Sydney can lay claim to one of the world’s finest restaurant scenes (thank Australia’s expanses of sunlit land and bounteous seas for the fine produce). But there are a few issues bubbling down under too. A shortage of chefs, a fickle and fast-changing audience and the odd veneration of avocados are all gripes held by our food-focused dinner guests.
We discuss the rise of informal dining – over a glass of wine, of course – and why Sydney’s service exceeds that of London or New York. We also touch on why “fusion” is a frustrating term for Australian chefs who are at last doing their own thing. We head to Merivale’s marvellous beachside Coogee Pavilion for a slice of conversation with some of the city’s finest food-lovers.
Monocle: Does Sydney have a distinct culinary identity?
Justin Hemmes: We grew up with British food but now Aussie chefs go abroad, learn, come home and make it their own.
Terry Durack: One benefit of living here, and this is even more pertinent in the age of Trump, is that immigration has had a hugely positive influence on food in Sydney; diversity is what makes it so different.
Analiese Gregory: The places I go are French-Australian, Japanese-Australian; it’s this dual culture that I consider [to be] Australian. Not so-called “fusion”.
M: Are diners here more discerning than elsewhere?
JH: When you go out in New York you go out to talk. When you go out in Sydney the focus is on the food. When it arrives the conversation stops – and when the conversation starts again it is about the food.
M: Is it getting too expensive though?
Peter Andrews: I think Sydney prices are very reasonable, considering the talent and the fit-out. When I dine in London or New York at a restaurant of an equivalent standard, I find it more expensive.
M: Are hospitality workers paid enough?
AG: I have never been paid as much for doing my job as I have been in Australia. I think that is why a lot of hospitality professionals move from the UK and France to work here – plus the working conditions are very good.
M: Is hospitality a better career option here than it is in Europe?
AG: Absolutely. I’m sure my chefs and floor staff do it for the lifestyle. After work they don’t go home to bed: we all go to Restaurant Hubert and drink martinis and eat parfait.
PA: It is part of their lifestyle. I see it with my staff too.
JH: I think that the service here is exceptional. We are seeing that reflected in tipping, which is the highest I’ve seen for a long time. Patrons tip heavily and it’s completely unregulated, utterly discretionary.
TD: I am surprised if I have bad or uninformed service nowadays.
M: Have Sydney’s strict alcohol licences affected restaurants?
JH: If anything the laws have boosted dining. People are not going out after midnight to a nightclub; instead they are meeting their friends for drinks and a fabulous dinner. I am amazed at how young the diners in our restaurants are. A big proportion are 19 to 25-year-olds; that wasn’t the case 10 years ago.
M: So it’s all sunny on the Sydney food scene?
JH: There is a shortage of chefs, largely because it’s a bloody hard job. One of the negatives of reality television is that it glorifies it.
M: And is the food scene sensitive to fads?
PA: Food programmes certainly influence menus and diets. In recent years, obsessions with ingredients – for instance Wagyu – have become obvious. We see demands for grass-fed meat and for certain cuts such as lamb ribs and belly.
TD: We’re in a country where a generation ago steak and eggs was normal for breakfast and no one cared where the steak came from or what cut it was.
M: Sydneysiders are famously friendly and informal; is the food following suit?
TD: Sometimes staying awake is the battle when sitting through a dégustation (tasting) menu. It is a relief that there seems to be a move away from these menus. Fine dining is much more relaxed than it was five years ago.
M: Which meal does Sydney do better than London or New York?
TD: Lunch. Especially when you’ve got water nearby. Though as my wife says, the happiest words on a menu are: all-day breakfast.
AG: I love breakfast. Every time I’ve lived overseas the meal that I miss the most is a breakfast out.
JH: Breakfast is big here because we all start our days with exercise at 06.00. It’s the most difficult, painful meal to serve. Breakfast is the one meal where every Sydneysider thinks that they can deconstruct the whole menu – completely rearrange it to suit them. “I don’t want the eggs poached, I want them scrambled, with just the whites and I’d like a side of avocado.”
TD: What is the obsession with avocado? Smashed avocado on toast – who cares?
AG: People line up around the block in New York at Australian-owned cafés for some with a squeeze of lime. I just don’t get it.
Justin Hemmes, hospitality group CEO
Hemmes took the reins of family-owned Merivale, then a fashion-themed group that now focuses on hospitality, back in 1997. It is one of the largest (and most successful) hospitality groups in Australia with more than 60 bars, restaurants, hotels and function spaces across Sydney employing more than 2,800 people.
Terry Durack, food critic
Durack is chief restaurant reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald and co-director of Australia’s Top 100 Restaurant Awards. He was the restaurant critic for London’s Independent on Sunday for nine years before returning to Sydney in 2009. “Sydney had just started to grow up when I came home,” he says of the food scene.
Analiese Gregory, chef and restaurateur
New Zealand-born Gregory spent her childhood helping her chef father in restaurants across remote regions of her homeland and Australia. After training in Auckland and working in some of New Zealand’s leading restaurants she headed to Europe, where she worked in France, Spain and the UK. Relocating to Sydney, she cooked at Quay before opening Bar Brosé in Darlinghurst in 2016.
Peter Andrews, butcher
Andrews served as an apprentice under his master-butcher father. Now owner of Haverick Meats (Sydney’s most respected commercial butcher), he supplies meat and poultry to a long list of the city’s finest restaurants from his space in residential Pagewood. In recent years he has expanded the business, importing and supplying commercial kitchen equipment to restaurants.