A night at the Opera – Good Food Guide style

Last night was the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Awards ceremony at The Star. It was fun. A little bit controversial – a classic night of cheers, beers and tears – and that combo is always a ripper. I was there, disguised as an organic steak tartare with a shaved beetroot leaf on top. Here is my scoop . . .

I’ve been to a few Good Food Guide ceremonies but last night was one of the most interesting. There were disappointments, more whispers than usual – and a couple of casualties. Not since Bill Marchetti set his certificate on fire after losing a hat in Melbourne more than a decade ago have we seen such pyrotechnics. We also had the funniest MC in years, Tom Gleeson – massive hat tip to you. As an occasional MC of pretty moderate skill, I always tell people that the MC can make or break the evening and you made it boy.

His two best lines?

When about to introduce the Regional Chefs Hats winners, he opined: “I’m a ginger from Gunnedah so take it from me, I know the pain of losing a hat in regional Australia”. BOOM. That’s comedy gold right there.

And then of course amidst all the conspiracies and sledging of the Opera House for demanding a “lower brow” food offering in place of the newly deified and Three Hatted Guillaume, Tom landed a blow I’ve heard before but a top class blow nonetheless.

“Well if the Opera House Trust wants to make the joint more accessible why don’t they just get rid of the fucking Opera”. Top point, well told.

So the MC was on fire. The only other thing that REALLY matters is that there is enough to drink. Quality was no dramas – Pol Roger was flowing, well dripping really… you know I really like the new Star Events Centre – well hang on, before I continue let’s just spend a moment on that name.

The Star Events Centre. I mean SERIOUSLY?! They paid $900 million to build the thing and they can’t even give it a goddamn name. Constellation room, Southern Cross room, Alpha-Centaury – Jesus, it can’t be too hard. Can you imagine the pull they must have with attracting international talent – well you could play the Sands in Macau or Palladium in Melbourne…  or the Events Centre at The Star. Seriously guys, it’s not too late – give it a decent name by Christmas and all will be forgiven.

So to the awards – well it only gets interesting once the two hats are announced as it’s then that you might hear a climb from a one-Hatter, but more particularly it’s where you hear the clang, the gasps and the occasional boo when a three-hatter gets demoted.

And last night it happened TWICE – to Marque and est.

Marque, the 2011 Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year, no longer on the top floor, and est. well I’ve reckoned est. has been the best restaurant in Sydney for a decade, enough said.

Guillaume got his third Hat and the Legends Award and every other award seemed nice and well received.

I am on the judging panel for the wine awards and congrats to all those winners. Felt a bit awkward when I realised that two of the winners engaged my wife’s PR business but Huon Hooke, Mike Bennie, Rob Geddes and Jo Savill can’t be swayed by my Machiavellian plots to further my wife’s career (often at the expense of mine) so my conscience is clear. And the winners deserved every accolade.

The issue of great restaurants losing Hats is a vexed one and it’s easy, if you engage in a little bit of clear thinking and judgement, to realise that it’s pretty hard on both sides. My wife was the editor of the Age Good Food Guide for three years and what she said to me last night rang true; “There’s no way they would have done that (drop the Hats) without realising how big an impact it would have.”

So the reviewers clearly had their reasons. But the pain on Peter Doyle’s face was manifest, Justin Hemmes looked properly upset, Mark Best was surrounded by literally dozens of mates telling him to keep his chin up. The obvious reaction of a great chef demoted is to tell the critics to “go f*** themselves,” and a brief encounter I saw last night was close to that. The chefs must wonder about the qualifications of the critics, the power of a single guide, the silliness of it all – “Don’t they know how bloody hard it is to run a top-end restaurant these days…“

But the critic, well their job – admittedly nowhere near as challenging as the chef – has to be to call it like it is, or at least as they see it. There’s no way Terry Durack or Joanna Savill (both really good people) would have taken that decision lightly. They both LOVE restaurateurs and chefs and the pain I saw on Pete Doyle’s face was replicated on Joanna’s as she spoke with Pete’s wife Bev. A decision like this could fracture decades of friendship…

But it shouldn’t. The Good Food Guide IS important. But it’s not the be-all and end-all. No brand should hang its hat exclusively on one critic or guide’s review – it’s just too bloody risky. Tetsuya, Rockpool, Guillaume and many, many others have suffered setbacks and critical barbs that have not killed them – hopefully only made them stronger.

Surely Neil Perry is the classic case in point. He was just about the happiest bloke in the room last night – seven Hats in Sydney and six in Melbourne – that’s a fair result for a bloke who a decade ago, with restaurant closures and critical bumps in the road, looked like he might be down and out. He fought on, made some luck and now he triumphs. I noticed his Order of Australia badge proudly in his jacket lapel last night and I thought “Bloody good on you Neil Perry – you are a legend”.  Not least of all he will raise god knows how much money for Starlight in a few weeks time with his Ultimate Dinner.  I MIGHT report from that dinner – starring Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and others, but that depends on how the Swans go in the next few weeks – I mean SERIOUSLY Neil Perry – who puts a dinner like that on Grand Final Night?!?!? .

But back to the Good Food Guide – chin up, Pete Doyle and Mark Best, you are both bloody legends, and one critical knock will seem like a tiny, tiny blip in your stellar careers in a few years time. You will be better for the experience but it might take a little time for that to sink in. In the meantime, I’d be perfectly happy for you to knock me up a nice dinner.

13 thoughts on “A night at the Opera – Good Food Guide style

    • Thanks Fish, nice to know we can chat via the interweb and the blogosphere. We missed you the other night – please thank your husband for all the Frangelico (not!). You looked VERY at home abseiling . . . See you soon for drinks pre-Christmas. Love to all the Starlighters and the fam

  1. Enjoyed reading your steak tartare view of the SMH Good Food Guide Awards, Stuart. I felt like I was with you under the beetroot leaf. You and Sal are quite right, there is pain on both sides when chefs lose hats. As a former editor of the Guide, I know exactly what the repercussions are for a restaurant business. Chefs such as Neil Perry, Tetsuya and Serge Dansereau all had their moments and behaved impeccably. I’m sure Pete and Mark will do so, too. I look forward to more tartare thoughts!

    • Hey there Ms Greenwood
      Thanks for the note – and your writing class is still the talk of Liquid Ideas, in fact I will send you an email about a storytelling idea I have. Thanks again for reading. Stu

    • Thanks Dredgey, see you Friday for the Leaky Barrels…
      The Cats aren’t my issue this week – it’s the Hawks. If yours and mine both get a rest next weekend we can both be well pleased. Go Swannies

  2. Nice wrap Stu.
    And yep, you’re right, there are plenty of sleepless nights for the editors in these decisions and the chefs do challenge you out loud when they lose (although Mr Perry remained a class act through all those tough moments, I have to say). But in all my years of restaurant criticism and gong nights, I never had a chef come up to me when we gave them an award or hat and tell me how f%#king clueless I was… Funny that.
    Congrats to all. It’s a tough gig on both sides of the table.

    • Thanks ST, I bet you liked the way I kept my options open on the Ultimate Dinner?! Mate I reckon I will be there but no way if we find our way to the GF.
      Thanks for reading Tiger and GO SWANS

  3. Good report, you tell it like it is. Can’t wait to see if you can keep the blog up, it’s bloody hard work. Mark Patrick.

    • Thanks Mark – great to hear from you, hope you’re well. See you soon I hope and yep I will TRY to keep it up but finding something vaguely interesting to write each week is already a challenge!

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