If there’s one product that sums up the power of providore and food importer Simon Johnson, it’s the humble anchovy. Not that these anchovies are all that humble considering it costs $29.25 to buy a 75-gram pack of the Ortiz Family Reserve (yes, that’s nearly $400 a kilo).
First the anchovies are caught just off the Basque region in Spain. Then they’re salted before being hand filleted and packaged. After that they’re sent across the globe in one of Johnson’s expensive refrigerated containers, finally ending up on restaurant menus and the shelves of gourmet grocers across Australia.
“The difference between that and your average anchovy on a supermarket shelf is chalk and cheese,” declares Johnson. “Most people are exposed to anchovies when you go into a cheap pizza bar and someone has bought a commodity anchovy and then put it on top of a pizza and heated it up which intensifies the salt and makes it even saltier and mushier than it is and no wonder they don’t like it.”
The Power Index can hear the horror in the New Zealand-born former chef’s voice down the phone line when discussing “a commodity anchovy”. Johnson prides himself on stocking the highest-quality products he can find, which he then sells in his nine Simon Johnson shops across Australia and supplies to retailers and top restaurants, under both his eponymous line and original producer brands. He’s nibbling on organic almonds as we speak to him.
Cookbook author Donna Hay is a fan. “I think Simon Johnson has been incredibly influential on the Australian food industry,” she tells The Power Index. “I remember back in the day he was bringing in products we’d never even heard of — that was a big leap of faith and I admire what he’s done.”
The jolly looking fellow with a laughing round face and wire-framed glasses is a shameless name dropper but a charming storyteller. He began importing boutique cheeses for his chef pals in the early ’90s. “Serge [Dansereau, then head chef at Sydney’s Regent Hotel] was the one that prompted me and said ‘I’m really short of great olive oils, great chocolate, great balsamic vinegars and all these products’,” explains Johnson. “So then I went and searched the world for the best.”
It helped that he had a lot of friends in high places, counting Neil Perry, Christine Manfield, Ronnie Di Stasio and Stephanie Alexander among his very first clients. He continues to supply a large chunk of the country’s hatted restaurants.
Having the No.1 product is always Johnson’s goal. He rattles off The Essential Ingredient and F. Mayer Imports as competitors but adds: “The reality is they have got great product, but they don’t actually have the top product.”
But does that matter? Johnson may have introduced the best European food products to the country, but some food insiders say only the doctors’ wives in Armadale and Vaucluse can afford to buy them.
Another critic adds that Johnson was extremely influential 10 years ago, but the growing trend of South American food — and the rise of Latin American food wholesalers Monterey Foods and Casa Iberica — has limited Johnson’s power. He may have led the push for top international products, but it’s a fairly diverse food imports and wholesale industry in Oz these days.
Others note that his retail shops aren’t exactly bustling. Johnson agrees the Simon Johnson stores have slowed in recent times; they only account for 30% of the business, the wholesale food service and distribution accounts for the rest. “Retail at the moment is a little bit tougher, but that’s because we supply so many more places and there are so many opportunities to buy our products,” admits Johnson.