It first arrived in the US nearly 20 years ago, yet it is only recently that Australian fine dining restaurant operators have truly recognised the value of high-quality limited-service dining, colloquially termed ‘fine fast food’, writes Tracey Porter.
George Calombaris has been accused of many things during his time in the public eye, but missing an opportunity has never been one of them. Raised on Mediterranean food lovingly prepared by his mother and late grandmother, the celebrated Melbourne chef was trained by the best using strict traditional French culinary methods, but later discovered a way to marry these with Greek cuisine.
A previous Restaurant & Catering Young Achiever, at just 24 he was awarded Young Chef of the Year, Best New Restaurant and two chef’s hats in The Age Good Food Guide. At 31 he was named MasterChef Australia judge and now, still only 37 years young, he boasts seven sought after restaurants and a similar number of third-party brand ambassadorships.
Yet it is through his pioneering of the Australian fine fast food movement that the Melbourne entrepreneur’s most enduring legacy may yet lie.
Following in the footsteps of early adopters such as American Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, who branched out from fine dining to open sandwich chain wichcraft in 2003, Calombaris’ was one of the first Australian pioneers to tread this path. He launched Jimmy Grants in 2013, his version of an upmarket souvalaki diner.
Diners at Calombaris’ other establishments can expect to pay upwards of $100 for their dinner. At Jimmy Grants’ visitors can pick up a gluten-free Souvas with chicken, tahini yoghurt, kimopoulos and parsley from $11.50, two saganaki soldier snacks with peppered fig jam for $9 or a chocolate baklava ice-cream sandwich for just $6.
Calombaris—once renowned for his molecular gastronomy and dexterity with degustation—took a calculated risk in launching a brand that takes its name from the Australian rhyming slang for immigrants. He was confident there would be ample appetite for “healthy, good-quality food served quickly for those on the go.” And it is clear that what Calombaris terms the “slow cooked but eaten fast” food experience has struck a chord with customers, with the franchised chain now operating from five separate locations.
A burger development
The man who has become a byword of Australian fine dining, Neil Perry, is another who has embraced the fine fast food concept.
The architect behind the wildly successful Rockpool Group, he launched the Burger Project two years ago in a bid to offer consumers what he calls “fast food with slow food values.”
Seeking to emulate the same approach taken in all of Perry’s restaurants—where everything from the pickled cucumbers to the secret sauce is made from scratch on premises—Burger Project proved a hit from launch.
It currently serves more than 1000 hamburgers a day across its two Sydney locations and has big expansion plans with additional outlets in Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Dubai believed to be on the cards.
Charging around $10 for a hamburger, Burger Project is a world away from the kitchens of the other Perry establishments where mains hover upwards of $40.
Despite this Perry says he refuses to compromise on quality. For instance all Burger Project patties are made in-house daily with 36-month-old Cape Grim cattle, grass-fed on Tasmania’s northwest coast.
Perry argues it not just price or a big name that allows a business such as his to thrive. “It’s about delivering a fast food—be it a burger, hot dog, chicken wings, fries or an ice-cream—using the best possible ingredients, made and served by qualified and professional staff, in an environment that is well designed and inspiring.”
In reflection of this, Perry says Burger Project clientele represent a mixed bag. Rockpool Group regulars might pop into Burger Project for lunch on the run and mix with corporate customers, families and the youth market.
Off the plate
Though consumer demand for traditional fine dining is on the wane, demand for limited service fine dining concepts shows little sign of abating—take for example Rene Redzepi’s Australian Noma pop-up where $350 per head reservations sold out in just 90 seconds.
Demand for these buzz-worthy, high-quality fine fast food concepts owned by respected chefs has prompted an increasing number of restaurant owners to turn to developments in the airports of major cities to trial a new method of operation. Acclaimed Melbourne-based chef Shannon Bennett chose an as-yet-unopened premium dining precinct in Sydney’s international airport, dubbed City View, in which to open his first venue in NSW. But rather than opening another version of Vue de Monde restaurant or Bistro Vue, Bennett says his will be a gourmet burger joint named after his father.
Benny Burger will offer a range of burgers made from organic and wild-sourced ingredients with its signature burger a combination of Blackmore wagyu, free-range fried egg and pickled beetroot. The City View site has also attracted other big names including Mike McEnearney who will open a Kitchen by Mike canteen. Austrian-American powerhouse chef Wolfgang Puck will also add to his 70-plus fine dining and casual venues with his first Australian endeavour called The Bistro.
Like its counterparts, The Bistro will open later this year, serving modern Italian fare including pasta and wood-fired pizza in a relaxed trattoria-style setting.
Keep it simple
While the fine-fast-food restaurants in Australia are as diverse as the chefs behind them, the one thing they all seem to have in common is their business model. All are centred on high-volume, quick turnover and minimal labour.
Bar and Restaurant Consultants owner Carlos Swinton-Lee, who has opened more than 50 bars and restaurants across London and Australia, says with an apparent saturation of the market, a unique, quality product is critical. Whichever style of fare is on offer, fine-fast-food operators need to ensure there is a quick and simple service flow that’s easy to follow.
Despite this it’s inevitable that compromises need to made, he says.
“You’re not going to cook a risotto from scratch in a fast food environment. But the compromise is a good thing. As an operator it helps you to eliminate what won’t work and then you work on producing less with a real focus on the quality and the final delivery. The compromise appears when chefs want to produce something that may be market priced or seasonal. This will affect the cost of goods, but the retail selling price won’t change so the margins are inevitably compromised.”
Swinton-Lee, who launched his consultancy five years ago, says fine fast food works best when quality chefs come up with the menus and then hand them down to the ‘cooks’ to produce for service on a day-to-day basis, lowering labour costs.
“This is the real reason chefs are creating fine fast food. The margins are better as the product is simple and the labour cost is lower. Fast food brands (even fine fast food) are not built around chefs. They’re built around cooks with a low skill base and a single product. Offerings like burgers, hot dogs or Mexican will be easier to prepare than a complicated menu that varies in preparation and service style.
“Restaurant and brand owners who open fine-fast-food restaurants need to consider their positioning; the selling price will determine what can be spent on the cost of goods and you don’t want to price yourself out of the market by pitching the retail selling price too high. The consumer wants ‘high-low dining’ where high quality is met with a low price.”
From an operator’s perspective the requirement to serve good food fast does not necessarily mean the quality of any of the menu items served will be compromised.
“There are some wonderful pieces of equipment on the market today that remove the human risk of over cooking the food. As a result, fast food can be delivered to a much higher standard. Sous-vide is a great way to get a consistent quality from meats and fish. If the chefs sous-vide the meats it’s ready to serve and the only thing that needs to be completed in service is re-heating on a grill or in the oven.
“Combi ovens will steam and dry cook with or without a fan. [In addition] they have timers and these reduce the risk of over cooking food.”
Burger Project’s biggest challenges have come from space and time restrictions, rather than human error, Perry says.
However, he adds, menus and staff training have been designed to accommodate these.
“If you have a strong commitment to quality, which we have, it will work. We haven’t compromised on any of the ingredients we use and work hard at training our staff to ensure that excellent and efficient customer service is a part of the complete dining experience we offer.
“Customers’ expectations are incredibly high, as they would be at one of our fine dining restaurants, so being able to exceed them is a challenge but one that we’re trying to do each day. We are working with great suppliers who can meet our requirements for delivery and quality—we are only as good as our suppliers and they play a very important role in our success.”