint Nolan, the hands-on chef-owner of venues Harvest, La Cholita and Who’s Your Mumma.

“But I think that will subside in time, where there will be a lot more professionally-trained staff available.  Certainly for the short-term things are tighter on the employment front.  It doesn’t affect trade for us though, as we’re pretty isolated in the styles and venues that we have.  They’ve each got their own character and clientele, which is good.”

David Coomer, the owner of Pata Negra and new director of food to Print Hall, tends to agree.

“Staffing has always been a pain,” he says.

“The people have to come from somewhere.  But I think all the new openings will do wonders for staff training.  The more quality operations are around, the better quality our trainees are going to be, if you can find them to start with.”
The high cost of food, both for diners and for restaurateurs, is nothing new to Perth.  Factors such as our geographical isolation, food freight costs, staff penalty rates and high rents have all been cited as reasons to bump up the price of the average meal.  These days, many of not most main meals crack the $40 mark, while similar dishes in the Eastern states continue to languish in the thirties.  But with all this change, can we expect prices to tumble any time soon?

“We will always have the tyranny of distance,” says David.

“At Pata Negra, we’re passionate about buying locally.  But unfortunately a lot of stuff we need has to come from the Eastern states too, so we have those big freight cost issues.”

Although according to Matt Stone, executive chef to Greenhouse Perth, Melbourne’s Silo and an assortment of pop-ups, high food costs can often be due to one-part acquisitiveness, one-part complacency.

 “I’m lucky enough that I’ve been kicking around between Melbourne, Sydney and overseas a fair bit lately,” he says. 

“And when I come back to Perth, I feel some restaurants are taking the piss a little bit with the prices they charge.  Of course some food in Perth is going to cost more, but I don’t think that’s always the case.  Because we’ve been limited with the restaurants we’ve had here for so long, there are mediocre places that are charging a lot more for food than they probably should, and those prices have stayed.  I mean, you can go to an average pub and pay $45 for a steak, chips and salad, and the chips have come from a bag. But Perth people have been paying these prices for a long time, so a lot of restaurants continue to charge high. 

“I really love that in Melbourne there’s a great variety of mid-range restaurants that are serving beautiful food at a really affordable price.  I’d like to think Greenhouse fits into that category, but there aren’t many other mid-range restaurants in Perth.  And with all these big restaurants coming over, I hope that food prices drop due to producers growing everything in larger quantities and getting better yields.  But I don’t know if that will happen.”

But it’s not all bad news.  In fact, according to some, the future for the industry looks positively Day-Glo.

“With Perth growing up and creating its own hospitality culture, sure it might be tight in the short-term.  But in the long-term, it may stop our young final-year apprentices or anyone with any real professionalism moving to either Melbourne, London or New York to obtain that experience,” says Clint.

“They’re going to want to stay in Perth, because Perth will have the diversity and something to offer.  That’s what I’m looking forward to.  I mean, industry professionals are moving over here because of what we have to offer.  We’ve got the weather, we’ve got the beaches.  It won’t be long.  That’s when we’ve made it.  That’s when Perth will have really grown up.”  

Click here for the online article.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The West Australian: September 2012

photo: Marcqui Akins

NY Reviewer Comes to Australia

In the food critiquing world, you don’t get much more illustrious than Ruth Reichl.  Formerly a restaurant critic for The New York Times, she was known for her ability to make or break the restaurants she reviewed.  Such was her dedication to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the average diner, Reichl (pronounced Ry-chel) became famous for her disguises whilst reviewing, carefully tailoring each ensemble to avoid detection and retain her anonymity. 

Next month, she will be visiting the Crave Sydney International Food Festival to talk about her often hilarious experiences as a food critic.  Ah, but does she miss it?

““I have to say, I really miss the expense account,” she says with a chuckle down the line from her home in New York.

“But I was a critic for thirty years, so it’s really great to be able to go into a restaurant and order what I want instead of the weird dish on the menu that no-one else wants to order.  And to be able to go back again and again to favourite restaurants which, as a restaurant critic, is something you never get to do because you’re always having to move on to the next place.  It feels like a great treat.  I have a group of women, mostly chefs and writers, and we travel together and eat and that’s really fun.  Last year we went to Spain; this year we went to London and Paris.  We just eat like crazy people.  So that gives me a little taste of remembering what it was like to do all that.”

Unlike many foodies, Reichl’s interest in food didn’t stem from her mother, whose taste she had diplomatically described in her various memoirs as being ‘extremely limited’, and she began cooking for herself as a matter of self-preservation.  In the 70s, she opened a restaurant called Swallow with a group of like-minded friends.

“None of us were trained cooks,” she says 

“We were just people who loved to cook.  It was a very different time in food back then in the US.  We baked our own bread, and people would come in and they couldn’t believe we made our own vinaigrettes with olive oil.  I would make twenty quiches every morning, and people would come in and go ‘What’s a qwishay?’  They’d never even heard of them.”

Reichl has been to Australia once, a couple of years ago.

“It was wonderful,” she says. 

“I really, really loved it but just wish I’d been there longer.  I spent four days in Melbourne and four days in Sydney.  I easily could have stayed four months in each place. The food was great, the people were wonderful and it was so interesting.  I wasn’t working, just eating and walking, which is my idea of a good time.  I’d really love to come over to Perth at some point, but this trip is just too short.  I’m just coming for the Festival this year, as when I get back we’ll start shooting again for (US television show) Top Chef Masters.”

Ruth Reichl will be giving talks on 6-7 October at the Crave Sydney International Food Festival, which runs throughout October.  For more information, head to .