It’s a topic Australians are hungry for: food. Dominating our dinner party chatter, popping up in social media all day long and infiltrating our televisions and magazines, eating (or talking about eating) has become our national pastime.
“Wherever you go, the conversation you hear at the next table is about food,” Sydney’s most prolific bar and restaurant owner Justin Hemmes tells The Power Index. “When you sit in a pub or at a restaurant, the next table is normally talking about where they ate or what they ate and when a dish comes they are either taking a picture of it or they're comparing it somewhere else where they had a similar dish.”
Yet there's so rarely a discussion about who's influencing what we eat -- and why they're doing it. We're not just talking gastronomic trends; though don't worry, there'll be foodie gossip too. Instead The Power Index is covering the whole food industry -- from farmers to wholesalers and importers, right down to supermarkets, restaurants and fast-food operators. Oh, and then the cooks and food media who tell you what to do with it all.
The Power Index slices open the food world to discover the bitter feuds and the tasty trends that end up influencing what we eat.
So who decides what appears on our plates?
Sometimes it’s the chefs, creative masters who make art with food and push the boundaries of what’s possible on a plate. Sometimes it’s the educators, those that fight Australia’s rising obesity levels with homegrown vegetables and encourage sustainable and ethical produce.
“What’s interesting about this sustainability movement is there’s nothing new about it,” notes chef Kylie Kwong. “It’s what our grandparents have been living and eating.”
Not that it’s just the highbrow foodies that decide what you’re eating for dinner. Supermarket barons and fast food giants advertise their cheap options (and they’re available at nearly any hour of the day).
“The convenience shopping of supermarkets opening 24/7 has become very much a part of the new world,” says Frank Costa, chairman of Costa Group -- the major supplier of vegetables and fruit to Coles, Woolworths and Aldi.
Eating out is becoming more and more popular, with new venues opening in our cities every week. Yet who are the people running these places?
“As long as you're not a criminal you can get a liquor license. And that's the only qualification needed to be a restaurateur," restaurant reviewer for The Australian John Lethlean tells The Power Index.
Restaurant closures are common, with a number of high-profile Sydney restaurants shutting up shop this year including Justin North's Becasse and Matt Kemp's Montpellier Public House. While a chef's name may be on the front door, it's the financial backers who are necessary to open a restaurant's doors (and keep them open).
This isn't just an all dollars, no sense relationship: restaurant backers can help guide location, concept, management and finance decisions. But who are these money men? (and yes, they are mainly men).
The mad food media world
South American (particularly Mexican) is the flavour of the year in Sydney and Melbourne, but food trends and restaurants come and go quicker than you can flip a tortilla. Food writers and reviewers can be very influential in their particular city, but it's hard to wield power over a national audience. As The Age food reviewer Larissa Dubecki herself admits: “The days of a restaurant reviewer being able to close a restaurant is over.”
The online food world hype up some hospitality venues and chastise others. Add in tweeters and Instagram users uploading photos of their latest meals and bloggers reviewing restaurants the day they open, and it's no wonder the hospitality industry pays attention to what's being said. But how much of the wider public is reading them? And does one food blogger stand above the rest?
Millions do tune in to that main course of food media in Australia: MasterChef. But is it George, Gary and Matt who decide the challenges -- which often use ingredients available to purchase in the advertiser’s supermarket -- or is someone else increasing the sales of heirloom carrots across the country?
Print isn't quite dead in the food world with magazines like Delicious, Donna Hay and Gourmet Traveller and Super Food Ideas (and never underestimate The Australian Women's Weekly and its famous test kitchen) dishing up the recipe ideas that often appear in our kitchens. That's if we didn't find it first in an impeccably styled and photographed cookbook, with seemingly every chef in the country pumping one (or three) out.
Sorry caffeine lovers and booze hounds, there's no coffee or wine (or any other type of beverage) people on the list. Not because we don't think those industries are important, rather that we think they deserve their own list one day.
Who decides what’s on Australia’s plate? Two, four, six, eight: dig in, don’t wait.