Heatwave not so hot for Victorian chefs

Stress test: Michael James of Tivoli Road Bakery with pastry in his coolroom. James says the warmer weather means dough ...
Stress test: Michael James of Tivoli Road Bakery with pastry in his coolroom. James says the warmer weather means dough has to be monitored more carefully. Photo: Eddie Jim

His South Yarra shop has a small airconditioning unit that's no match for the summer's extreme temperatures - hence a strategic retreat to the coolroom to work the dough for his cultish dossants and sourdough. Taking a jumper to work is just part of the bizarre irony of the situation.

''It's a pretty big stress,'' says Michael James of the soaring mercury. ''There's a lot more monitoring of the dough needed. We also have to work much quicker to make sure the dough doesn't over-prove and that we get a nice lamination on the croissants.''

While James has vowed this will be his last summer without adequate airconditioning, fellow baker Kate Reid of Elwood's Lune Croissanterie upgraded hers after last summer and has been gleefully sending pictures of her temperature gauge to her (equally airconditioned) friends at Spotswood's Candied Bakery.

Despite her relative comfort, it doesn't hurt to think laterally: Reid has ''bought out the entire supply of Woolworths frozen peas to keep my bench cool. This job was definitely not meant for a warm country!''

The short-range forecast for the hospitality industry is fairly unequivocal: extreme heat is bad for business. But like all weather patterns, there are peaks and troughs.

At its basest, the heat has divided the industry into airconditioning's haves and have-nots. Some businesses such as cafe/restaurants Mankoushe and Teta Mona, both in Brunswick East, closed their doors on the hottest 40-plus days. ''We have airconditioning, but it doesn't really work over 35 degrees,'' says Teta Mona's Bechara Taouk. ''It's not healthy for our staff to work in heat like that.'' Mankoushe simply left a plaintive sign in the window: ''It's too hot!''

A downturn in custom is an inevitable part of the heatwave package. At Tivoli Road, James estimates sales halve on the hottest days. Lunchtimes have been hit hardest across Melbourne's cafes and restaurants. The European and City Wine Shop, with an emphasis on kerbside seating, are suffering accordingly, although sales at their sister business Gelateria Primavera have, predictably, been extremely healthy. More surprising, says general manager Anthony Femia, is that sales from the cheese cellar are holding steady. ''It's probably the attraction of a 13-degree temperature-controlled cellar that keeps the office workers coming in.''

South of the river things are slightly different to the heat-averse north. Uncle's Rene Spence has identified a ''sweet spot'' of around 30 to 35 degrees when the crowds will come. ''Our quietest week to date since opening was the week of the real heatwave. People just wanted to go to the movies, but anywhere between 35 and 39 it's still busy, only more painful because people sit outside then decide they want to come inside. I'm left juggling two lists instead of one.''

Not only are chefs struggling, their equipment is, too. The ambient temperature from working with ovens and stove tops can easily top 50 degrees in the typical commercial kitchen, which means extra work for fridges and freezers. ''They work fine most of the year, but when it's really hot you have to baby them through it,'' says Dave Parker of San Telmo, one of several businesses we spoke to that are calling in the refrigeration mechanics. ''I've got little tricks, like pouring cold water on the grilles of the air intake.''

Regional Victoria particularly feels the heat. Bushfires are a big dampener on travel plans, says Lake House's Alla Wolf-Tasker, even if they're nowhere near. ''It seems to take some reports of grassfires anywhere and people will decide to stay at home. It happens every year. Things tend to get better in March.''

At Brae, outside Birregurra in the Otways, Dan Hunter has been watching the property's three dams drop steadily as they feed 1.2 hectares of working garden. ''We'd love it to rain in the next two weeks,'' he says. And try this tweet from Naomi Ingleton of Myrtleford Butter Factory: ''For everyone asking about mail orders, it's too hot to post butter. Unless you want butter soup?''

The trend for open kitchens may have been the heatwave's saviour for chefs who used to toil in isolated sweatboxes, although Stephanie Britton, head chef at South Melbourne's Bellota, is thrilled the owners were considerate enough to install airconditioning in her small kitchen - the first she's worked in over a career that spans Maha and Gertrude Street Enoteca. ''I'm used to kitchens that turn into saunas in summer. This is great.''