When a high-profile Sydney chef returned his Chef Hats to producers of the Good Food Guide, it sent Australia’s fine dining scene into meltdown. But is it an indication that fine dining, as we know it, is changing?
When revered chef and restaurateur Greg Doyle renounced the three coveted Good Food Guide ‘Chef Hats’ assigned to his Sydney institution Pier earlier this year, the fuss it caused was two-fold.
At first, producers of the guide claimed Doyle couldn’t simply hand the title back, as it wasn’t up to him to decide who scored hats in the first place. But at the same time, the argument quickly turned to whether his rejection had sounded a more widespread death knell for fine dining.
According to Doyle, the decision was partly brought about by the fact that both his executive chef and pastry chef at Pier were moving on, prompting a more serendipitous change of direction than the initial sensational renouncement might have suggested. But it was also prompted by Doyle’s long-held desire to “step back” from the well-documented pressures of running a fine dining operation.
“There’s a level of intensity in maintaining three hats that I wanted to step back a little from,” he said in announcing the decision in May this year. “And it was also about bringing the restaurant back in the same way.
“It’s a grueling industry, with very long hours, and an effect on family life. The pressure of maintaining a three-hat or even two-hat restaurant involves a level of expectation that results in a lot of demands on yourself and your staff, as well as added pressure from diners and critics.”
Co-editor of the Good Food Guide’s suite of publications, Terry Durack, was quick to respond, saying Doyle’s announcement was “an interesting development on several levels”.
“With this announcement,” Durack said, “He implies that it is his decision whether he keeps his three hats or not, which of course it isn’t.”
But in a change of tune that at first seemed at odds with his initial response, Durack went on to say he understood why Doyle had come to the decision: “What Greg Doyle can do, of course, is renounce Pier’s current style of cuisine and the price structure of a menu that appears to have alienated his former regulars.”
In throwing a lifeline to Doyle amidst an early wave of criticism of his move, Durack effectively steered the discussion to a deeper contemplation on the validity of the traditional fine dining model.
And, along with it, the experience of many high-profile chefs who find the notoriety that often comes with winning awards and receiving rave reviews means they are no longer able to cater for the customers they first set out to attract.
“Let’s face it, Pier is a very, very expensive restaurant,” Durack said.
“It could not be called a neighbourhood restaurant, even in a neighbourhood as well-off as Rose Bay.
“Pier is most certainly no longer a place where you would drop in for ‘a nice little bit of fish’, so Doyle is perfectly within his rights to move to a simpler cuisine in order to give his customers what they want.”
This, says Doyle, is exactly what he wanted to do.
“Today, the menu at Pier is more simplified,” he explains, giving a nod to the new ‘market menu’ that focuses on fresh seafood and meat cuts, cooked with minimal fuss. “The service is more relaxed; the interior is more casual, and we’re working on a wine list that offers greater value for money.”
What’s more, the results have spoken for themselves: “Straight away, the place was filled with local people celebrating birthdays or catching up over a meal. It was loud again, there was laughter, the dining room feels like a lot of good fun.”
But amid the changes—which were officially rolled out from the start of June—Doyle has stuck to the same approach of extensive research and attention to detail that he adopted when first establishing the restaurant in 1991.
“Our success and reputation lies in our dedication to the diners’ experience,” he explains. “It’s this approach that led us to believe we needed to take the restaurant back to that of a more relaxed, authentic diner, making it more accessible to the local community in Sydney.
“I think traditional ideas of fine dining are changing in that it’s not about creating fussy, expensive food anymore.” Brent Savage, Bentley Restaurant and Bar, Sydney
“I hope that Pier has now evolved from a ‘dining experience’ to once again simply being a beautiful place to dine,” Doyle says, hinting at the fact he’s shed the ‘stuffiness’ of some fine diners without losing the fine food appeal.
It’s an approach that seems to be gaining momentum with many high-profile Australian chefs. Sydney-based chef and co-owner of the keenly watched Bentley Restaurant and Bar, Brent Savage, has long portrayed his food as accessible and informal, despite the fact he’s primarily a creator of fine dining fare firmly entrenched at the molecular end of the culinary spectrum.
With a menu featuring various mousses, imaginative parfaits, a potato ‘nougat’ and fennel ‘pollen’, it might be surprising to hear Savage is actually all about bringing modern, cutting-edge cuisine back to regular people. The key to keeping ideas of fine dining current and applicable, he says, lies in making fine food interesting.
“I think traditional ideas of fine dining are changing in that it’s not about creating fussy, expensive food anymore,” Savage says. “For me, one of the main aims is to deliver something interesting that a visitor wouldn’t necessarily do at home.”
“At Bentley, we try and create our own philosophy toward food and wine. We’re part of the new breed who are taking a more adventurous approach to dining out.”
The idea of creating adventure and a sense of occasion in food is not a new concept in fine dining, but it’s perhaps a growing one among a bevy of successful young restaurateurs.
Melbourne’s resident culinary rock star and owner of Vue de Monde, Shannon Bennett, subscribes to the theory that fine dining comes down to much more than good food and quality linen. For Bennett, it has to be utterly memorable. “Vue de monde is testament to the belief that restaurant food can be a wondrous, unforgettable experience,” he explains, also agreeing with Savage that the experience needs to be vastly different to what diners might have come to expect. “We want to provide a dining experience that cannot be created at home.”
While the demands of creating a hatworthy performance are clearly on display at Vue de Monde, the chef behind the masterpiece is loathed to concede fine dining has had its day. And the fact that reviews at Vue de Monde regularly include adjectives such as ‘witty’, ‘theatre’, ‘dramatic’ and ‘turbo-charged’ probably give a solid indication as to why.
“It has to be theatre. A great dining experience has to encompass the ‘wow’ factor,” he says simply.
Ironically, chasing this very idea of a one-off ‘experience’ is exactly what led Greg Doyle to re-pitch his own heavily hatted Pier restaurant at a more casual clientele.
This, coupled with the fact that Bennett has several spin-off ‘Vue’ eateries catering for less-demanding customers could provide an insight into why supposed warning signs for the future of fine dining keep cropping up: a chef ’s heart just has to be in it.
“My decision certainly came form a personal place,” Doyle says of the changes he’s made in the past four months. “It was a personal decision and I don’t think you can interpret that as a sign fine dining is dying.
“Where there’s a market for it, and people who do a good job of it, there will always be fine dining,” he says. “I just simply wanted a change.”
Durack concurs: “I think this is a good time right now for all chefs to analyse what they are doing and why—because if they are going ‘upmarket’ in order to get three hats—then that’s not necessarily how you get there.”
Indeed, chasing accolades that simply cement a restaurant’s place at the top end of the dining market is not necessarily good for its bottom line, according to restaurant management expert, Tony Eldred.
‘‘Operators at the high end are dropping their offering from a two- or three-hat level to a one-hat level, and it’s quite deliberate,’’ he said in the wake of this year’s controversial Chef Hat renouncement. “The loss of hats or stars always bothers the ego, but I would say it rarely harms the business.”
And while the confluence of opinion, advice and professional experience around Doyle’s decision for Pier continues, it throws focus on the value of restaurateurs doing what they love. “Because that’s the key thing we should be doing,” argues Durack. “Looking out for restaurateurs who have worked out what they want to do, and who do it well. Regardless of the tablecloths.”