Andrew McConnell, Chris Lucas and George Calombaris
Home Town: Melbourne
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 knife-wielding men -- yes, they're all men -- run some of the city's top nosheries, set its food culture, and dictate 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."
"If I can influence to 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.
Chris 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 5,000 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 fucking 300 metre wave coming towards you and it's going to swamp you."
Lucas lists New York A-lister Danny Meyer as an inspiration. Meyer, who runs countless including the Gramercy Tavern wrote a bestselling book, Setting the Table, about "power of hospitality and my desire to harness it" and you get the feeling Lucas could already be this city's equivalent.
Another power plater is Andrew McConnell, who alongside brother Matt and legendary partner Frank Van Haandel has created his own family foodie fiefdom. Alongside Cumulus sits the more chintzy Cutler & Co (where $300 bills are the norm), St Kilda's Golden Fields (think lobster rolls) and recently, the lease to Fitzroy pub The Builder's Arms. Matt has the wildly successful Bar Lourinha and will soon open up another next to Cutler.
"Andrew's well on the way to controlling most of Gertrude Street," one former MasterChef contestant informed us.
The softly spoken McConnell, dressed casually in sneakers and a t-shirt, invited us to his nerve centre above Cutler to chew the fat. A humming bank of computers emits a whisper quiet hum to his success, although he denies he's powerful.
"I'm not sure if power is the right word to use for a restaurateur, just that some are more successful than others and we all have different ambitions."
McConnell, who still cooks regularly, agrees "the media, the internet are instrumental in getting your name out", but disputes he thrives off the same buzz coveted by Lucas and Colombaris.
"I don't think you need buzz...we've been open three years, we strive to maintain good food and hospitable service and we have the same numbers now as we did when we first opened. Melbourne diners are astute enough to know when something's good," he said.
But Lucas says McConnell is moving in that direction.
"If you look at Andrew he started off his career as a fine dining chef and he opened a couple of so-called 'fine dining' restaurants, and they failed. And then I think he grasped the mood from those failing restaurants...and he thought to himself, this is not where it's at, people don't want to pay $250-$300 to sit in some sort of restaurant in Fitzroy and try to make out that they got an upmarket experience. So he's reengineered himself to this more fun, casual, all-day dining experience." (Cutler is still in Fitzroy and still charges $250-$300).
There's minor signs the obsession with 'it dining' is wearing out its welcome. In fact, a new trend towards fat-laden comfort food could be the scene's own gravedigger. Why queue for tacos, lobster rolls or KFC-inspired chicken when you can get your fill at any number of non media-tised eateries scattered all over the inner suburbs?
Last week, the usually boosterist Age sunk the fork into Lucas' Chin Chin on its op-ed page. Columnist Brigit Delaney bemoaned the emerging "Bret Easton Ellis' yuppie dystopia" and included a nasty reference to Ho as a "crowd controller".
In 2011 Melbourne's multi-billion restaurant scene crossed the Rubicon. And they'll no doubt be countless others scrambling to board the gravy train before the hunger pangs subside.