Food News

What I miss about restaurants: chefs and restaurateurs, in their own words

Hospitality guns on their love of the industry, and the first places they’ll visit post-COVID-19.
Chef Victor Liong sitting alone in an empty dining room.

Lee Ho Fook chef-owner Victor Liong.

Tim Grey (main)

It’s week five of lockdown and the hospitality industry is doing its best to survive. The initial cataclysmic shock of the closure of pubs and restaurants has subsided somewhat, but sadness runs through the dining landscape like fault lines in the earth.

Takeaway, home-delivery, produce boxes, take-home packs: they’re the means in which restaurants are trying to subsist. Still, chefs and restaurateurs turn their minds to a time when public gatherings in restaurants were an everyday part of life rather than a threat to public health. This is what they miss about restaurants, and the places they’ll visit when things, one day, return to normal.

Jerry Mai, chef-owner, Annam, Vic

You know what I miss? I miss the simplicity of just sitting in a restaurant and eating. Not the customer service, not the fine wine. I just want to go to Dragon Hot Pot, pick out my ingredients – sliced beef, chicken heart, honeycomb tripe, as much chrysanthemum leaf and morning glory [water spinach] as I can fit in my bowl – and get it delivered to my table. None of this takeaway business where I have to unpack my food, heat it up, fight my son for the noodles, and then wash my bowl afterwards. I just want to eat, and leave. I miss that so much.

Sam Bull, chef and co-owner, Prince of York

Prince of York is our baby. We opened in August 2019, and the place had been in the works for two years before that. I miss that rush of a Friday night with people drinking wine, having a dance and a good time – it’s a huge part of our business. Filling up $10 take-home growlers is keeping us alive right now, but it’s not the same.

We’re right in the middle of the Sydney CBD on York Street, and for the past four or five weeks, it’s been strangely quiet on the streets. It’s usually jam-packed on any given morning: traffic jams, beeping horns, people being upset. I miss that.

I can’t wait to go back to Café Paci or Pino’s Vino e Cucina. Those would be the top of my list. At Pino’s, I’d probably order everything on the menu – the antipasti, the pasta, the burrata. My wife would probably be looking at me going, “Mate, calm down.” My eight-year-old daughter loves sashimi, so she’ll probably make us go to a Japanese restaurant. She’s a little connoisseur.

Stephen Nairn, executive chef, Omnia, Vic

This might sound odd, but I miss flavour. Usually my days start with tasting through the day’s mise en place; wine and cocktails with my sommeliers’ or something as humble as a good carrot to something as scandalous as a black truffle from my producers. Our takeaway and take-home packs are delicious, but it’s not on par with being smashed with flavour throughout the day, constantly. And I miss my team. Social distancing when it’s just two chefs in the kitchen means the banter just isn’t the same. I miss the people who come in, even the guest who demands, “I saw this on your Instagram, but why isn’t it on the menu?”, or the guy on table nine who’s on his tenth Negroni.

I’m a Scotsman, so when this is all over, you’ll find me at the pub. I’ll be at The Flying Duck in Prahran with John Demetrios [executive pastry chef] and Sam Homan [executive sous chef], sinking pints of Stone & Wood. Then the next day I’ll get a pepperoni slice from Leonardo’s Pizza Palace. Then the day after that I’ll take my wife to a nice meal at Vue de Monde.

Karla Munoz Labart, co-owner, Labart, Qld

The moments before, during and after a busy restaurant service are like a live theatre performance. I miss our pre-service all-staff briefing, full of excitement and anticipation for the night ahead; the buzz and energy of a packed dining room and the moment it peaks somewhere in the middle. The carefully choreographed elements that come together to deliver the restaurant dining experience – impossible to replicate at home. And when the last guests have left, I miss the post-service calm, a quiet glass of wine in an empty restaurant. That emptiness has gone on for some time now.

Karla and Alex Munoz Labart.

Jamie Yates, chef, Sonny, Tas

Sonny had this really special equilibrium – you felt like you were at a house party or an intimate dinner party with your best friends, and would often transition between the two throughout the night, back and forth. You just don’t get to experience places like that often.

Post-COVID-19, I’d head to Tom McHugo’s, hands down. If you’re from Hobart, or if you’ve ever been here, you know. It can be a sanctuary for one perched at the bar, or a blowout party with all your favourite people (Magnums, please!). Tom, Whitney and the whole team are absolute legends, great people doing even greater things. My order would go like this: a pony of Boags XXX upon arrival whilst Whitney helps me pick a bottle of something fizzy and skinsy. Then black-pepper fried chicken with a side of their hot sauce, followed by whatever else it is they’re doing with Broadchurch chicken that day.

Orazio D’Elia, chef-owner, Matteo, NSW

I miss my staff, my people, the rush you get during service: a bit of screaming, a bit of everything. I’m having a bit of withdrawal from all that action. You do this job because you must love it.

I’ve been in touch with staff every day. The ones on permanent residency will get JobSeeker. It’s the sponsored staff I’m worried about. They’re the ones not getting looked after. I’ve been dropping off food – lasagne, ragù, a jar of pesto – stuff they can keep in the fridge. A bottle of wine too. Many of them live in the eastern suburbs, so there’s a route I’ve been doing that takes me from Rose Bay to Bondi to North Bondi. Our plumber too – I said, “Scotty, come over!”

My staff is my second family. Because even if they cause me a lot of white hairs, deep down I love them.

Eileen Horsnell, head chef, Napier Quarter, Vic

Our last Saturday service feels like it was about a year ago. I miss the flow, the dances we’d have during service. I miss feeling connected to all of my producers and knowing we can support each other everyday. We’re experiencing a whole new way of how our industry runs – we can breathe, reflect and have a chance to remember why we love what we do.

The camaraderie of the hospitality people in our neighborhood has been beautiful to see. Post-coronavirus, I’d go down the road to Bar Liberty, take a seat at the bar, soak up the atmosphere and their great playlist. I’d ask the knowledgeable staff about their amazing wines, probably taste them all too. That day will come and I’m sure we will all appreciate it more than ever.

Napier Quarter’s co-owner Daniel Lewis (from left), sommelier and manager Simon Benjamin and chef Eileen Horsnell.

(Photo: Mark Roper)

Victor Liong, chef-owner, Lee Ho Fook, Vic and executive chef, Chuuka, NSW

When we return to normal in Melbourne I’d do a crawl. First, to the NGV to stare at art. Then it would start with a double espresso from Traveller – I miss having my coffee made for me – then next door to Romeo Lane for a martini by Joe Jones. On the way I’d duck in to say hi to Carlo Grossi at Ombra, then head off to Flower Drum for pearl meat and lamb pockets; Embla for a glass of wine and maybe some cheese; then Bartini for a sobrassada and a vermut before finishing at Butchers Diner for a dim sim and a Fernet Branca – a near perfect night out. In Sydney it’d be an Egyptian breakfast at Pioik bakery, a check in on the Chuuka team, a quick glass of wine and a snack at Momofuku and then I’d be off to Golden Century. I’d eat the live prawns, XO pipis and a steamed fish all by myself.

Amy Hamilton, chef-owner, Liberté, WA

I miss seeing all our wonderful staff together. We had to let go of some of our casual workers because of COVID-19 so I’m looking forward to the restaurant being open again and having them back. I’m going to hug them all, then order a Martini and a steak tartare.

Neil Perry, head of culinary and brands, Rockpool Dining Group

Firstly, I miss my amazing staff who bring the restaurants alive every day. The restaurants are just buildings and infrastructure; the personality, love, generosity and hospitality come from the people who inhabit it. They are the people who are my restaurant family. Secondly, the wonderful customers who come in and enjoy our spaces and bring the noise, laughter, happiness and sometimes tears but joy to these incredible spaces.

A1 Canteen

A1 Canteen in Sydney’s Chippendale.

(Photo: Nikki To)

Clayton Wells, chef-owner, A1 Canteen and Automata, NSW

We have a regular who comes into A1 and orders the same prawn sandwich every day. Every day. It’s the small things you remember, those friendships and interactions you make.

My partner Tania [Fergusson] and I miss just being able to stop in at a friend’s restaurant and have a few snacks, a chat, a glass of wine and go then home. It’s so good that everyone’s doing what they can like takeaway and take-home packs, but the magic of restaurants is the environment. You realise that’s what keeps people sane and happy. When we return to normal, I’ll probably go to 10 William St or Ester and sit at the counter – my favourite spot is anywhere I can see the kitchen. They’ll be my first two stops, followed by Mr Wong and Sokyo. Tania’s a great cook, and we can do pasta and comfort dishes at home, but we’re missing our dumplings.

Brent Savage, chef and co-owner, Bentley Group, NSW

We’re operating out of the kitchen at Yellow to produce our Bentley Group’s take-home dinner packs, but every week I still pop in to Bentley, Cirrus and Monopole to check the fridges, freezers and do general maintenance. It’s the most eerie feeling, walking in and out of these restaurants that have no purpose right now.

We’re in the hospitality business – we like to serve and look after people. I miss that day-to-day routine of prepping for the day, and feeling those butterflies in your stomach just before that big Saturday night service hits. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and it’s a shock to the system not to have that adrenaline rush anymore.

It’s a sad set of events, but when times are tough you can always rely on hospitality people to pull together.

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