Melbourne Cup fashionistas, eat your heart out. Our hats are worth a million bucks. According to a recent survey by the restaurant reservations website dimmi, gaining a hat at the annual Good Food Guide awards nets the recipient a whopping 32 per cent increase in bookings. Losing one slashes earnings by 25 per cent. And all this thanks to a cute logo on a stiff white certificate.
"Yes, it's hat time," declared Simon Thomsen, opening the Good Food Guide awards evening in 2009. "But tonight is also a celebration of history, of longevity, of resilience and ingenuity. And that's just the Good Food Guide editors." Boom tish. It was, I suspect, no exaggeration for Thomsen (my first co-editor) who worked on the Guide, in various roles, for a record 14 years. Now, after eight long, resilient and (maybe occasionally?) ingenious years at the table, I too am folding my napkin and pushing back the chair.
Eight years doesn't even span a generation but it's almost a lifetime in restaurant terms. In that period, hundred of hats, and restaurants, have come and gone. Great moments include a record number (137 hats in total) awarded in the most recent Guide, newcomer Momofuku Seiobo snaring three toques in its first year, consistent three-hatters Quay and Sepia netting successive Restaurant of the Year titles and Neil Perry doing the tonne – clocking more than 100 of those cute logos across his career.
There's a painfully sad side to it too, of course: the drop in score that leaves a restaurant minus a hat - always an agonising decision, not least given dimmi's findings; and restaurant closures - a huge disappointment for all, including Guide editors, not least for the financial grief borne by suppliers, staff and other creditors.
At the risk of sounding terribly holy, I have worn this responsibility heavily. And I don't just mean wearing heated abuse from furious chefs' wives when their husbands' establishments have fared less than well. Or when a chef or restaurateur requests feedback on a score – willingly and painstakingly given – but falls suddenly silent once the harsh, and detailed, truth is revealed.
And yes, every single Guide reviewer's meal is conducted anonymously and independently, and paid for in full. Around 45 reviewers wade through a lengthy yearly briefing and an extensive set of guidelines. A new reviewer's probation starts at the dinner table – either with me or chief reviewer, Terry Durack, followed by a written trial review. An equally time-consuming annual de-brief gathers award recommendations from every reviewer before a senior panel spends hours sifting and debating votes, decisions and scores.
For those who like this kind of trivia (Guide editors thrive on it), in my first co-editing gig, Tetsuya's was Restaurant of the Year. It was one of seven three hat restaurants in the 2008 Guide. Only one of those, Quay, is still up there, with just three others - Rockpool, Sepia and Momofuku Seiobo. Meanwhile for 2015, a record 53 restaurants in Sydney scored one hat compared to 36 in 2008. Of those 36, only 15 are still trading... Only cricket nuts come close to this kind of statistical fascination.
So I'll shut up and just say that editing The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide has been a huge privilege, and at a fabulous time for Sydney, and Australian dining. And despite, or indeed because of those precious hats, the Guide remains the restaurant industry's biggest champion.
Interestingly though, getting back to those dimmi figures... In Victoria, the loss of a hat means only a 1 per cent drop in bookings. Hmm. So Melburnians are a more loyal bunch, obviously. Whereas we superficial Sydneysiders... Oh, sorry. I'm off again. Thanks, everyone. Signing out now.