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.
The time has come to get Zin back into the swing of providing great regional dining.
There are superficial changes that many will notice immediately but the heart and core of The Zin House philosophy is unchanged.
We remain proudly and stubbornly set menu, set price, communal dining. I know its not everyone’s cup of tea but there are other pots in other places.
We remain focused on our garden, on regional produce, excellence, generosity and on cooking great unfussy food from scratch.
You will meet some new people in our team and experience some new formats. Our chefs will work hand in hand with waitstaff to present and explain your food and during Saturday lunch the wine offering will be even more integral.
Alexander Lowe will be back to ensure a cheeky and family orientated wine overview and David threatens regular appearances (hang onto your bread roll). The three of us have talked for months about indulging diners with a new way to experience and enjoy wine over a meal. You’ll have to come to Saturday lunch to see what we’ve come up with.
Reflection showed that Evenings at Zin many people were looking for a slightly more condensed experience and that is what we will now provide. Bronte wouldn’t let me write on the website that these evenings are ‘Date night, not a late night.’
I’m diving back into my love of charcuterie with the garden and three vegetarian kids influencing some alternative styles. Regional cheeses will star in the lunch menu alongside many of the preserves that ‘idle’ months have allowed me to concentrate on.
Basics stay on as backbones – sourdough, cultured butter, pasta and ice-cream from our own eggs. The salad of bitter greens that almost every Italian loves and the occasional Anglo loathes.
Meat is a real mission for me this time round. Magnificent Grasslands Poultry free range chickens will appear fortnightly and I’ve worked with our butchers (shout out to Clint and Arnaldo) and my son Clancy who produces magnificent Angus on our doorstep, to ensure every piece of meat we serve is as ethical as it is tasty and local.
Numbers will be more limited than in the past, lunches capped at just 40 people. Zin won’t be open on Sunday (but the new Pavilion@Lowe will be and the three course buffet format will be a crowd pleaser) The popular Kitchen Garden Mondays have been retained with a greater emphasis on foraging and demonstration cooking from the restaurants open kitchen.
I am very conscious, and flattered, that Mudgee has missed Zin these last months. I am excited and proud to be back. Thank you for waiting.
An autumn update from this little jam maker including:
A trashy confession
Some extra Zin opening dates
News of Zin House from July
Introducing The Pavilion
I hate waste. Not a vague distaste for it but a full, bordering on obsessional, inability to throw things out. I’m out and proud about our virtually zero waste kitchen but I’m embarrassed to admit that I have gradually filled all our sheds with things that ‘will be really useful one day’.
I even have boxes and boxes of clothes whose beautiful no longer worn fabrics are destined to be transformed into scarves or cushion covers one day in the never never.
If I applied the current trend of holding an item to see if it brought me joy before deciding to keep or discard I would still find a reason everything would be useful and bring me joy in some altered form.
So I’m trying to use the little ‘spare’ time I currently have to deal with the head space my hoarding habit is taking up in addition to every piece of spare physical space.
But I keep getting distracted by the need not to waste anything the garden is producing.
Unlike the boxes of still can’t discard clothes, the cool-room collection wont wait. I’m working through a queue of stone fruits, figs, pears, tomatoes, zucchinis and cucumbers while daily an encroaching ripening of quinces, crab apples, persimmons and olives threaten my attention.
Bottling, jamming, freezing, pickling and drying have been my summer food hoarders tools.
When the sheer volume is overwhelming I give myself a daily schedule to make it seem achievable. When all else fails I cook with a syrup of sugar or vinegar and place in 20kg buckets in the cool room until I can face it.
Ironically all this work now will be an incredible free ride on big winter prep days. Pickled summer vegetables, punchy tomato sauces, fig and peach pastes, jams and pickles of all sorts will provide a touch of magic when we reopen Zin in the heart of winter.
Maybe I can deal with the sheds then…
Roast fruit sauce
Sprinkling a tray full of cut fruit with honey or sugar and roasting it is my top tip to keep up. Pop the fruit and all its gooey juices into the freezer for when life is not so sunny and bountiful. Instant pie or crumble filling, ice-cream topper or muffin mix.
Roast tomato sauce
One minute you’re sick of finding things to do with fresh tomatoes, the next you’re back guiltily buying supermarket pasta sauces. This helps the lag time between the two.
The quantities are totally flexible – just follow the basic principles.
In a large roasting dish combine:
5kg roughly chopped ripe tomatoes
1 kg sliced onions
1 whole head of garlic cloves ( I don’t even peel them)
a large handful of fresh herbs (especially thyme & oregano)
250mls good quality olive oil
Salt & coarse black pepper
Cook uncovered in a slow oven for about an hour or until the tomatoes have broken down and everything is looking delicious and saucy. Freeze what you cant use this week.
Extra days of living in Zin
Many of you have been joining us for Twilight Tapas on Friday nights at Lowe and last Saturday of the month pop up dinners at Zin. So many of you in fact that we will run Tapas throughout April as well.
We’re also open on the following dates with our feasting menu (includes wine and is $150)
Saturday March 30, dinner
Saturday April 6, dinner
Saturday April 20, lunch
Sunday April 21, lunch
Saturday April 27, dinner
Saturday May 11 Ninja @ Tinja (bookings via Lowe Wines)
Saturday May 25, dinner
Saturday June 8, dinner
Sunday June 9, dinner
Saturday June 29, dinner.
There will be considerable changes when we reopen in July, but more about that later in the month at which stage we will also reopen for July onward bookings.
Introducing The Pavilion
Sam Payne has drawn a couple of ‘artists impressions’ of our new project. The Pavilion is a marquee that will sit between Lowe & Zin House and provide a wide range of uses in addition to the obvious one of utilising our views, food and wine for weddings. More updates to come soon.