With all that the hospitality industry has seen and endured in the last few months, and all that it's seen and endured before that, one thing is for certain - the industry needs to see enormous change, both locally and globally, to be saved. The hours, the expectations, the costs - we need to keep the fire, the love and passion, and start again with everything else.
US Chef David Kinch summarised it perfectly over the weekend as he withdrew himself as a nominee for Outstanding Chef at this year’s James Beard Awards. His reasoning is as follows:
“To Manresa’s friends, supporters, and all who call the restaurant industry home:
While I’m honoured, and appreciative of The James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef nomination, I have decided to withdraw myself from consideration, and potential acceptance of this year’s award. This is purely a personal decision and not a reflection on anyone who will be rightly recognized by the Foundation this year.
No single event has triggered this decision. The idea of celebrating achievement - and all that our Manresa Restaurant team has accomplished - simply does not feel right in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, and the devastation it has pressed upon our chosen métier and industry.
Just five months ago, we were thriving, contributing to our industry’s expansion in what many called a Golden Age of restaurants. I’d invite you to consider that it was a Gilded Age instead.
We have been pretending that we could continue to support our employees, front-and back-of-house, maintain a level of service, equality, and innovation while welcoming our guests each day - knowing in our hearts that it could never be sustainable.
And now, those efforts seem foolhardy. Quite frankly, the damage to independent restaurants is widespread and will be irreversible without united action. There are always economic corrections, but this is unprecedented.
To say we are at a crossroads would be an understatement. It is time to address the issues at hand, that have held us back previously, and that COVID-19 has so deftly exposed.
THIS IS OUR RESET BUTTON.
The hospitality industry is rife with rampant gender and racial inequality, and numerous obstacles impede restaurateurs’ ability to pay living wages to their teams, focus on sustainability, and foster positive work environments.
We need to do away with our archaic tipping system - which prevents us from achieving parity between front and back-of-house staff. Now is the time to embrace service charges and join the 21st Century and the rest of the world in paying a fair competitive wage.
Guests can also do their part and accept the true cost of dining out. Now what they feel that it should cost, but what it actually costs to support the livelihood of the industry and reflect the value of restaurants in building community.
I want to imagine a new reality, a new possibility for when we all come out on the other side. That seems a more fitting way to demonstrate commendable leadership and support the James Beard Foundations’ “commitment to promoting a strong, safe, inclusive, ethical food community.”
While Australia may have a ‘liveable’ minimum wage, the expectations of ‘reasonable overtime’ within the industry go far beyond what would be deemed reasonable in almost any other industry. A female chef is still referred to as a ‘Female chef’ rather than simply ‘A chef.’ As is the case with an industry name whose heritage isn’t just white - a Person of Colour must be identified as such to prove the inclusivity of the industry. How progressive we are.
Likewise, the public’s expectations have never been higher. Demands of sustainably sourced produce with innovative food and drink all paired with exceptional service far outweigh their expectations on what to pay. Prices have remained stagnant for decades. The public’s reflex to bemoan a singular bad experience is now, almost subconsciously, ingrained as a behavioural norm.
Across the board, a collective blind eye seems to have been turned when it comes to recognising the changing and developing needs of this industry - people are in survival mode.
When an institution of Melbourne’s restaurant scene, Longrain, closed its doors in May of this year, owners John and Lisa Van Haandel (stalwarts of the industry for over three decades) made it known that the pandemic was simply a bleaker outlook for an industry that was “already on its knees”.
So do we all bow out? Or do we step up and acknowledge that now is not just the time for adjustments, it’s the time to completely reset, to start a-fresh. This is an opportunity, one that is given to so few, and for the real, meaningful change that this industry needs, it’s time to look at this pandemic as The Opportunity to push that big red button; to start again and to do it right. This is our second chance to reset the status quo and re-map the industry as we know it. Dare to take the lead, dare to make that change, dare to live our your passions and share what that means - even the smallest of changes can have the greatest of impacts. Most of all, do not be afraid of failure, because when we are seeking to make a change, we either win or we learn, we do not fail or lose. The only way we can fail is if we do not change.