Why chefs and the hospitality industry are optimistic about 2021

Brigitte Hafner has been adding to her Mornington Peninsula restaurant, Osteria Tedesca.
Brigitte Hafner has been adding to her Mornington Peninsula restaurant, Osteria Tedesca. Photo: James Broadway

 Hope became a scarce commodity for large parts of 2020, when coronavirus brought the restaurant industry to its knees.

But resilience, creativity and a whole lot of blue-sky thinking has shown the mettle of the people who don't just work in hospitality but are hospitality.

With hope back in vogue and the new year coming up fast, Good Food asked 10 prominent chefs and restaurateurs what they're feeling optimistic about for 2021.

Matt Stone says he couldn't turn down the Greenhouse project.
Matt Stone says he couldn't turn down the Greenhouse project. Photo: Supplied

Matt Stone

Greenhouse – Future Food System, Federation Square, Melbourne

The world is really waking up to the problems behind industrial food production, and I believe that over the next year, more and more people will be starting to make choices with what they buy. They're rejecting the idea of buying tuna in a can from Spain and looking for local alternatives.

Jo [Barrett] and I are excited about spending 2021 working with our friend Joost Bakker on Greenhouse at Federation Square.

I can't tell you how good the sound of a dining room full of people's clanging cutlery, music and laughter feels.

Brigitte Hafner

It was really hard for us to leave secure jobs at Oakridge but this is an opportunity we couldn't turn down.

The idea of making an urban farm and showing what can be done in cities … it's just exciting. We're trying to create one of the world's biggest tiny eco-systems.

Building it is one thing – then we have to think about the food. It's got to be desirable, it's got to be delicious, it's got to look good and that will drive people to make change. It's all well and good to talk about living this way but if the food's boring, they won't do it.

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But already we've found that people all over the country and the world are excited about what we're doing. They want to know more.

Brigitte Hafner from Tedesca Osteria.

Brigitte Hafner of Tedesca Osteria. Photo: James Broadway

Brigitte Hafner

Owner-chef, Tedesca Osteria, Red Hill

Damn right I'm feeling optimistic at the moment. There were a couple of COVID projects we took on as a result of time on our hands that I'm excited about.

We built a pretty impressive smokehouse to add to the Tedesca kitchen and the paddock next to the restaurant is ready to be made into our own biodynamic food garden.

I'm also taking in the sense of joy from the dining room at Tedesca – not just the customers, but the team as well. There is a tremendous appreciation for just being out and being connected. We may have underestimated our need and desire to be out amid a crowd all doing the same thing. Eating, drinking, laughing, connecting and being human. I can't tell you how good the sound of a dining room full of people's clanging cutlery, music and laughter feels.

I'm not sure it's optimism in the air right now so much as hope.

Hope in the sense that collectively, if we work together, we will achieve positive outcomes for the hospitality industry.

Hope that there is more respect and recognition for both what the industry does and how it engages with its staff and the produce it uses.

Karl Firla

Co-owner-chef, Restaurant Leo, Sydney

We were meant to open Leo in March, but we all know how March turned out. The funny thing about eventually opening mid-year was it meant we left behind some of the things that just didn't seem important any more.

We didn't sit around second-guessing light fittings and messing around with the layout. Putting all the attention on the food instead of expensive fitouts is not a bad lasting outcome.

The industry now has a huge hole in it, staffing-wise, after so many visa holders returned home.

There are some massive shoes to fill but I'm optimistic people will see the opportunities to be had – for education, for advancement through the ranks, for diversifying their skillset.

It will help us better evolve as an industry.

Good Food. Terry Durack review. 10 William Street Paddington. Chef Trisha Greentree. 14th March 2019. Photo: Edwina Pickles.

Chef Trisha Greentree on the pass at 10 William Street in Sydney's Paddington. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Trisha Greentree

Head chef, 10 William St, Sydney

One thing is for sure in 2021: we will be eating a lot more pasta. I'm so hopeful that we'll be really embracing things that are more tactile and artisanal, either when we're cooking at home or appreciating someone doing it for us in a restaurant.

I was already going down the hand-rolled pasta path pre-COVID and it just really cemented it for me. We all lived off dried pasta in lockdown and, really, who craves that? Now that we're back, the staff and I stand around the table rolling garganelli and cicatelli and it's just really meditative and beautiful.

The wabi-sabi (beauty in the imperfections) nature of it really appeals to people.

I think next year will be a time of cultural renewal. Everyone has been reminded of the simple things and are keen to strip away the excess that gets in the way.

Our social experiences will return to the basics, becoming more discreet, more personal and intrinsically more connected and obviously local. We'll be supporting the local butcher, the local grocer. People in hospo live like that anyway but I really hope that wider society embraces that way of living.

Khanh Nguyen

Owner-chef Sunda, Melbourne

In 2021 we'll also be unveiling our second restaurant, ARU. It's geared up for an April 2021 opening. We've been planning this for almost two years now so it's going to be amazing to see it all come to life. The concept and cuisine will nod to Sunda's roots, but also take a different path.

The lockdowns definitely gave us the chance to do something different. We launched our at-home dining platform, Sunda EXP, which had a really amazing response.

In 2021, we plan to embark on a semi-permanent EXP residency, where we can serve dishes from that menu cooked and plated by our chefs. We also received several requests for virtual cooking classes and corporate entertaining during this time, so EXP will live on with some private and corporate entertaining.

The downtime has also given me space to think about the direction I want to take with Sunda. With its reopening I decided to move to a set-menu-only concept. I think a lot of restaurants around the world will reinvent themselves and bounce back stronger than ever.

During lockdown, everyone has had a lot of time to rethink what they really want to do for the long run. The long stint of being cooped up at home and having to cook and clean has also made Melburnians appreciate restaurants and dining out a lot more. Everyone wants to have a good time, which is what people in hospitality live to deliver.

Josh Niland

Owner-chef, Saint Peter and Fish Butchery, Sydney

Looking forward to 2021 with the glass half full, I am so incredibly excited to be releasing my second book mid-way through the year. The joy of writing and shooting this book was a creative relief during a time that was tremendously difficult. And equally as enjoyable was the opportunity to again work with the same team at Hardie Grant that put together my first book, The Whole Fish Cookbook.

I also feel re-inspired and rejuvenated walking into the very newly orientated Saint Peter each day. Given it has only been a few months of trading in this style, we feel we are still at the beginning of its full potential.

Next year I'm going to further explore fish and evolve the Saint Peter menu. Fish Butchery will continue to strive for greater standards. It's also exciting to be working with our newly appointed manager at Fish Butchery, Rebecca Lara, who I feel is one of the most talented young chefs in Sydney.

Contrary to this optimism, I still feel great concerns about my own businesses and businesses all over the country when JobKeeper falls off early next year. This will be another challenging moment where we will need to be agile and show resilience.

I feel incredibly proud to be in this industry and no matter what 2021 throws at us, we will stand by each other.

Alex Prichard

Head chef, Icebergs, Sydney

In hindsight, the amazing thing about this year is that everyone had to reset. I had time to work with suppliers and producers in a way I've always wanted to and been too busy to actually achieve.

I'm not just talking about pencilling in time to meet up but actually just spending time, understanding them and what they do. I'm confident it will continue into 2021 and become the new normal for us.

Seeing farmers who I've spoken to over the phone but never met in person has been incredible. I went out to see one producer and just popped a zucchini stem in my mouth. It tasted amazing, but I found out they were just trimming the stems before they sent them. So now we use them pickled, blended into puree, and poached.

I also found out that the sales of 98 per cent of indigenous ingredients don't support Indigenous communities – so I've found the 2 per cent that do.

In Maurice (Terzini's) 18 years of ownership and my six years at Icebergs, we've never had the learning curve we had in 2020. Taking all the staff to see a producer, that's something that will continue, for sure.

Guy Grossi

Owner-chef Grossi Florentino, Melbourne

This year has been a learning curve, to say the least. I started January working in an upmarket, sophisticated restaurant and a few months later was working in a factory each day, where we prepared the meals for Grossi A Casa. We had to do it to stay afloat but it's something we'll be keeping on.

As an industry we've created a niche market for food that's of a much higher standard than your normal takeout. Being able to order out for your dinner party at home – that's a great new thing.

It's one of the reasons I believe 2021 will be a year of innovation and renaissance. We'll be questioning some norms and finding ways to be more creative and cement our solidarity as Melburnians with purpose.

I'm optimistic that Melbourne will be a city of revival and celebration. People will come together with confidence to enjoy social pleasures and culture that make us human and – in particular – humans of Melbourne.

I've never felt so appreciated in my life, walking through the dining room, talking to the guests.

Can positive, lasting change come out of this? Let's make it happen.

Jacqui Challinor

Head chef, Nomad, Sydney

I'm feeling optimistic about making my kitchen a place that people are excited to come and work in each day. Going into 2021, I want to be part of the generation of chefs who change that for the better.

Taking enforced time off, as I did this year, has proven to me that the industry as a whole does not look after itself. When I stopped, I remembered what it is to sleep properly and eat healthily and do exercise.

This year has opened my eyes and I know I need to start by changing the culture in my own kitchen. Making sure no one is working more than 45 hours a week. Staff meals that are varied and contain some green things, rather than leftover scraps. Being a proper mentor to my team.

COVID has shown me the real priorities in life and work.

As for what we cook – well, I think a lot of chefs are going to be shifting to cooking for the love of it. There'll be a return to big, hearty, comforting real food. I love that, so it's a big hurray from me.

Steph Britton

Owner-chef King William, Melbourne

I can't wait for people to return to offices. Bringing the Melbourne CBD back to life will be wonderful.

I've applied for a parklet out the front of King William – it's a carparking space to put tables and chairs on – and it will be a really fun way to bring the office crowd down for a post-work drink and a bite to eat before they head home.

This year has taught us that we have to adapt and evolve. Restaurants turning into bakeries and everyone doing takeaway; a lot of it is going to be permanent change, and I'm happy about that.

King William happened thanks to COVID. It was a storage cupboard in a catering kitchen, and we had no money, so we just put a roller door in, some good sturdy shelves from Bunnings and minimal equipment. To focus on gorgeous ethical produce is really important to us going forward.

Continuing to use Victorian produce and supporting farmers who are still suffering after the bushfires is another big thing that will continue into 2021. Victorian wine, too … lots of Victorian wine.