Every year at this time the hatted, or want to be hatted, end of the food industry dances and prances a nervous jig. Lots of people spend a lot of time trying to act nonchalant, but the reality is that the annual National Good Food Guide is the most important measure of judgement in the Australian food industry and inclusion can make or break a business.
The media who have created the guide naturally whip up a frenzy, there is plenty of gossip, usually fair sometimes lack of fair accolades and all amid a pea soup of subjectivity.
This year I am in a unique position to comment because we removed ourselves from contention by being closed during the judging period. After four years of being a hatted restaurant this year Zin House will sit on the shelf and it is from here that I bring you my view.
Every year between about February to April dozens of judges anonymously visit hundreds of restaurants and rate each one on a scale up to 20. Score 14 you get a mention, 15 you win one hat,16 two hats and 18 and above sets you in three hat territory. Do we know when we’re being judged? Never. Do we know the judges? Almost never. Do they know what they’re doing? Obviously! Is it nerve wracking? Only for three months.
If you are a regional restaurant you will almost certainly only be visited once, so there are no second chances at that all important score. No option to have an off night, a new staff member not up to speed or a dish that doesn’t sing. For quarter of the year during any service you could be serving the meal that will decide if you still sit in this hallowed group of less than one percent of restaurateurs.
I made the decision a long time ago that the easiest way to deal with this is also the most logical of course – every single customer, every single meal, every service of the year, is that reviewer – that VIP customer.
Before we closed for the first six months of this year there was discussion about whether we wanted to pursue a second hat. Zin House has twice, and most recently sat on a 15.5 score, a tantalising half point away from two hat status.
The answer seems even more obvious from my view on the shelf this year. Our job is to provide consistently exceptional customer experiences. Food + Wine + Service + Ambiance that adds up to a memorable time. Memories that you can draw down on long after the instagram photo has disappeared down the page. If we think we can improve on that we will, for customers, not for points.
I’ve seen the lengths some restaurants go to bring in consultants, chefs, big name designers – throwing everything at what they think it takes to ‘win a hat’. Conversely I’ve seen the ease with which some wear there’s jauntily and without fuss. I’ve witnessed many friends in wonderful restaurants lose a hat, and felt the pain this causes. I will miss not being at the party with my colleagues this year, I will miss the excitement and pleasure of seeing nice things in print. But it is not what drives me or what my reward is. One, two or none – it’s not the reward that makes a restaurant sing with generosity, authenticity and a warm glow from the inside.
That’s how I feel at the moment, but you might need to ask me again in six months time when the hat gets passed around again.