It's an adage followed by any modern chef worth her salt. Follow the seasons – tomatoes in summer, Brussels sprouts in winter – and you shall be rewarded. And so restaurants in Victoria have tracked in and out of COVID-19 restrictions according to the seasons, plunging into its second lockdown at the height of winter, and emerging, some 113 days later, in the middle of spring.
With the news Melbourne restaurants can, as of Wednesday October 28, serve dine-in customers, and the lifting of the metropolitan-regional Victorian border on the horizon for November 9, it should feel good. But restaurateurs and chefs say it feels weird.
"I hope we remember what we have to do," says Almay Jordaan. She's the chef and co-owner of two Melbourne venues, Old Palm Liquor in Brunswick East and Neighbourhood Wine in Fitzroy North, and neither venue has seated a customer since June. Four months is a long time to go without a lunch or dinner service. Once-familiar sights, sounds and movements will be new again – the clunk of plates hitting the pass, the shuffle of front-of-house shoes on the floor.
Stranger still is the spaced-out dining rooms that awaits staff and diners. As the current regulations stand for metropolitan Melbourne, a maximum of 20 diners can be seated inside a restaurant at any time.
But read the fine print: there's a limit of 10 diners in a room at one time (thus requiring a restaurant to have two separate dining rooms to take advantage of the 20-person cap), tables must be spaced 1.5 metres apart, and the four square-metre rule applies.
Floorspace is a major consideration. Restaurants need to have sufficient room to seat ten (or 20) diners safely. Too small a space, and you're cutting into revenue; too large, and diners are eating in an echo chamber.
"It's either not feasible, or it's weird," says Jordaan. But after 100-plus days of takeaway, Melbourne will take what it can get. "People are so excited. The phone is ringing off the hook. People will give anything right now to eat restaurant food off plates."
The challenge is to forge the same restaurant atmosphere that made eating out such a pleasure in the first place. At Old Palm Liquor, the solution is to pad out the room with lots of plants, and anything that can double as decor. "Wine boxes that you'll normally push out of the way are now decor objects," says Jordaan.
The rules are more generous for outdoor dining areas: a maximum of 50 diners, and a density of two square-metres per person. It's the reason that Old Palm Liquor half-resembles a construction site right now. Jordaan, along with co-owners Simon Denman and Marc Banytis, have commissioned the build of an outdoor courtyard for diners. They had timed the completion for November 3 – one day after the November 2 restaurant reopening date first slated by Premier Daniel Andrews, before the date was brought forward by five days to October 28.
She says many restaurants in Melbourne are in the same boat, hurriedly modifying their venues to accommodate outdoor diners. "That's why many can't open [this week], because they're a construction site."
If reopening sounds like an expensive enterprise, it is. Jad Choucair of Mankoushe says he's spent more than $7000 modifying his restaurants in Brunswick and Collingwood, including on a professional disinfecting of the premises, and a new point-of-sale system that minimises face-to-face time between customers and staff. "There's more to it than just wearing a mask," he says. "Maybe we went overboard, but I'm not going to blame myself for that."
He's torn between reopening, and his fears about another swathe of infections. "I've got friends in Egypt and France, a friend who runs a bar in Italy. They said when the [next] wave came, it killed them." Another Melbourne lockdown would put further strain on his mental health. So too a temporary closure of the business, should the restaurants have the misfortune to be visited by a COVID-positive diner.
"As business owners we're already spending money to reconstruct our shop in a new way. If a third wave comes, it would mentally make us feel broken," he says.
Out in the regions, all eyes are on the lifting of the so-called ring of steel, the invisible border that restricts travel between metropolitan Melbourne and regional and remote areas. Regional restaurants have been allowed to open for dine-in since September 16, but many rely on tourist dollars to survive.
"Border closures were pretty big for us," says Michael Ryan, chef and co-owner of Provenance in Beechworth. "We're 50 kilometres from the New South Wales border, and a lot of our clientele base is people doing the Sydney to Melbourne run, and from Wagga [Wagga] and Canberra."
Since reopening in September, he's increased his trading days from two to three nights a week. When the border is lifted, he's planning on opening for four or five days a week. "Now we can have that slow recovery to build back up the hospitality world in Melbourne and regional Victoria."
The planned lifting of borders is the reason Aaron Turner has waited until now to reopen his Geelong restaurant Igni. "A lot of people who live here work in Melbourne, and a lot of Melburnians come down the weekend to the coast ... We get great support from Geelong, but we felt that connection to the [Melbourne] industry as a whole."
Ring of steel or not, there's no silver bullet to regional restaurant woes. "It's a catch-22," says Dan Hunter, chef and co-owner of Brae in Birregurra. "There's a massive influx of enquiries and reservations, but there's not the capacity. We just can't fit people in."
Regional Victoria has moved further down the state government's roadmap to a new COVID-normal. Restaurants can seat a maximum of 40 people indoors, but like metropolitan Melbourne, this is capped at ten per room. And in this era of open-plan restaurants, you'll be hard pressed to find a restaurant with four separate dining areas.
Pre-COVID, Brae seated 40 diners at a time; now, thanks to its single dining room, it can fit just ten. If the ten diners per room limit was lifted, but the four square-metres rule remained – as per COVID-safe rules in June – it would be able to fit 20. Still half its pre-pandemic levels, but double its current arrangement. A hopeful improvement, to say the least. "We need capacity," says Hunter. "It's as simple as that."
It's a funny thing to talk operations and density quotients with chefs. There's a heaviness and harriedness to the conversation that lightens only when talk turns to the subject closest to their hearts: food.
It's spring, after all. Almay Jordaan speaks effusively about Old Palm Liquor's new-season produce: peas still in their pods, green almonds with jelly-like hearts, garlic skate, deep-fried as textural garnish. "All these things are only available for two to three weeks … I'm excited, because these ingredients don't translate for takeaway."
Jad Choucair runs through this week's specials at Mankoushe: wood-fired leeks with yoghurt and fried sage butter, broad beans with pickled lemon and cumin. Some 20 to 30 per cent of the restaurant's produce comes from their farm in Pyramid Hill, 230 clicks north of Melbourne, closer to the Murray River than the city lights.
Hospitality and farming is hard work. Choucair and his brother Hady regularly send money from their restaurants to their family in Beirut – their parents and sister live just two kilometres from the port explosion that rocked the city in August. The stresses of Lebanon, and COVID-19 there and here, are a heavy burden. So there's a lot riding on the restaurant he and his brother started 12 years ago.
Despite the challenges, he's doing his best to remain optimistic about the future. "I don't want you to think I'm whingeing. This is what makes us strong. This is what keeps us going."