Founder, Simon Johnson fine foods
Born in: New Zealand
Friends: Christine Manfield | Neil Perry
Home Town: Sydney
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 namedropper but a charming storyteller. He began importing boutique cheeses for his chef pals back 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 amongst his very first clients. He continues to supply a large chunk of the country’s hatted restaurants.
Having the number one 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 ten 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 that 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.
Still, he's not shy about bragging. "I was really at the forefront of a) bringing truffles into Australia and then b) supporting the local market," says Johnson. He reckons some of the truffles coming out of Western Australia right now are "as good as you'll get out of Périgueux in the south west of France."
"I am not aware of any involvement in the truffle industry by Simon Johnson, apart from retailing some growers product," the president of the Australian Truffle Growers Association, Graham Duell, tells The Power Index. Other growers add that Johnson is known for his relationship with certain WA producers, but not the wider industry.
But even if you’re not shaving truffles on your risotto and munching on the famous French Valhrona chocolate he imports, Johnson has probably influenced your palate. "He has given Australia the benchmark for great products and great olive oil and great cheese and great pasta," says food writer Jill Dupleix.
Often suppliers have great products, but "they are over-packaged to buggery," says Johnson. His Simon Johnson range -- known for its simple typeface and plain black and cream packaging -- began in 2000 partly out of frustration at this over-packaging. "The hessian top with the red ribbon, oh god," groans Johnson.
Last year Johnson sold his business to the Australian company Food Holdings for an undisclosed amount of money, although he is a major shareholder and still runs the show. Johnson only agreed to the Food Holding's offer because his close friend cheese importer Will Studd had sold his business Calendar Cheese to them the year before.
Currently his top selling products are Parmigiano-Reggiano, the Simon Johnson brand sugos and Meredith’s marinated goats cheese. With plans to move further into Asia, expect gourmet branded Asian products to start popping up on restaurant menus any day now.