Food culture is embedded in how power operates in Melbourne. You only have to observe the scenes any early evening at the eastern end of Flinders Lane, one of the city’s foodie sacred sites, to understand the importance of high-end food to powerful and wannabe powerful Melburnians.
It’s there the city’s cabal of knife-wielding men — yes, they’re all men — runs some of the city’s top nosheries, sets its food culture, and dictates a $4 billion industry.
If you want a power table at any of the CBD hot spots — where Chris Lucas’ Chin Chin, Andrew McConnell’s Cumulus Inc and Adam D’Sylva’s Coda lord it over the wallets of foodie fans — you need patience and probably a few pineapples. A 50-minute staircase wait outside Mexican joint Mamasita in Collins Street is now a rite of passage, a street-facing bar stool at Cumulus a subtle power play and a booth downstairs at Chin Chin the choice backdrop for Twitterati on the make.
A boozy few hours on the tiles has been subsumed by 12 sharing plates and a bottle of marked-up plonk.
Press Club owner and MasterChef star George Calombaris says the shift in cultural capital towards the grub trade has wrought powerful changes in how the city spends its leisure time, even in the face of global economic downturn.
“They’re still wanting to go out and get an experience … They want buzz, they want excitement, it’s more than just sitting in a restaurant eating the food, it’s all about the action that’s happening around them,” he says. “If I can influence people to go to a restaurant, than go to a really bad nightclub and take stuff they shouldn’t be doing then I’m doing a good thing.”
Later this month, Calombaris will open a “little bit out there” pasta place called Mama Baba in South Yarra, complete with house DJ, that he says he has personally ploughed millions into.
According to the Restaurant and Catering Association, the food and beverage scene was worth $374.4 million to Victoria’s economy in October or about $4.68 billion on the year — about 80% of which was shelled out in Melbourne. There is growing evidence that a whole sub-class has abandoned their kitchens in favour of wall-to-wall restaurant meals.
Lucas, whose Chin Chin offers a near-infinite number of Thai dishes cooked by ESL chefs, agrees the scene’s power has been drawn from the world of entertainment. Restaurants’ traditional drawcard — fine food — has moved down the pecking order.
“The meal’s become less central. What’s become more central is the entertainment, the overall package, the vibe,” the manically productive Lucas tells The Power Index. “The music’s really loud … like a nightclub! And we get complaints from people, ‘oh it’s too loud, we can’t hear ourselves’, but that’s the minority.”
Chin Chin was constructed on the former site of notorious spew den Icon Bar, which featured dancing on its flaming bar and was eventually shut for liquor licensing breaches. The same space now feeds 5000 people a week and commands the highest restaurant turnover per square metre in Australia.
Lucas, a veteran of trailblazing gastropub The Botanical and the upper-crust Pearl in Richmond, has leveraged the influence of social media (he employs a Tweeter, Jess Ho, to massage his cyber footprint) to jack up the hype and court “the Gen Y plumber”.
He sounds a warning for olde world power haunts epitomised by The Flower Drum and Florentino: “If you’re stuck in the a la carte world you may as well be standing in front of a tsunami. You might be sitting there ringing the bell but there’s a f-cking 300-metre wave coming towards you and it’s going to swamp you.”