It's reassuring to know that the people who have been anointed our hospitality industry legends, are, indeed, legendary. Their passions are grand, their dislikes virulent, their stories wondrously rude. They drink Romanee-Conti on the weekend, hate waiters who say "too easy" and love young chefs who focus on doing one thing well.
So when Les Schirato of Vittoria Coffee, long-time patron of the annual Good Food Guide Legends Award, invited a bunch of Legends to lunch at the equally legendary Icebergs Dining Room & Bar overlooking Bondi Beach to celebrate their legendariness, there were just two questions we had to ask. What do they really think of the dining trends of 2017 – and what will 2018 bring to the table?
The (allegedly) natural wine trend
Wines produced with minimal intervention by the wine-maker have had significant influence over wine lists in 2017, while several restaurants, wine bars and bottle-shops have gone "all-natural". It's fair to say that our lunching Legends, at least, aren't huge fans.
"Come to my place, and you won't find a natural wine anywhere," says Neil Perry, the GFG's first Legend in 2003. "You will find real wine."
Lyndey Milan, the first journalist and communicator to be gonged as a Legend (2012), and head of the Sydney Wine Show for seven years, pipes up. "Can we please refer to them as 'allegedly natural' wines? So many of them are faulty, and they get worse the longer they are in the bottle, because there is nothing to preserve them. I think it's the emperor's new clothes."
Michael McMahon of Rose Bay's very wine-driven Catalina (Legend, 2011) calls for quiet. "I was a judge at the Sydney Wine Show when I was 21," he says. "The wines my sommeliers now bring me as natural wines would have been thrown out because of wine faults. Who wants to drink cloudy, oxidised, overly acidic or badly made wine?"
Come to my place, and you won't find a natural wine anywhere.Neil Perry
What about Jason Lui of Melbourne's Flower Drum, here representing his father and co-owner, Anthony Lui (Legend 2015) – surely there is room in the Flower Drum's legendary wine cellar for natural wines? "No," he says. "Over the years you get to know the people who come to your restaurant, and they are not people who like to be told too much and have wine explained to them. It's not for us."
Respected organic wine-makers such as Vanya Cullen and Jeffrey Grosset are admired, before McMahon casually mentions that he drank a bottle of Domaine de la Romanee Conti Grands Echezeaux 2000 on the weekend. The room erupts with "Of course you did!" The legendary Burgundy house has been organic and partly biodynamic since 1988. The Legends agree - that's their sort of natural wine.
The rise of the big restaurant group
With the help of restaurant critic Terry Durack, 2017's top trends are identified, such as the end of the great Sydney/Melbourne rivalry, the ways in which technology and social media are shaping the industry, and the strength of regional dining – but inevitably, talk returns time and again to just how hard it is to run a successful business in 2017.
"Look at the rent and outgoings you're talking about now for a 100-seat restaurant – it's astronomical," says Neil Perry, culinary head of Australia's largest restaurant group, Rockpool Dining. "For small independent operators, it's a very competitive, difficult environment."
Rising property values and rents mean the big restaurant group is in a better position than the small independent, something foreseen by the late visionary John Hemmes of the Merivale Group (Legend, 2010). "It's part of the changing times," says Perry.
Legendary chef Damien Pignolet (2006) reluctantly agrees. "In my heart, I would want a small independent restaurant, but the reality is it simply cannot work," he says. "We used to speak about labour being the major cost, but these days it is definitely rent. The independent owner operator is an endangered species."
As Perry explains, "property prices have put small operators in a very difficult situation. What Damien was paying for Claude's in Paddington in 1981 ($250 a week) would be $2500 a week now, or more."
Pignolet looks around the room, and adds, "the income from the optional sorbet or salad paid the rent". Silence falls. Two or three people quietly say "wow". It's not easy to stop a room full of Legends, but that did the trick.
The birth of a uniquely Australian cuisine
A quick flick through the larger-than-life, newly national 2018 Good Food Guide shows growing use and understanding of indigenous ingredients. Could it be that Australian cuisine is getting more Australian?
"More and more restaurants are working with indigenous ingredients" says Neil Perry, "but it can't just be the ingredients, it has to be the people as well." He notes the growing industry support for the not-for-profit National Indigenous Culinary Institute which trains, mentors and supports indigenous Australians to become world-class chefs. Perry's Spice Temple, Rockpool Bar & Grill and Rosetta are among 15 Good Food Guide-listed restaurants (including The European, Bistro Guillaume, Catalina and Icebergs) to employ indigenous graduate chefs and apprentices from NICI, which aims to produce Australia's first three-hatted indigenous chef.
Janni Kyritsis (Legend 2016), who came to Australia from Greece in 1970, says "we brought our cultures with us by ships, and so that is how we ate, but we have to understand the food that was already here."
For Lyndey Milan, who witnessed the pioneering efforts of restaurants such as Edna's Table using indigenous ingredients in the 1980's, it's matter of timing. "The community needs to be ready to accept it" she says. "They weren't then, but they are now."
Changing kitchen culture for the better
Talk moves to the strains and stresses on those in the industry, and the sadness of losing a talented chef such as Jeremy Strode earlier this year. Terry Durack notes that Attica's Ben Shewry is working hard to change kitchen culture from within, instituting four-day work weeks and other staff initiatives.
"We have to get away from the bootcamp-style kitchen," says Neil Perry, "We won't get any millennials to join the industry, or have anyone young to mentor if we don't allow them the opportunity to grow and flourish as human beings."
Jason Lui, however, says getting his Flower Drum kitchen staff to take a day off is like pulling teeth. "Nobody there even likes to leave their station," he says. "That's the way they are – and Dad (chef Anthony Lui) is the same. He would work eight days a week if he could."
Damien Pignolet says teaching is one way of giving back. "I had a very talented apprentice once, but after six months, he said he was leaving. When I asked him why, he said 'There's nothing to learn here'." There is a collective gasp of disbelief around the table at the thought of there being nothing to learn from the ultimate craftsman.
What's on the table for 2018?
The Flower Drum's Jason Lui wants to see a better work/life balance for his staff. "My guys are getting on in age, especially front-of-house. Barney has been with us for 33 years, Barry for 22 years, and Ray for 27 years."
Lyndey Milan is excited about the new, more direct, primal ways of cooking. "Some people use techniques and contraptions to hide the fact that they can't cook," she says. "What I love is the honesty of what Lennox Hastie of Firedoor is doing with his wood-fired cooking, and Josh Nyland with his dry-aged fish. It's not tricked-up, it's just beautiful produce."
Damien Pignolet would like to see more spontaneity in cooking. "You can sous-vide a steak then take it out of the bag and sear it, but it will never taste the same," he says.
For Neil Perry, 2018 is going to be all about Middle Eastern food, spurred on by global immigration patterns. "I know it's been around a long time, but I think it's going to be huge."
Michael McMahon wants to see more attention to detail. "I do not want to go out and spend $180 and sit at a bare wooden table and have some waiter throw bread rolls on it and say 'too easy, mate'," he says. "This is a part of dining we have cast aside – what we do now is eat, not dine."
Janni Kyritsis has a simple goal for 2018. "I'm looking forward to eating more and more in the great restaurants of Australia," he says. In particular, Saint Peter in Paddington. "Last week, Josh Nyland did a muffin with monkfish liver that was so good that I asked for another one for dessert," he says. "It is the first time for a long time that I feel I can learn from a chef."
Meet the legends
The annual Vittoria Coffee Legend award was launched in NSW in 2003 and in Victoria in 2012, and proudly went national this year in the 2018 Good Food Guide.
2018 Jeremy Strode* (National)
British-born chef who made his mark in Melbourne and Sydney over 27 years before his death this year.
2017 Leon Fink (NSW)
Visionary entrepreneur behind Quay, Bennelong, Otto, Firedoor and others.
2017Jean-Paul Prunetti and Geraud Fabre (Vic)
The team behind South Yarra's legendary France-Soir, 31 years young.
2016 Janni Kyritsis (NSW)
The Greek electrician turned chef from Stephanie's, Berowra Waters Inn and MG Garage.
2016 Gail & Kevin Donovan (Vic)
The dynamic duo behind Donovans and Melbourne hospitality royalty.
2015 Peter Doyle (NSW)
Passionate surfer and stellar chef from Reflections in Palm Beach to est. in Sydney.
2015 Anthony Lui (Vic)
Chef for 35 years and co-owner since 2002 of Melbourne's legendary Flower Drum.
2014 Guillaume Brahimi (NSW)
Bringing French finesse and technique to Australian tables since 1994.
2014 Rinaldo Di Stasio (Vic)
Creator and enforcer of #italianality and the art of Italian hospitality at Cafe Di Stasio since 1985.
2013 Leo Schofield (NSW)
Sydney's hugely influential "public stomach" began writing about restaurants in 1971.
2012 Alla Wolf-Tasker, AM (Vic)
Tireless chef/owner and industry professional behind Daylesford's Lake House, honoured for services to tourism and hospitality.
2012 Lyndey Milan (NSW)
Popular broadcaster and food educator for more than 30 years.
2012 Philippe Mouchel (Vic)
The chef's chef, from Paul Bocuse in Melbourne, to PM, to Philippe.
2011 Michael McMahon (NSW)
Michael and his wife Judy have run Sydney's iconic waterside Catalina restaurant for 23 years.
2010 John Hemmes* (NSW)
"Mr John" crossed effortlessly from fashion to food, setting up the all-conquering Merivale group now run by his son Justin.
2009 Maurice Terzini (NSW)
Terzini opened Melbourne's Caffe e Cucina in 1988, before taking his dolce vita doctrine to Sydney.
2008 Michael Manners (NSW)
Lifted the bar for regional dining with a string of fine restaurants in the Blue Mountains and Orange.
2007 Tetsuya Wakuda (NSW)
Changed Sydney dining forever with his pioneering mix of Japanese ethos and French technique.
2006 Damien Pignolet (NSW)
Opened and ran two of Sydney's most influential restaurants, Claude's and Bistro Moncur.
2005 Armando Percuoco (NSW)
The godfather of Italian cooking in Australia opened Pulcinella with his father in Kings Cross in 1979, followed by Buon Ricordo in 1987.
2004 Wolfie Pizem (NSW)
Before there were celebrity chefs, there were celebrity restaurateurs. Pizem gave Sydney the Russian Coachman, Wolfie's, The Waterfront and Italian Village.
2003 Neil Perry AM (NSW)
Culinary head of Rockpool Dining Group, Perry has won more chef hat awards than any other chef in the country.
* Gone but not forgotten
LEGEND IN FOCUS: ALLA WOLF-TASKER, AM
Alla Wolf-Tasker of Daylesford's Lake House (Legend, 2013) weighs in on some of the bigger issues of 2017:
On efforts to change the boot-camp nature of the restaurant kitchen culture, for instance, she says she has a slightly different approach from the rest of the industry. "I'm convinced that one of the ways forward is to educate and improve the nutrition of young chefs, who often have terrible diets, consuming junk food and power drinks by the tonne," she says. "Firm links continue to be established between depression and a diet of processed food."
The offer of a healthy staff meal once a day, she says, is a good start.
"It is part of the job of any employers who recognise the value of their team, to help ameliorate the negative effects. Engagement in career through training and upskilling is part of the agenda. At Lake House, we offer staff discounts to a local gym and have yoga classes on site. We encourage walking, and being out in the fresh air. A social club offers opportunity for group activity. Volunteering at the farms of our local suppliers offers some of our team a different environment and some valuable 'head space'."
But, she says, it will never be an easy profession. "The culinary profession is what it is, and you have to love it to do it. Missing out on social life and long hours are part of the deal, and to expect otherwise would be like a gardener not wanting to work outdoors."
On issues such as penalty rates and immigration visas, she says, the government needs to listen more to the industry. "Most countries are throwing additional resources at service industries (the most, and often the only, rapidly expanding arena for job growth), but there seems to be a real lack of tangible support."
As for 2018, Wolf-Tasker says to expect more millennials at the higher end of dining. "I'm sensing a desire for more special, bespoke experiences among the new generation of diners," she says. "Perhaps it's because they eat out at casual, very noisy, familiar places most nights, but we are seeing a raft of beautifully kitted-out millennials visiting and staying with us nowadays, which is just delightful."