It’s mad what’s going on in our industry at the moment. It’s just one thing after the other. There is so much change and drama, it’s like some weird episode of Games of Thrones. Game of Stoves, The Red Catering. I don’t recall a time when so many important topics and issues were being written and debated about in such equal parts celebration and condemnation and with such vivacity.
The F&B industry was once a golden unicorn galloping through the world’s high streets, retail centers and strip malls, pooping out glittering franchises, venture capitalist dollars and unsustainable accelerated growth throughout the lands.
Restaurants were sitting pretty, and EBITA was king. Demand was high, sentiment was strong, and there was boldness and courage to try anything, because, despite conventional wisdom, it worked. If you’ve ever spent 10 Euros on a bowl of cereal at Cereal Killer Café, in Dubai Mall, then you’ll know what I mean.
Gosh, what a difference an election can make. Which election, you ask? Pick one. Anyone will do.
In the past, the issues that most restaurants typically deal with were a few overcooked steaks, some light pilferage and a few questionable kitchen hygiene habits that needed correcting. But today, we are having conversations that are life-changing, necessary and difficult. We are struggling with a sexual harassment cancer that has been allowed to fester and grow throughout our great industry. When the most dangerous thing in the kitchen is no longer the meat slicer, but an empty walk-in fridge, you know change needs to happen.
Industry giants such as John Besh and Mario Batali are being called out and held to account for their behaviours and perhaps we are all complicit in allowing a ‘Bro’ mentality to thrive.
We are also grappling with demons of addiction and mental illness, with more and more chefs speaking up about their issues. Vice’s Matty Matheson openly talks about how, after years of alcohol and drug abuse, he suffered catastrophic heart failure at just age 29. David Chang has opened up about his fight with depression, and even Gordon did a documentary about drug use in his restaurants. Pretty bleak stuff. However, support groups such as Ben’s Friends and Chefs with Issues have launched, providing much-needed help and support for those who no longer need to suffer in silence and the industry leaders need to start having more of these honest conversations with their teams. There is so much more work to be done here though.
We have lost some of the world’s greatest culinary storytellers – AA Gill, an irreverent writer of truly incandescent prose, showed us how exciting food and travel could be. Anthony Bourdain, with his ability to showcase extraordinary diversity and find common ground over a simple meal, connected with us all on a profoundly personal level. Most recently, we lost Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer from LA, who was a conduit for bringing the City of Angels closer together.
Maintaining Our Standards
Our industry standards, our infallible benchmarks, those accolades that every professional strives to attain are in danger of losing their credibility.
The Michelin guide is coming under increasing fire about their independence and relevance. The tourism authorities of both Thailand and Korea have reportedly forked out millions of dollars in return for a Michelin Guide. To add to the controversy, according to many critics and Michelin followers, the Seoul guide was questionable in its accolades and riddled with errors.
Even Tourism Australia paid 600k US$ to host the 2017 ceremony of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Sure, these institutions are not charities and taking revenue is fine, but if accepting vast amounts of money from the tourist board puts them under pressure to hand out stars and awards, then it raises significant questions.
The 50 World’s best is under fire as well, for their less than transparent voting process, which has as much clarity as a FIFA World Cup bid. The growing consensus from the food media is that the 50 World’s Best is a great list if you are European, white and male. If you’re anything else, you better have 600k spare to host the event, because that’s probably the closest you’re getting to one of the awards.
Circle of Life
As Gaucho goes into administration and Cau closed all 22 outlets with immediate effect, we are reminded of how closely connected we are as an industry. It was encouraging to see the outpouring of support and sympathy across social media as the news broke. Companies like D&D London reaching out to offer employment opportunities for ex-staff of Cau is heartwarming and shows the very best of our industry. Hawksmoor, the steakhouse group, also extended their help to those who lost their jobs and offered a free round of drinks to all Cau gift card holders, who couldn’t redeem their cards due to the closures.
Dubai is shedding its skin, closing some legacy places, such as The Agency, 360 and Hakkasan. Yet, Massimo Bottura, Akira Back, and Todd English are all opening new places this year, and the circle of life continues.
On a Lighter Note
However, it’s not all drama and chaos in our industry. Some order in our world has been restored. NYC has finally banned the use of activated charcoal in food and drink items. This “Goth food” has been finding its way into ice cream, cocktails, burger buns, juices and even pizza crusts in recent years. However, it seems consuming too much of the stuff can result in things like dehydration, constipation, and black tongues. We’ll all have to go back to scrapping burnt toast, like in the good old days.
The Museum of Ice Cream has also felt the wrath of the authorities down in Florida. They have been fined for their selfie-friendly rainbow sprinkle room. As visitors leave the ‘museum,’ they take with them hundreds of plastic sprinkles that end up in Miami’s waterways and streets and drains, causing environmental hazards. Perhaps they should all “double-shake” before they exit. Or the museum should install a walk-on vibration platform. Just make sure the setting is on “vicious.”
For those of you who don’t know, The Ice Cream Museum is a series of pretty rooms in pretty colours based on ice cream and candy themes. Tickets for The Museum of Ice Cream are 38 US$.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the other hand, is a highly curated collection of over two million works of significant historical importance. Tickets to the MET are 25 US$.
A Leader for our Time
I think the need for leadership in our industry has never been stronger than now, and it’s time for the industry leaders, regardless of where they sit in the food chain, to stand up and provide a voice of reason, support, and clarity for the rest of us.
We are an industry that needs a steady hand, and some credibility and confidence injected back into it. We all know this industry is special, filled with some of the most talented, honest and hardworking people you could find. We all know our industry will emerge, stronger, cleaner and better for all this turmoil and chaos. We know all this, but sometimes we need to be told this and reminded of the way.