Thirty top chefs and restaurateurs gathered at Melbourne's Vue de Monde recently for the latest instalment of the Gourmet Traveller Food Forum, an open discussion of the key issues facing the hospitality industry in Australia. Over lunch created by Vue de Monde executive chef Justin James, Victoria's culinary powerbrokers and key creatives discussed where the business is heading, how it's changing and what kinds of innovations are necessary right now for a restaurant business to survive in a crowded and sometimes cutthroat market.
After a meal that included Port Phillip Bay scallops with salted desert lime, duck roasted with leatherwood honey served with truffles and celeriac, and a coffee and dessert buffet that tipped the hat to the forum's presenting partner, Nespresso, GT's Pat Nourse led the discussion, assuring everyone present that "this isn't a safe space - there are no holds barred".
It was quickly established that it's not the quality of food in Australia that's providing challenge in the industry, but how to make businesses viable in the face of a battery of difficulties, especially with regards to staffing.
Guillaume Brahimi of Bistro Guillaume cited the overwhelmingly positive response by visiting media and industry figures during the recent World's 50 Best Restaurants awards, but what's needed, he says, is "more people to come".
"Melbourne restaurants do really well on the weekends, but early in the week it's very quiet and to have a truly successful business we need to be full every night," he said.
So how to encourage people to come out early in the week or more often?
Shaun Quade has been experimenting with innovative booking system Tock (which sells meals like theatre or sporting tickets) at Lûmé, and suggested charging less for dinner on early weeknights or more at peak times, such as 7.30pm on a Saturday.
Alla Wolf-Tasker from Lake House in regional Victoria said becoming part of the local community through charity work and by using nearby producers has been integral to her restaurant's success, a point seconded by fellow regional chef Matt Stone from the Yarra Valley's Oakridge.
Mike McEnearney, who hosted the last Food Forum at his Sydney restaurant No 1 Bent Street, believed there should be greater transparency in pricing - including name-checking suppliers - so customers can more readily see where their dollars are going, while Peter Gunn of Ides said he opened his relatively new restaurant "starting with the idea of making it viable and then building the menu and the style around that" rather than "starting with a fixed idea and trying to make that work".
One of the key components Gunn had to factor in was that people no longer want to work the punishing hours that have been traditional in restaurant kitchens.
Aaron Turner of Geelong restaurant Igni agreed, saying that "we talk a lot about the sustainability of our produce, but we also have to think about the sustainability of our staff".
Guy Grossi of Grossi Florentino believes the question of formal vocational training needs to be addressed in detail.
"It's a beautiful industry but I think we need to create a clearer career path for those leaving secondary school so the skills shortage we're experiencing now doesn't become chronic in 10 years' time."
Vue de Monde's Shannon Bennett said it's the regulatory system of Work Choices that's making it virtually impossible to make the industry attractive to young chefs wanting to start their own business, though Chris Lucas (Kisumé, Chin Chin) believes the system isn't going to change so you have to go in with the "structural impediments in mind".
"And I think we're getting pretty good at it," he added.
Distress over the recent death of chef Jeremy Strode was palpable in a room full of his friends and colleagues; questions of health and hospitality work and achieving a sustainable balance in the lives of chefs and their staff were discussed at some length.
Attica's Ben Shewry for one said it has been "a year of self-reflection" for him and if the thoughtful and passionate responses in the room are an indication, it's been the same for the restaurant industry as a whole. It's encouraging to hear how much the people in the room care about the industry and those who work in it.