There’ll never be a need to carbon date the quantum leap in Australia’s food fashion. Or to ponder its greatest influence. In 1975, Leo Schofield penned the first guide to eating out in Sydney and went on to become the senior restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald. Today, as editor-at-large for Australian Gourmet Traveller, his interests have been given permission to leave the table, but his reputation and authority still stamp him as The Unseen Guest At Every Meal in any restaurant that has ever known his benediction or his bile.
Leo Schofield is a Renaissance man – articulate in art and architecture, the performing and decorative arts, heritage, horticulture and, of course, gustatory perception. This has not gone unnoticed. When former Prime Minister Paul Keating – who himself knows a Vaillant clock from a vinaigrette – heard of this award, he said: “Leo Schofield is a man of high sensibilities. All self-taught; all self-developed.” His interests, wrote Keating, range through such fields as architecture and decoration, gardening, music and dance, opera, food and travel, while his writing on restaurants had a real and substantial effect on the development of food in Sydney. “His more recent successes as an arts festival director, both in Melbourne and in Sydney, and his stewardship in Australia of the Paris Opera Ballet, speak volumes for his deep and conscientious interest in the arts and of their ability to light up people’s souls.”
Leo Schofield emerged out of a food scene which, at the higher end, represented a hearty slab of retro grand cuisine set in aspic. And he gradually taught it modern sensibilities. He began writing about food when it was something not discussed in polite company, and within a decade dining out had more or less replaced organised religion. Maybe he was in the right place at the right time, but it is more likely that he made it the right time.
It was a time when “word of mouth” meant Leo’s word and Leo’s mouth. And when he celebrated a felicitous dining experience, the whole town celebrated it.
Leo’s readers shared his enthusiasm for what Tony and Gay Bilson were doing at Tony’s Bon Goût; for what Patric Juillet was doing at Le Café and Le Café Nouveau and for Claude Corne’s reign at Claude’s. They celebrated Anders Ousback and Josephine and Damien Pignolet and Steve Manfredi and Peter Doyle, as well as the emerging talents of the likes of Sean Moran and Tim Pak Poy.
Damien Pignolet recalls the excitement that Leo generated. “At Pavilion on the Park,” he says, “we could put two couples together on a table for four. They didn’t know each other, but they were all there to experience what Leo had experienced... and it worked for all concerned.”
While invariably entertaining, the prime purpose of his reviews was always to inform. Those establishments that fell short of his stringent standards were never at a loss to know why and, thus, how they could improve. Even at considerable cost. Leo Schofield has the rare distinction of having rejected a lobster that ultimately cost $100,000 – the damages awarded in an infamous 1984 defamation action that made national headlines.
He wrote not just of food itself, but of the sociology of dining. The sense of hospitality, setting, atmosphere, comfort and enjoyment; his vision was always wider than his own table.
Never elitist in print, he shared with his readers an engaging bonhomie about food in particular and life in general, plus an occasional dismay that both could be so much better. “Like many talented people, Leo was demanding and editing him could be like cooking with fugu,” said William Fraser, one of his editors on Good Living. “But he was undeniably a great talent with a discerning judgment, and at his best he was a very generous man and enormously good company with a wicked tongue, a prodigious memory and great timing.”
Leo Schofield has done what every restaurant critic should aspire to do – he has positively influenced local standards. He remains, as publisher Eric Beecher – a one-time mentor at The Sydney Morning Herald – describes him, “a hedonist with a heart”.
WORDS ROB INGRAM PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF LEO SCHOFIELD
This article is from the September 2009 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.