Chef and owners Vicki Wild and Martin Benn from Sepia. Photo: Quentin Jones
FED UP with the demands of his three-starred restaurant, in 2005 the French chef Alain Senderens tore off his tablecloths, abandoned his signature Breton lobster and renounced his three Michelin stars, the highest honour in world cooking.
Senderens's stars had brought him customers from around the world, but they also hindered his creativity, he believed. Without them he felt liberated enough to cut his prices and cook pigeons in soy sauce.
Australian chefs are only slightly more relaxed about culinary awards. Each year, restaurants across Sydney and NSW compete for "hats" awarded by food critics Terry Durack and Joanna Savill in the Herald's Good Food Guide. Given the stress they seem to bring - just how much is a hat really worth? "Let's just say if I could sell them, I'd have my own tropical island by now," Mr Durack said.
Back in favour ... Armando Percuoco, whose Buon Ricordo in Paddington reclaimed a second hat this year, in the kitchen at this restaurant. Photo: Edwina Pickles
A figure of $100,000-plus in added business has been bandied around as the worth of a new hat.
"Absolutely, it'd have to be," said Vicki Wild, co-owner of CBD diner Sepia. "In 2010, when we debuted with two hats and Martin [Benn] won chef of the year, it was madness. There were nearly 28,000 hits on our website the next day. We were here until 4am putting in the bookings, it was like they were coming out of a slot machine."
Over the past 20 years Neil Perry has won and lost his third hat several times at his Rockpool on George restaurant. "These things have a serious and long-term effect on your business," he said.
Since reclaiming the top rating last week, Perry says Rockpool has taken a sugar hit. "The first day ... if we said that we might take between 30 and 40 reservations for the upcoming weeks on a Tuesday; I think we took about 200."
When the buzz settles, Perry reckons an extra hat gives Rockpool about a 10 per cent bump in bookings and adds about a fortnight to its waiting list. Over the long run, three hats can attract greater numbers of international tourists.
Another Sydney chef well placed to judge the "hat effect" is Armando Percuoco whose Italian restaurant, Buon Ricordo, has been operating in Paddington for 25 years.
After one year in the one-hat wilderness, "you took it away from me last year", Percuoco says his staff and regular customers were "reassured" when Buon Ricordo reclaimed its second hat this year.
Chef Matthew Kemp discovered the value of a hat the hard way. "When Restaurant Balzac went from two hats to one six years ago, I lost a quarter of a million dollars. That's how much business dropped off the next year," he said.
Others fear the three-hat summit because of the high expectations it brings.
"Two hats could be a bit scary," said Troy Rhoades-Brown, who owns two single-hat restaurants in the Hunter Valley - Muse and Muse Kitchen. He said he would rather "over deliver" with one hat than disappoint with two".
Alain Senderens would no doubt tip his hat.
WHAT VALUE AN EXTRA HAT? (According to Neil Perry)
Instant bookings: Up to 500 per cent lift in phone bookings on the day the Guide comes out
Longer-term: 10 per cent more bookings; adds about two weeks to the waiting list
Prices: "We don't price on guide books or success."