There’s a bloody huge elephant in the dining room and I’m not talking about the savage job losses and economic chaos playing out within the Australian restaurant industry.

I’m talking about the prospective loss of art – a loss of the very fabric that makes up our cultural food identity: our great chefs, our historic eateries, the celebrated dishes and the joy of discovery in exploring our rich and thriving food scene.

Melbourne’s Longrain and Longsong restaurants and Adelaide’s three-hat restaurant Orana have all closed permanently amid the coronavirus outbreak. Such shock outcomes now question whether a growing list of permanent restaurant closures is possible. And if so, what might be the total sum of such cultural losses?

Chef Jock Zonfrillo recently closed his Adelaide’s three-hat restaurant Orana due to impacts of Covid-19.

While politicians and health officials struggle with the delicate balancing act of considering how and when to re-open the country, it’s the restaurant industry that is, for now, shoved to one side. This is logical for safety reasons, but knowing that doesn’t make the present situation any less painful. Thousands of Australian restaurant and café operators were stopped dead in their tracks upon the announcement of COVID-19 restrictions, while others decided to bravely wade through the complex JobKeeper scheme’s paperwork with a view to keeping their staff employed while pivoting to takeaway and home delivery food and drink offerings. Wages for many business owners have been temporarily covered by personal savings and/or dangerously increased overdrafts while they anxiously await the financial support to arrive. For some, the concept of pivoting was never on the cards and for others, it was a decision that simply meant survival.

But however one looks at it, restaurant food as creativity and art – excepting everyone’s homemade sourdough, of course – for now appears to be more focused on food for necessity.

One of Victoria’s most accomplished and creative chefs is Michael Ryan, chef and owner of Provenance restaurant in Beechworth, who shares his COVID-19 experiences almost daily on social media recently posted: “April figures are in. With just the online grocery store and takeaway once a week, we are at 7.4% of April 2019.”

Over the past eight weeks, Michael has, it seems with mixed enthusiasm, converted his restaurant kitchen into a small food production facility. He has since personally delivered his homemade gourmet grocery items to former restaurant customers in Melbourne as well as locally in Beechworth. There’s a strange sense of freed optimism in many of his social posts. At a time when things are extraordinarily bad, he manages to finds ways to keep all of our collective emotional wheels on track. His attitude is selfless, his push for daily creativity thankfully unchanged. His business might be in grave danger, yet he has the strength and determination to survive.

Chef/owner of The Provenance restaurant, Beechworth, Victoria

One of the first restaurants to announce its planned (temporary) closure on the very cusp of COVID-19 restrictions, was Ian Curley’s French Saloon in Melbourne, with a suggestion from Ian that it might not be able to re-open for a full 12 months. Adding insult to injury was the fact that he’d only days prior, opened a new second restaurant, a casual Italian eatery named Ganzo, on Bridge Road, Richmond. ‘What idiot do you know that keeps opening restaurants?’ he asked us at the time. But we could read an even stronger statement in his mind – with almost ESP like precision: ‘Oh FFS!’

Now, some eight weeks post consolidating the shutdown of business, no doubt traversing some very complex arrangements, he’s now teamed up with Melbourne’s Clamms Seafood wholesalers, who have graciously been offering weekly take-home hampers of fish and wine as free gifts to hospitality workers who have lost their jobs. Ian has now converted Ganzo into a soup kitchen, also offering meals to troubled hospitality workers every week. On top of this, he’s spent the past few weekends on site at Clamms in Footscray, arriving on Saturday mornings to cook and serve hundreds of boxes of freshly made hot meals to accompany the hampers. Ian says the meals will change weekly: ‘paella was cooked last weekend; this week it will be a kingfish curry.’

Clamms Seafood, free paella for hospitality workers as a part of their Help Hospo program
Chef Ian Curley makes hot meals each Saturday at Clamms Seafood as a part of their Help Hospo program that offers free boxes of seafood to hospitality workers who have  been impacted by Covid-19.

‘At least 650 workers who’ve lost their jobs turned up on Clamms’ doorstep on Saturday, however, as Clamms’ hampers are limited to one per couple, we estimate the associated numbers of those out of work to be significantly larger. And that’s just in our neck of the woods!’ he says.

Historically, Clamms is known in Victoria as one of the leading suppliers of fresh seafood to restaurants. With the shutdown of restaurants, the damage to its bottom line is almost unfathomable; yet commitment shown for the industry’s workers shines a light on just how much its people appreciate being a firm part of the success of our cultural food identity.

Perhaps one of the most successful pivoting efforts we’ve seen among the destruction is the rapid transformation of Rustik Café & Foodstore, in Benalla, High Country Victoria. Shifting its focus to a gourmet grocery with takeaway food and home deliveries, it has managed to reverse its immediate cash flow losses from a massive 70% back to around 40%. While still only just treading water, owner Julie Brown is pleased to be able to retain most of her staff, but has faced serious challenges with the changing goal posts and confusing paperwork associated with the government’s JobKeeper program.

‘Our 16-year-old staff members did originally qualify for JobKeeper, and this was an exciting prospect,’ says Julie. ‘But days before payments were due to roll out, the deal had changed, allowing only those who were financially independent, and not full-time school students to be able to gain access to the money.’

Explaining that it’s not just about casuals and younger staff members, Julie feels a strong responsibility and desire to employ people.

‘I feel like we’ve been constantly working to satisfy the JobKeeper requirements, to ensure the payments do arrive. We had to get a $30,000 temporary overdraft to cover back pays to staff. To date, we are still waiting for the JobKeeper money to arrive, and I can tell you, we’re anxiously awaiting it – the stress levels are through the roof.’

The team at Rustik Café & Foodstore, Benalla, geared up for home deliveries
Rustik Café & Foodstore’s takeaway/home delivery menu has been an instant hit

Rustik has enjoyed huge support from locals who appreciate the free home delivery of family-friendly menu items like handmade dumplings, korma curries and chicken parmigiana boxes. Yet their renewed menu also speaks volumes in terms of future expectations as current requirements are logically aimed at providing better value for money, which is difficult to balance financially, given the high energy prices and continued increasing cost of ingredients and food transport. All of these have eroded restaurant profits to around 10%, slim margins that provide little padding to cushion the losses suffered by such a disastrous economic hit due to Covid-19.

So what’s exactly at stake here? In the end, we might lose not only employment and economic growth, we could possibly lose an important part of our cultural identity as a leading international food destination. Yet somehow, some way, I also feel that nothing, not even a lack of financial strength can stop the continuation and conviction of culture and art through food thanks to a great many chefs and sommeliers. We stand to lose a lot, but as long as it’s not our lives, thankfully I know so many who remain committed to ‘walking out the other side’, no matter how painfully difficult their path.

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