Friday, August 08, 2014

Embarrasing pantry items-Food Wastage

Apparently Australian households squander about 350kg of food every year. In fact, it is said that 20% of food purchased in Australia is wasted, this equates to a staggering $8 billion dollars or 4,000,000 tonnes of food per year!

Though the reasons of this are manifold, an emerging understanding that the influence of cooking shows is bearing down and exacerbating the wastage problem as people try to emulate the prefect results they observe on the tellie.

Professional kitchens at the high end of the eating spectrum have always tended to be wasteful especially when it comes to portioning proteins and trimming vegetables. The reasoning behind this is twofold, firstly to highlight the usage of the best bits and secondly to present aesthetically pleasing vegies.

I can personally attest to the thousands of carrots, turnips, swedes and potatoes that I have ‘turned’ over the years before the practice became unfashionable. Not to mention the fields of broccoli, cabbage, lettuces and spinach that I had trimmed for the bits deemed choice by the chef.

The best way one can determine the difference between ‘high table’ food and home cooked meals besides the price is the fact the for the most part, the vegies seem to be more or less left in tact in the latter. At the RVL, all our green waste, food scraps and table waste (except meat of any kind  is kept aside for a pair of lucky pigs. Other green waste is put into our compost tumbler and we rarely throw out food due to use by dates or spoilage and generally only have paper wastage from packaging.

In addition, the ‘use by’ date phenomenon has much to answer for the high yields of food wastage. Personally I’ve always understood this mechanism to be a caveat against possible litigation should the consumer become ill after consuming a product due to an unreasonably long time passing after purchase.

I’ve also become aware of the cynical means of manipulating consumers by getting them to unnecessarily discard out of date products and then purchase more to replace them. Also I reckon the ‘just in time’ protocols of supermarkets and other retailers provide in distributing produce has supplemented the problem by creating a ‘finite’ amount of product at any given time, there bye embroidering a bit of urgency into the food shopping experience.

In yesterdays paper a farmer was photographed holding a bunch of carrots that were too big and ugly apparently for the supermarkets to sell. They were due be left unpicked and hoed back into the soil.

This sits alongside the pictures of great hangers filled with rotting produce from around the globe destined for waste because they are deemed unsuitable for a number of reasons.

How ridiculous and exasperating that this occurs.

As I look guiltily over the contents of my own kitchen cupboard at home I understand that the average Australian household has enough food at any given time to feed a family of four for a month!

Don’t know about you but I’m gonna try to use all of the food in my cupboard before I buy more.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A comment to a facebook post about Manu's restaurant closing

Perhaps Melbourne has reached the peak of what many people have been predicting for some time-and that is there are just too many restos so the ones on the marginal side of the ledger are folding much quicker? 

Is it any surprise reall
y when we're all aware of how much it costs to design + fit out a joint these days? Many operators choose to spend way more on this side of things than the basics of hospitality right, like good food + service. 

Every time I visit my old hometown I'm blown away by the amount of businesses competing for a slice of the pie. On a recent visit I was shocked to hear from two credentialed + experienced operators that they were just 'treading water' + not making any money at all! Shit, if they are struggling, what hope is there for the newbies? 

Adding to the mix is what I believe to be an emerging reluctance from savvy restaurant goers to patronize the Big Box Restaurant group venues, instead preferring to visit places that share a more nuanced, individual + niche aesthetic.

Whilst there have always been bright sparks with more dash than cash who’ve rolled the dice and opened quirky venues, now more than ever has seen the landscape shaped by this new breed of operator responding to what they see is an opportunity to be really niche. Their influence has touched the bigger operators, even in places like food courts where design touches and food offerings mimic those who are legitimately on-trend.

There have been several restaurateurs that I can think of that could be described as ‘delivering to their generation’ and have built successful empires as a result. However the numbers are not as high as they used to be and many have divested themselves of under performing venues.

Conversely, it appears that the MADE group act swiftly when faced with underperformance and have re-booted venues as a result. Whilst this might seem harsh, PM 24 anyone? It’s impressive that they can act without sentiment and cauterize a branch so the tree can live. Maybe this is the new model for an effective restaurant Group?

However the end game for many restaurant groups seems to be catering to the cheaper end of the market. I’m not sure if this is by design or circumstance though because there aren’t too many examples of restaurant groups with flagship restos that have multiple venues with the same cache as the standard bearer. 

What tends to happen is the winning formula aka fast-ish food concepts end up getting rolled out because they are tried and true. So, as the group gets bigger, their aversion to risk taking with a new concept increases. This is demonstrated by St Katherines closing to make way for a Hellenic Republic and the plans for more Jimmy Grants souvo bars. It also goes some ways to explain the rush of pedigreed operators to open a burger, bbq or noodle joint. 

They know the money is there.

Katrina’s point about key personnel ‘having to be there’ in situ rings very true to me. I’ve long questioned the dining publics tolerance for ‘Paying for the star but getting the understudy’ even though this is doing a disservice to the talented people at the helm of venues whom have a namesake patron. That old adage that Ramsay uses, ‘You buy an Yves Saint Laurant suit you don’t expect him to do the stitching’ is sounding more and more hackneyed as money is getting tighter for the discrepancy spend and people are more choosy about where they spend it.

However as long as conventional thought continues to take the safe option I hope that there will always be someone willing to have a crack at doing something unique and if they fail, its not through lack of trying.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

40 ways to apply for jobs: Chapter one.

The following post was prompted by yesterdays Facebook update by Ros Grundy when she detailed the travails of her son who is seeking work. I wish him all the best.

My first ‘real’ job post-school, was organized by my father.
Several parent teacher meetings throughout year ten failed to alert my 15 YO self to the scholastic icebergs looming on my horizon.
My old man seized the moment and my professional tiller by arranging a summer job for me washing dishes that eventually led to an apprenticeship in cookery.
Lord Curzon’s in North Melbourne was just around the corner from the printing college my father taught at and on the goat track from the college to the Black Prince hotel, a favourite for the instructors’ lunchtime parmi’s and bevs.
It was a spectacularly inauspicious start to my career and remains steadfastly at the opposing end of the broad spectrum of great food and inspiring people I have worked with.
Perhaps out of respect for the efforts of my Da securing me the job I stayed for a full year until the environment became so intolerable after arriving home from work limping after a particularly nasty bit of workplace violence to which my parents had been made finally aware. Not that they were ignorant, its just that I hid the reality from them, thinking that maybe this was just ‘how work was’.
Driving to work with dad the next morning, I remember becoming anxious as his steely silence and percolating tension that would bloom into the mushroom cloud of rage to be visited on the restaurants owner when he answered the door.
The sight of my newly-baptized old boss cowering under the clenched fists of my old man relinquished me of any debt I might’ve imagined I owed both of them and from this point on, I applied for subsequent jobs myself.

Now the convention of the day was to scour the papers for the job adverts, circle the appropriate ones, write an introduction, attach your CV and mail it off and wait for a reply. I was discouraged from ringing possible employers for a follow up call to see if they had received my application, as it wasn’t the done thing.
Several job applications later and no replies, I decided to break with established protocols and just randomly ring the restaurants. This actually yielded a positive result and I got a job that made me re-evaluate the whole business of typical job applications.

Now, two years into an apprenticeship and through Trade School, I had become aware of the strange Caste-System of the restaurant pecking order. All of a sudden I realized that I worked in a super-daggy place and I needed to move up the rungs and apply for a gig in a pedigreed establishment. I came to understand that working in respected places would help my career in the long run so I began scouring the Age good food guide and applied for jobs in hatted restaurants.

In one such place I was dispensed a valuable lesson in the prejudices of a prospective employer. A two-hatted restaurant, long gone, in South Melbourne, whose two principles icily chastised me for not completing year 12.
I squirmed in my shirt and tie and squeaked with an increasingly dry mouth that it wasn’t a requirement to commence an apprenticeship and I was dutifully admonished for not showing any tenacity. The sweat gathered around my hot blushing collar to be momentarily cooled by the ‘whoosh’ of air as my humble CV was tossed toward me dismissively with a wave of a hand.
Come back with your HSC, I was told.
A footnote to this story is that years later I answered an ad for this very place, no longer hatted and its glory days since past. I was welcomed enthusiastically having worked in Michelin starred restaurants abroad and the interview progressed quickly to the point of offering me the position, to which I respectfully declined. Perhaps not completing year twelve was no longer the hindrance I was made to believe it once was?

On another occasion, this time sharply focused on obtaining a job with a celebrated matriarch of South Australian country cooking, I hassled her repeatedly until she relented and hired me. This was to become the modus operandi I would adopt for all future job applications and it nearly always worked.

These days when people rock up to the café looking for work I am always impressed that they have the gumption to put themselves out there.
It takes guts to open oneself up to scrutiny, critique and the real possibility of rejection. Anyone can have an intro letter written for them, a CV compiled and referees enrolled but it’s a brave person to do it all in person.
My advice though to those seeking this path: arrive pre-or post service, look neat, show some knowledge about the establishment you are applying to and be prepared to do a trial at a moments notice. Remember, you want the job right? So sell yourselves, impress your potential employer and make it easy for them to consider you.
Above all, don’t take conceivable rejection personally as it will occur no matter how positive or prepared you might be. The trick is, to get over this quickly and move onward and upward.

Hey good luck out there!

Cheers Steve

I received a CV via email without a covering letter or introduction yesterday. The mobile contact number was disconnected so I looked up the contact address that the person had listed on their CV and found their home number. I called the number and got a hold of the person whose name was on the CV and asked him he purpose of his contacting me with his employment history as there was no other information with his email to which he replied 'I dunno' After a moments pause he said it wasn't him who sent it, so I said Thanks + goodbye.
I really really hope this wasn't the start of those numerous and pointless job applications that the unemployed are supposed to reach in their employment search quota?! 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Do you know the way to San Marino?

missing in action

When I lived in South Australia I validated my taste for Coopers Sparkling ale, wild harvested olives and San Marino prosciutto, not necessarily combined or in that order but certainly individually.
A few days ago I was researching Tasmanian made prosciutto and wasn’t making much head wind. Yes there are some fine examples of home cured hams of the prosciutto genus and humbly, I include my own in this category however commercially there appears to be none available. If someone can point me in another direction to the contrary I would be greatly appreciative.

As a result the fond memories of the San Marino prosciutto that had lingered in my sub-conscience for years, materialized before me like a ghostly manifestation of the Flying Dutchman through a fog.
The web searches I made for contact details proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated and was, as I later discovered, to be as elusive as the afore mentioned ship of folk lore.
Finally I made a call to the deli in the Adelaide market where the Marino family started it all approximately 40 years ago.

I was stunned to learn that they had not only stopped producing the prosciutto and their small goods, but had gone broke and lost everything including family homes. All that remained was their small shop in the Adelaide Central market.

The reason for their demise?

I was told that when the Australia government relaxed the laws on the importation on Italian prosciutto a few years back, the market was flooded with cheaper imports and San Marino could simply not compete.

The irony of making a product that was unable to be procured in Australia for so long only to be usurped by that very same product years later was not lost on me.
I felt very bad for the Marino family.

Can anyone else shed some light on this situation?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Don't be afraid to tap or get tapped, it's part of the cycle

‘Restaurateur in business number 23, please come in your time is now up’

Down by Studley Park boathouse, before it became a cottaging-industry and round about time the Sullivan’s’ were on the tellie, you could hire boats and paddle about under the wire-suspension bridge.
One could lie back in the Dory and imagine Withnail’s Cambridge, in which Uncle Monty might’ve regaled you from the pages of a crumpet-butter stained book.
If you were a 70’s long haired me though, your Dad and uncle would’ve manned the oars and you were left in the rudderless stern to endure an eternity of enforced-passenger boredom until the spiv with the megaphone called you in as your time was, thankfully, up.

‘Can the two gentlemen and the young lady in skiff number 23 please come in, your time is up!’

In Politics, we often hear the phrase, ‘Time to tap him (its usually a him) on the shoulder’ meaning to let the person in question know in a dignified manner, that it was time to get off the potty, someone else is going to piss from now on.
Poor old Petey Costello never did quite have enough gumption to tap lil’ Johnny on the shoulder did he? Our Julia had no such qualms with little Kev however he was to snatch the ‘double-tap’ and find himself back on the potty after a popularity contest.

The ‘double-tap’ however was not his invention. Keen viewers of contemporary movie culture will know that this term was used to ‘kill a zombie’ in the film ‘Zombieland’. Complicating things though, is the gen-why patois of the singular ‘Tap’ as in ‘I’d tap that’, to mean, ‘I would seriously shag that person’.

Anyways, my point is this: Is it time to tap on the shoulders of our older restaurateurs, café owners and style-meisters and say; ‘sorry old chum, we think your time is up’

Why am I asking this question?

Am I the only one that finds it mildly embarrassing to see a once triumphant business owner struggling along bravely behind the glass of a deserted restaurant or café whilst around them a steady stream of custom weaves its way past and on to the latest Pho, wrap-bar or Izakaya?

To see these leviathans of hospitality, once at the cutting edge of food, design and service, floundering to remain relevant in the jet-wash left by the new and younger push is quite disconcerting? I always knew food was fashion but to see it played out so overtly is sobering.

Of course I count myself as one of the fogeys that I am lamenting, however the distinction must be made that I am not trying to go all skinny jeans, pretend to enjoy ‘Skins’ or listen to a band that I wont even pretend to know or name simply because by the time I’ve heard about them, they’ll no longer be hip.
‘Hip’, is that even used anymore? You getting my drift?
I understand why some operators do go after that most elusive of markets, the young ‘it’ crowd and funnily enough it’s not just about chasing the dollar. It’s more about remaining relevant. It’s like one last role of the dice to remain cool and to have your tastes validated by a younger crowd. It’s about vanity.

All good things though, must come to an end and it is a bitter pill for many of my number who still want to party like its nineteen ninety nine. ‘Why must it end’ they cry from the offices of the ACCC and weeping over their seized goods advertised in the Gowings Auction catalogue. All this ignominy could be avoided if someone just plucked up the courage to tap them on the shoulder and let them exit stage left.

A theory that might be considered is that as these impresarios get older, the demographic they cater to does as well and with them, their currency as a trendsetter diminishes considerably. It might be like the cool kid who impressed his schoolmates for a few years but then he got held back and had to repeat a few years. The young ‘uns coming through don’t think his jokes are funny, he’s out of step and they eventually pity him for being detained? (was that THE clumsiest analogy you’ve ever read?)

The fact is that bygone times are speckled with former café owners, restaurant operators and empire builders who have gone quietly into the nights’ recesses of our memory. It happens. I’ve oft thought that this is the impetus for many of them to have their businesses kept alive in book form as a way not only to keep them from fading away but actually as a head-stone of sorts to prove that they once existed. This plan unfortunately goes sadly south though when said book is remaindered on the $10 table before being dispatched to the tip shop bookshelves or as an ingredient in Yates ‘Mushroom Compost’.

Oh yeah, what about you then, four-eyes?’ I hear you ask. Fair question it is too. Well, I’ll just sit tight here and wait till this ‘Hip’ thing blows over. You never know, what I do might come around again, like fashion and this time, I’ll be prepared!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

the milk crate, the break + laneway cricket

Where did that time go?
Once upon a time, when your mise en place was completed to brimming, your section tidied down and your accoutrements for service were gathered you were able to take a break.
What made this all the more remarkable was the fact that we had a largish brigade and the cost to the business if it were scaffolded onto today’s leaner staffing requirements, would make it positively and prohibitively costly.

Most businesses today could simply not afford the luxury of a large brigade yet alone one lying dormant until the onset of dinner service. But these were different times. These were times when kitchens and front of house staff stopped to break bread together, to share stories, to complain about the staff meal and where industry journeymen could glean nuggets of experience from the veterans in their number.
It’s almost inconceivable in today’s hospitality culture that it was normal to sit together and break for a meal. These days a ‘just in time’ culture pervades where there is no room at all for downtime, be it from staff, produce or even the delivery of hospitality.

In my final years as an apprentice, the Bistrot that I worked in shared its back lane with ten or so restaurants which straddled the border of theatre-land on Exhibition St and the little Burke of Chinatown. At around 5.30-ish every evening, small rings of milk crates were assembled like Pilgrims Wagon circles with each posse of restaurant or café workers cradling a plate, a drink and a ciggie. The last rays of the day would fall through the cracks of the buildings and sometimes land on one of our spots and for a fleeting instance and not unlike a camera flash, fill the hearts of those in the shadows of restaurant life with the sunniness that we imagined the 9 to 5ers might enjoy regularly.

Our waiters replete in Penguin like black and white and for the most part we cooks, in creased and yellowing whites with the accumulation of prep smearing any clear surface, sat around in various states of animation. Remember this was pre-mobile phones or social media so conversation ruled.

Its funny how a uniform, that leit-motif of conformity, can still leave enough room in which to manifest ones uniqueness. For instance, Aldo the reserved and polished senior waiter absolutely owned his ‘look’ and was a study of Marcello Mastroianni’s urbane and debonair presence, in crisp black and white.
Tony however, could make a freshly laundered and pressed shirt, waistcoat and trousers looked like he’d slept in them for a month. So it was with our Head chefs immaculate whites compared to the rag tag mob of us dishevelled apprentices. For example: one of our number turning up to work thinking it was acceptable to wear a still damp Pyjama top as his chefs jacket was still soaking in nappy san? Our head chef’s death-stare wasn’t even enough to convince the dim-witted bloke in question that he had made a grave error in judgement.

Looking down the laneway, the little commune of other restaurant staff huddled over an imagined campfire all looked remarkably similar, as if one was book-ended by two mirrors, stretching the reflection into a mind-numbing infinity. Years ago, when Brunswick Street was at its zenith, I used to joke that all the café kitchens were linked by a labyrinth of tunnels and populated by an inter-changeable garrison of cooks, such was the homogeny of the offering presented at the time. The laneway of 1987 could have been a sketch of that yarn certainly as far as it may have been painted but definitely not as far as the diversity of the menus were concerned.

Of course shovelling-in some sustenance was important during these breaks but played second fiddle to the real reason why we broke and that reason was,
Laneway cricket or Laneway football (soccer)
As a pressure relief valve, these brief sporting interludes were an indispensable tool in the Chefs and Maitre’d’s kitbag for keeping morale high. They wisely avoided any Front of house Vs Kitchen match ups and instead opted for mixed teams. There were no other rules except Tippety-run and one-bounce one-hand catches for cricket and running goalies for football.
The designers of the humble milk crate may never have imagined the versatility of their milk-carrying receptacle being utilized in so many various ways but as a makeshift wicket, a goal post or a stool, they couldn’t be beat.

After a bout of intense exercise we’d re-enter the sanctum of the workplace energized and once again re-calibrate our positions within the hierarchy of the hospitality machine, ready for service.
I loved those brief interludes where the little space between the playfulness of youth and the expectations of adulthood was still just big enough to run around in, even momentarily.

Some of the other relaxation pursuits we engaged in during these breaks:

Wrapping someones car up in cling film
Pelting someones car with eggs
Making cling-film parachutes for eggs before lobbing them into exhibition St.
Sling-shotting eggs into Burke and Exhibition Streets.
Lifting-up someones (small) car and leaving it sideways in the lane
Covering someones car in every box or milkcrate in the lane
Pinching deliveries left outside other restaurants back doors
Leaving explicit graffitti on lane walls and bluestones
Getting a quick haircut at Vince + Doms under Her Majesties Theatre
Parking our cars where the Chinese museum now is
Putting a bet on for the chef at the old Southern Cross Hotel underground Tavern
Getting some Take away from King of Kings
Buying aprons at Sam Bears
Doing laps at the City Baths
Eating pasta al forno at Pellegrinis
Annoying the owner by not buying anything at the Burke St haberdasher
Cashing wage cheque at the ANZ cnr Exhibition + Burke
Catching a flick at the Greater Union
Borrowing stuff from the Florentino + Society restaurants
Watching the staff roll up to work at Tiki + Johns at 6pm

I have written about the disappearance of the staff meal before and of a person who once resided in this lane and remains a rich source of memories for me to trawl. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The critic didn't close the restaurant-the punters did

Restaurants go broke for many reasons but you know what? Getting a bad review is not one of them. Show me a direct correlation between an unfavourable critique and the business shutting their doors and I’ll go ‘Hee’ for Tiggy.
But before you chime ‘That Sydney joint that Matt Evans wrote about’ and the last gasp of compensation paid by Fairfax media to the former owners which was reported in the papers today, let me say that all the people I talked to about that particular establishment said it was crap.
Well at least the ones who weren’t coke addled and can at least remember 2003, heady times eh? But who really wants to remember TaTu, Nickelback, Big Bruva + Delta Goodram yet alone a restaurant whose only claim to fame on the Sydney dining landscape was its eventual demise and subsequent whinging by the former pestaurateurs?
I mean, break down the facts. How many people read that paper in 2003? How many again read the restaurant review? How many people besides anxious chefs, restaurateurs + foodies know who the reviewer is? Now compare that number to the population of Sydney and how many Tourists came into the city in 2003. Seriously, how many of these people would read that review and decide that they would not darken the door of said restaurant?
There’s also this unwarranted assumption that restaurant goers out there are hanging off every word of the restaurant reviewers when the reality is very different. I bet if you did a quick Vox pop on the streets of Sydney or any capital city for that matter and asked passers by who was the chief reviewer of that city’s paper they’d more than likely have no idea.
My point is that out of a relatively large population how did one printed opinion cause the demise of a restaurant?
By comparison, are Margaret and David responsible for a particular film bombing because they didn’t rate it? Ditto for theatres’ Bryce Hallett, Arts Holland Cotter or Michael Kimmelman? No.
The plaintiffs won a settlement because they pursued the angle that their business collapse left them poorer, anxious and scarred. Was the restaurant crap? Probably.

However, was the settlement a bad day for free speech? Give me a break! It’s a restaurant review gone South not an expose of conditions for Asylum seekers incarcerated on Mannus Island.
An indication of how the players in this small news story view their plights could be summed up with this quote from the defending ex-restaurant reviewer who issued a statement after the settlement was awarded: “the tragedy is, I wont be writing reviews anymore’. Err, sorry? What was that? A ‘Tragedy?’
No, a tragedy is when a thousand wage slaves die in a fire making cheap garments for us to by in Big W or K Mart. This is typical of the self aggrandisement many in our industry fall victim to. For many of us deluded hospo people, we see what we do as important a vocation as surgery, air-traffic control or even the high arts and this is the fuel for satire, an expression we are very sensitive to.

It’s never good to learn of a restaurant business going tits up. The knock on effect to suppliers and staff who are owed entitlements have reverberations throughout the industry and economy for years to come, even causing some suppliers to go under themselves. If there could be a lesson in these situations perhaps it is to illustrate how difficult it is to operate a successful hospitality venture and perhaps people really need to be qualified and accredited to take on such ventures?