DEVELOPING AN APPETITE FOR UTOPIA – REALITY VERSUS THE GOOD FOOD GUIDE OR HOSPITALITY IN THE AGE OF CONSUMERISM

Alison Vincent

This paper was presented at the 21st Symposium of Australian Gastronomy, Melbourne, December, 2016. It is reprinted in Compost with her permission.

 In response to the increasing consumer interest in dining out the Age newspaper in Melbourne and in Sydney the Sydney Morning Herald started to publish what was, and is still, called The Good Food Guide. In addition to being a directory providing information to would-be diners, these guides rank restaurants according to a system of hats – from 1 to 3 hats with 3 signifying an “outstanding” or exceptional restaurant. [1]  Throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s two restaurants, Stephanie’s in Melbourne and Berowra Waters Inn in Sydney, dominated the highest of the awards given by the restaurant guides in their respective cities.

Stephanie Alexander first opened Stephanie’s in a shop front on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, inner city Melbourne, in 1976. In 1980 Stephanie’s moved to a grand Victorian mansion in suburban Hawthorn, which was richly decorated in keeping with the age and style of the building. Alexander was both the restaurateur and shared the cooking at Stephanie’s until it closed in 1997.

Gay Bilson’s restaurant, Berowra Waters Inn, was situated on the Hawkesbury River, in a setting Bilson describes as “a utopian landscape of water and cliff”,[2] a good one hour drive north of the Sydney city centre and finally accessible only by boat. The design of the subsequent renovations to the building and the minimalist décor of the restaurant were intended to compliment and merge with the surroundings.[3] Gay and her then partner Tony Bilson had gained a reputation for their food at a place called Tony’s Bon Gout, which had operated in the city of Sydney, before moving to Berowra in 1977. After Tony and Gay split in 1981, Gay continued to operate the restaurant with chef Janni Kyritsis until 1995.

I think it is appropriate to consider Gay Bilson and Stephanie Alexander at a symposium dedicated to utopian ideals because in establishing their restaurants they were idealists and visionaries. Although their restaurants were physically very different, both women shared the belief that food – its production, preparation and presentation – and convivial dining are integral to a civilised society. Both had a thoughtful and intellectual approach to cooking and eating which included not just a very personal approach to the food they prepared and served but also questioning established rituals of dining and food presentation. They emphasised simplicity, moderation and informality, and both introduced fixed price meals and limited menus based around local, seasonal ingredients. In doing so they were at the forefront of championing an Australian dining culture.[4]

Critics praised their interesting, innovative food, their attention to detail and the originality and individuality of their style. Diners were assured that there was nowhere else in the world where the same standard of food, service and surroundings could be had for such a reasonable price.[5] Stephanie’s and Berowra Waters Inn developed international reputations and both Bilson and Alexander regularly took their cooking to international events.

However not everyone was impressed or satisfied by their experience of these restaurants and some took the trouble to formally voice complaints in letters to the restaurateur. Frequently complaints related to issues other than the food, issues that arose from the decisions made by Bilson and Alexander concerning how they wanted their restaurant to function. For example, Gay Bilson only served Australian wines or water with the meals at Berowra Waters consequently there were complaints that soft drinks, beer and spirits were not available with one diner denouncing water as “something that poor people have to drink”.[6] Many diners were very specific in targeting particular aspects of their experience that had not met their expectations of an expensive, “fine dining” restaurant. There were complaints for example about the atmosphere, the lack of background music, the want of flowers and candles on the tables and the quality of the glassware and cutlery. One can only imagine Bilson’s dismay at having her carefully designed dining room described as stark and uninviting and likened to “a sunroom in a convalescent home”.[7]

There were complaints about tardy, unhelpful and unfriendly service. Diners wanted to be made to feel important, for example they wanted waiters to pull their chairs out for them and to ask them if they had enjoyed their meal. Some diners were particularly outraged by the fact that waiters did not unfurl the table napkins and place them on the diner’s lap, a practice not in vogue at either restaurant and expressly forbidden at Stephanie’s since Alexander considered it “meaningless, servile and intrusive”.[8]

Despite discreet warnings by critics that the apparently simple food, which was the hallmark of these establishments, might not conform to everyone’s idea of haute cuisine correspondents were frequently disconcerted by the food they were served. One described the menu at Stephanie’s as “a most uninspiring selection of various offal and cheap cuts of meat”.[9] Rabbit and tripe for example were thought to be “most unflattering” to a restaurant with such a stellar reputation.[10] The challenging and limited nature of the menu meant that some diners struggled to find dishes that appealed to them and often what they ordered was not what they expected. One complainant politely informed Bilson: “Crème brulée has always had some kind of berries with it when I have selected it at other restaurants”.[11] In reply to a correspondent who suggested that the presentation of the meals at Stephanie’s “seemed to reflect a lack of thought” Alexander pointed out that the dishes served at her restaurant were presented exactly as she wished them to be.[12]

Overall disappointment generally centred around the question of value for money. [13] For most diners their expectations had been so inflated both by the hype surrounding the restaurant and the cost of the meal (in 1994 the cost of dinner at BWI was $85 a head, at Stephanie’s $80) that it took very little to ruin their experience.

These letters provide fertile ground for exploring a number of aspects of the relationship between restaurateurs and their clients. What struck me particularly reading this correspondence was that most of those who had written to complain were at the restaurant for the wrong reasons. In general the complainants were not dining expressly to eat the food, nor had they necessarily chosen the restaurant because it served food they liked. In many cases they were eating out to celebrate an occasion, such as a birthday or an anniversary or to entertain overseas visitors rather than simply to engage in the dining experience. They are expecting that in some way the restaurant would make them feel important and somehow make the occasion even more special.

Instead they find themselves in an environment where they feel uncomfortable and where they sense they do not belong. As Gay Bilson puts it, for the experience of the restaurant to be successful the diner needs to bring with them a trust in the motive of hospitality, and a sense that they want to be there.[14] It seems to me that in some of these situations trust in the restaurateur was compromised because the diner was playing a dual role as the recipient of hospitality while at the same time they were host at their own table, that is in a situation where they felt that the tastes and choices of the restaurateur were a direct reflection on their own tastes and their own hospitality.[15] It is in part then because they are not dining in good faith that they could not appreciate the effort that had gone in to the preparation of the rabbit and the tripe and felt slighted by the informality of the service. In the end they were blind to the worth of their experience and could only evaluate it in terms of what it had cost them.[16]

Most of the letter writers were dining at these restaurants because they had heard or read so much about them that they felt they had to try the experience for themselves. There is a sense that they did not necessarily want to have the experience as much as they thought they deserved to have the experience.[17] When the restaurant critic writes of Berowra Waters Inn: “few intelligent and sensitive customers could have any complaint” he may well wish to imply that the restaurant will not suit everyone but any such implication is of course lost on his readers who surely see themselves as both intelligent and sensitive.[18]

Like Bourdieu we might say these diners are motivated by the desire to accrue cultural capital. Robert Appelbaum calls them “creatures of majestic consumerism”, driven by some or all of the imperatives of “hunger, taste, wealth, class, narcissistic self-regard and the glamorization of consumption by the media”.[19] Much of their dissatisfaction then is a product of the clash between the ideal of genuine hospitality and the reality of modern consumerism. The media, and critics and restaurant guides in particular, play a significant role in promoting the restaurant goer as a consumer rather than as a recipient of hospitality and encouraging them in what Appelbaum describes as the need to need something that they do not need.[20]

By writing in the first person and writing about their own personal likes and dislikes, and about their own individual and particular experiences, critics contribute to the assumption that the customer is always right.[21]  Complainants write with strident confidence, satisfied that their experiences make them qualified judges. Terry Linson thought his complaints entirely justified since he and his partner “eat out regularly and feel we have a good basis for comparison”.[22] To quote Robert Appelbaum again: “A key feature of the ideology of the consumer society is that though gross consumption is gross, informed consumption is altruism”.[23]

By invoking the notion of value for money, critics suggest that there is some sort of tangible cost/benefit relationship inherent in eating out, implying that we can make a value judgment about fine dining in much the same way as we might justify the purchase of an expensive pair of shoes. One diner stated bluntly that, “for eighty five dollars I expected to leave the restaurant feeling full”.[24]

By ranking restaurants guides promote the idea that there is such a thing as a “best” restaurant and twist the ideals of the restaurateur into criteria for a restaurant competition. The designation of “best” is a product of the system of restaurant criticism that awards it.[25] Rating restaurants implies, and encourages diners to believe, that all restaurant experiences are comparable. Rankings also assume that all the stakeholders in the system understand, and place the same value on, the criteria on which the evaluation is based. Relying on scores given by critics, diners abnegate their responsibility to make their own decisions about what might be best for them. Consequently, and particularly in the case of those establishments given the highest rankings, rather than approaching their dining experiences in a spirit of adventure and enquiry diners enter the restaurant fully confirmed in their expectations of excellence and perfection. The restaurant is judged not according to whether it achieves what it sets out to do but on whether it complies with the critic’s evaluation.

Of course it has to be acknowledged that restaurants benefit from the free advertising provided by newspaper columns and restaurant guides. It is also true that the restaurant itself is a product of the modern consumer society and that restaurateurs and cooks must grapple with the conundrum posed by offering hospitality as a viable commercial venture. What concerns me here is that no matter how well intentioned restaurant critics may be they become “representatives working on behalf of consumers and consumerism”,[26] promoters of individualistic indulgence, or majestic consumption, rather than spokesmen and women for refined hospitality, for the craft of cookery and for the restaurant as a site of conviviality and restauration.

Acknowledgements

The research for this paper would not have been possible without the foresight of Stephanie Alexander and Gay Bilson, both of whom have not only maintained an archive of the material from their years as restaurateurs but have ensured its preservation by depositing it in public libraries. I would also like to thank Gay Bilson for granting me permission to access her papers at the National Library of Australia.

References

Alexander, Stephanie. Stephanie’s 21 years of fabulous food, December 1976 – December 1997. Melbourne: Stephanie’s, 1997.

Alexander, Stephanie. Stephanie’s Seasons. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1993.

Appelbaum, Robert. Dishing it Out. In search of the restaurant experience. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.

Bilson, Gay. Plenty. Digressions on Food. Melbourne: Penguin, 2004.

Forell, Claude and Rita Erlich, eds. Age Good Food Guide 4th ed. Melbourne: Anne O’Donovan, 1983.

Schofield, Leo and Michael Dowe, eds. Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 6th ed. Melbourne: Anne O’Donovan, 1989.

Schofield, Leo, David Dale and Jenna Price, eds. Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 1st ed. Melbourne: Anne O’Donovan, 1984.

Papers of Gay Bilson, c. 1970 – 1998. MS Acc. 05.107, National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Records of Stephanie Alexander, 1968 – 1998. MS 13338, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

Endnotes

[1] Claude Forell and Rita Erlich, eds., Age Good Food Guide (hereafter AGEGFG), 4th ed., (Melbourne: Anne O’Donovan, 1983), vii. In Sydney 3 hats were awarded to ‘those exceptional establishments that offer food of the highest available local standards, food creatively prepared and served in singularly attractive surroundings’ Leo Schofield, David Dale and Jenna Price, eds., Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide (hereafter SMHGFG) 1st ed., (Melbourne: Anne O’Donovan, 1984), 8.

[2] Gay Bilson, Plenty. Digressions on food, (Melbourne: Penguin, 2004), 26.

[3] Ibid., 45–47.

[4]  Stephanie Alexander, Stephanie’s Seasons (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1993), 38, 26, 94, 166. Of Stephanie’s Alexander wrote that the style of the restaurant was the result of her deeply held convictions regarding the preparation and presentation of food and the need to create an enjoyable social atmosphere. She also felt the responsibility to create an Australian restaurant “not tied to the culinary traditions of particular countries”, Stephanie Alexander to Dr. A. McLaughlan, 10 June 1986, Records of Stephanie Alexander, Box 24. For Bilson see Bilson, Plenty, 88, 94, 99.

[5] Leo Schofield and Michael Dowe, eds., SMHGFG 6th ed. (Melbourne: Anne O’Donovan,1989), 26.

[6] Wendy Elgood to Gay Bilson, 19 December 1990, Papers of Gay Bilson, Box 5.

[7] David H. Dewar to Gay Bilson, 15 October 1989, Papers of Gay Bilson, Box 4. Bilson describes the dining room as ‘a verandah for eating in, where to feast on the view was to feast at the table’, Plenty, 45.

[8] Stephanie Alexander to Dr. A. McLaughlan, 10 June 1986, Records of Stephanie Alexander, Box 24. See also Bilson, Plenty, 94.

[9]  Dr. A. McLaughlan to Stephanie Alexander, 19 May 1986, Records of Stephanie Alexander, Box 24.

[10] Mrs A. Morphett to Stephanie Alexander, 29 October 1984, Records of Stephanie Alexander, Box 24.

[11] Wendy Lees to Gay Bilson, 22 November 1989, Papers of Gay Bilson, Box 4.

[12] Michael Rowan to Stephanie Alexander, n.d., Stephanie Alexander to Michael Rowan 16 August 1986, Records of Stephanie Alexander, Box 24.

[13] For example, ‘We consider that we did not receive value for money in any shape or form, and for a restaurant with BWI’s reputation it is quite ludicrous’, Judy Brinkman to Gay Bilson, 6 March 1990, Papers of Gay Bilson, Box 5; ‘While the food was acceptable, my disappointment lies in the fact that it was not special and a restaurant with the reputation and prices as yours, should be the best!’ Anne Tidd to Stephanie Alexander, 22 April 1994, Records of Stephanie Alexander, Box 24.

[14] Bilson, Plenty, 36.

[15] See for example Alexander, Seasons, 212.

[16] Bilson, Plenty, 209.

[17]  Robert Appelbaum, Dishing it Out. In search of the restaurant experience (London: Reaktion, 2011), 117, 119.

[18] Leo Schofield, “Dinner by a living national treasure”, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 August 1984.

[19] Appelbaum, Dishing it Out, 14.

[20] Ibid., 19.

[21] Ibid., 155.

[22] Terry Linson and Rickie Lou Bridgett to Gay Bilson, 14 January 1990, Papers of Gay Bilson, Box 5.

[23] Appelbaum, Dishing it Out, 155.

[24] Bradley Nathan to Gay Bilson, 2 June 1992, Papers of Gay Bilson, Box 5.

[25] Appelbaum, Dishing it Out, 25.

[26] Ibid., 129.

About Alison

Alison Vincent has qualifications in science (BSc (Hons), Food Technology, UNSW) and history (BA, MLitt, UNE) and is currently undertaking a PhD at Central Queensland University. Alison’s research explores the writing of restaurant critics in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1970s and 1980s and the role of restaurant criticism in establishing standards of good taste