Seven silver linings from Victoria's lockdowns: How chefs and restaurateurs made the pandemic work for them

Rising star: Rosheen Kaul is the new head chef at Etta Dining.
Rising star: Rosheen Kaul is the new head chef at Etta Dining.  Photo: Eddie Jim

It was the year that pushed the state's restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs to the brink. But bright spots have emerged that may change dining forever.

A year ago, a few weeks into our national COVID-19 lockdown, Victorian hospitality operators were already hoping to use pandemic-enforced disruption as an opportunity to create permanent, positive adjustments to an industry that has been notoriously tough on bodies, minds and balance sheets. A year and a couple more lockdowns later, the state is open, eating and – in some pockets at least – thriving.

So what has changed? Has anything good come out of the most testing time restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs have ever endured? Good Food spoke to dozens of hospitality people in Melbourne and country Victoria.

If you could sum up the tapestry of opinion and perspective, it's something like this: it's been hard and the challenges are still manifold, but there are swathes of silver lining.

1. Stuck in Australia and loving it …

Many local chefs train here then gain further experience overseas. That's well and good in normal times but COVID has meant some chefs have furthered their careers on home soil in ways they could never have imagined.

Without the pandemic, Rosheen Kaul would probably be a mid-level chef in a London kitchen cave, years away from focusing on her own food style. Instead, she's the acclaimed head chef of a prominent Melbourne restaurant, Etta in Brunswick East. "COVID skyrocketed my career and I'll always be thankful for it," she says.

Grilled pork rib with oyster emulsion at Etta.
Grilled pork rib with oyster emulsion at Etta. Photo: Simon Schluter

In February 2020, Kaul lost her chef de partie job when Dinner by Heston Blumenthal suddenly closed. She planned to follow her partner back to his home in England so she could work overseas, "but I ended up getting stuck here and having an amazing year", she says.

Locked down in her parents' house, Kaul's obsessive cooking and recipe-writing turned into the Isol(Asian) Cookbook project with illustrator Joanna Hu. The pair ended up creating three volumes and Kaul also had a story published in Lee Tran Lam's New Voices on Food anthology.

"I'd never had the opportunity to have my own voice," says Kaul. "Now people were paying attention to what I was saying – how I cook congee or make chilli oil – and once I had that validation, it would have been harder to go back into the trenches. A year ago, I hadn't entertained the idea that this could be the case. I didn't have the capacity or opportunity."

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Her star rising, she was cold-called with a job offer in November by Etta owner Hannah Green. Kaul, 28, had to be talked into taking the leap into her first head chef position. "It was daunting," she says. "But every service gets easier and now I can't see myself working anywhere else."

12.11.20 The Age
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Carlton North
Photo shows the chef Harry Mangat at Biji Dining at Little Andorra in Carlton North.
Photo: Scott McNaughton / The Age

Harry Mangat during his residency at Little Andorra in Carlton North. Photo: Scott McNaughton

In early March 2020, chef Harry Mangat left Australia, planning an extended European cooking adventure for his modern Indian Biji Dining pop-up. He and his wife landed in Denmark, hustled to catch the last pre-lockdown train to Berlin, got stuck, and ended up flying home. "It was sad coming back," says Mangat, "but slowly everything went well and overall it's been positive."

COVID skyrocketed my career and I'll always be thankful for it.

Rosheen Kaul, Etta Melbourne

He worked for Charlie Carrington's Atlas Masterclass recipe box juggernaut, then took on a two-month spring pop-up at Little Andorra restaurant. "For the first time ever, I got a full venue, which meant I could keep improving and adjusting dishes," he says. "It was an amazing experience for me."

That rolled into a summer season at Avani on the Mornington Peninsula and a stint on Flinders Island. "I know it's been a hard time for so many people, but Biji Dining has had the best year ever," says Mangat.

2. We have the business we always wanted

Lockdown was an opportunity and impetus for restaurants to scrutinise outgoings and find savings. Shorter opening hours, fewer dishes, set menus and weekend surcharges have helped many businesses remain viable. The upsides are lower staff costs, less waste and more predictable customer spending, especially important as restaurants are still restricted to one diner every two square metres.

"We halved our menu and our operating hours when we were permitted to reopen last year," says Lisa Slaughter from Ripponlea Food and Wine. "We also made two courses mandatory on Friday and Saturday nights with a set price of $55." Customers have rolled with it and the benefits are huge. "Our spend per head has increased from $50-$60 to $75-plus and our margins are way better," she says.

The Age Good Food,  Luke Bresnan in his wine bar Little Andorra.Pic Simon Schluter 7 April 2021.

Luke Bresnan in his wine bar Little Andorra. Photo: Simon Schluter

Before the pandemic, Luke Bresnan's Little Andorra was open every day from 2pm, serving food all afternoon. The wine bar opened on public holidays, paid penalty rates and lost money. "We wanted to be that flexible, accessible, approachable venue," he says. Lockdown changed everything.

"The realisation came that we were draining the business," says Bresnan. "We now do five days, two sittings, a prepaid set menu and we close on public holidays." Sundays used to be long and lazy. Now it's a one-sitting lunch, which makes more money than it previously did by remaining open all day.

Bresnan followed Harry Mangat's time on deck with a residency from former Bar Saracen chef Tom Sarafian. It's going well. "People enjoy the more intense, curated, food-focused wine experience that we can offer," he says. "We can sell that matchy-matchy late-harvest dessert wine from Hungary. It's empowering to know that people are coming for what we always intended to be."

3. Life is more balanced

Victor Liong has also moved to a set-menu structure at his city restaurant Lee Ho Fook and the restaurant is open four days a week instead of seven. "I love it," says Liong (pictured). "We can tell the story of the restaurant in a wider range of dishes and put unexpected things – pearl meat, candied fungi – in front of people," he says.

The work-life balance benefits are enormous. "I play golf now – terribly but with enthusiasm," he says. "We have hobbies, we exercise. It's a more healthy environment for everybody. We use the word 'sustainable' with ingredients; I'm also trying to build a sustainable model for a restaurant business. I am super proud to say I've achieved something that's been a huge puzzle for a lot of operators: my staff are now earning more money for working a reasonable amount of time."

Not everyone is happy. "I have customers that hate me because they can't come in and just order the eggplant," says Liong of his dish of crispy eggplant with spiced red vinegar, a Melbourne classic. "We have to charge for the product we are making and build a business around that. Otherwise we are just going to slip back to 2019 and say, 'Oh, I wish a change could come.'"

The Age, MMag 25/03/2019, photo by Justin McManus. Lee Ho Fook. Crispy eggplant, spiced red vinegar.

Lee Ho Fook's signature crispy eggplant with spiced red vinegar. Photo: Justin McManus

Angie Giannakodakis now closes her Carlton restaurant Epocha Monday to Wednesday. Customers simply aren't around early in the week and staff are appreciating chunks of time off. "The best thing to do is to concentrate on the services that count," she says. "The good thing to come out of COVID was reflection. If you have time to reflect, you have time to become better."

That includes a greater focus on mental health. "We have a counsellor; we are putting in place a mental health plan," she says.

Trading conditions are still extremely tough for her CBD-fringe restaurant. "I'm anxious but I love what I do and I'd like our restaurant to continue," she says. "We still need people to support the restaurants that they love."

4. Opportunity knocking

Front-of-house professional James Ness, 25, is currently at Adam D'Sylva's Coda and Tonka. Ness thought he was a long way from opening his own restaurant but the post-COVID wash-up has offered a plethora of opportunities to accelerate his ambition to launch his own place.

Over summer he ran a Mediterranean grill called Jethro with chef Gitai Ifergan in a shuttered sushi restaurant in Prahran.

"There are so many places for lease and landlords are far more up for negotiation than they used to be," says Ness, who is now weighing up three potential sites. "People are willing to give anything a shot to revive communities and get bums on seats."

Dane Clouston is culinary director at the Park Hyatt hotel and is looking for keen young players exactly like James Ness to take on residencies at the hotel's Radii restaurant, where chef Paul Wilson once dazzled diners with truffled polenta and a gently poached egg.

"We have facilities and infrastructure," he says. "We want to turn it into a creative space for people that want to have a go, maybe for four months at a time." As well as keeping the Hyatt's offering fresh for staycationers and interstate visitors, he loves the idea of being a talent incubator. "Last year was tough but it makes you hungry," he says. "If you have a dream, this is a great time to execute it."

5. Employing local

The lack of support for temporary visa holders in Australia and the absence of backpackers and international students has left huge holes in hospitality. Employers have had to be creative.

Chantal De Fraga owns three Richmond pubs, including Public House, which reopened in December. "I explored every avenue I could think of to find staff," she says. "I asked friends, the orthodontist, the sailing club." She's employed about 20 school-leavers. "They are eager. They like being part of a team and they are learning," she says.

Australian Venue Co owns more than 160 pubs around the nation. The company is now training inexperienced workers offsite for two days in groups of 20 or 30 candidates. "We teach them basic skills: carrying three plates, point-of-sale systems, safety training," says HR manager Rachel Checinski. "Then we look at where they live, their style, availability and we match them with a venue. It's all about setting them up for success."

6. Holidaying at home

Increased local tourism has been a boon for regional businesses such as Tahbilk Winery in the Goulburn Valley. "People are coming in droves, double what we had pre-COVID," says owner Hayley Purbrick (pictured). "There is genuine delight from people realising there is something so beautiful in their own backyard."

Tahbilk has turned COVID-safe protocols into a positive. "We are taking bookings for seated wine tastings, which has meant we spend more time with our customers and learn more about them," says the fifth-generation owner. "It's really valuable."

Tahbilk just launched an Indigenous Flora Walking Trail in consultation with the local Taungurung people, further boosting the property's pull. "People want to know whose country they're on and to learn more about Indigenous culture," says Taungurung woman Angela Temburen, who worked on signage for the plant trail. "There are a lot more people out and about and now there's an added reason to stop at Tahbilk," she says.

7. Embracing technology

QR codes have been around since the 1990s but the pandemic pushed them into daily use. As well as reducing wages, ordering apps make it easy for diners to spend big. Mobile platform me&u has found customers spend 27.5 per cent more when using their app. They also tend to upsell themselves, buying a premium gin for their cocktail, for example.

Chae is a new six-seat Korean restaurant in a Brunswick apartment. "Technology is useful for us," says Yoora Yoon, husband of chef Jung Eun Chae. "We use Obee for bookings and prepayments and also to keep track of menus we serve to each customer. We can look up any customer and see their dietary requirements and everything they ate. Next time they come, Chae can design a completely different menu."

Restaurateur-turned-digital-entrepreneur Shane Delia (pictured) is bullish about integrating technology into the new hospitality landscape. "The digital world has been on the edges of the industry for years but we've been slow on the uptake," he says. "COVID levelled the playing field and people brave enough to work in this new online world are reaping the benefits by expanding their customer base beyond the dining room."

He launched the Providoor premium delivery platform last June and it now accounts for up to 30 per cent of his restaurant revenue, alongside the bricks-and-mortar Maha brand.

Providoor delivers food from three dozen Melbourne restaurants across Victoria, New South Wales, the ACT and South Australia. In October, Delia plans to set up a Sydney base, with Brisbane to follow. "Forty per cent of Providoor customers experience a restaurant for the first time with their order. It's a whole new way to speak to customers," he says.

At the same time, old-school restaurants aren't going anywhere. "I believe in Melbourne," says Delia. "I believe in our hospitality sector and the dining public. We like the idea that we are one of the dining capitals of the world, we are passionate and we long for togetherness."

The old and the new can fruitfully co-exist. "I am optimistic about restaurants," says Delia, "But I also believe in the new opportunities that have come from this period."

An earlier version of this story misstated the surname of the culinary director of the Park Hyatt. He is Dane Clouston, not Clugston.