As he settled into the pointy end of the plane Hawkins reached for the stack of gastro porn on the shiny Mark Newson side table. On the front page of hot.ink was a fashionably distorted image of the latest restaurant concept by Michael McLean in Melbourne. The photograph was a close up of the cast iron art deco box office booth outside the Palais theatre in St.Kilda taken with a homemade pinhole camera. Veri.Tas, their Australian correspondent pronounced that it was simply ’the most important, ambitious and audacious restaurtainment project that Melbourne, the newly christened 2014 World- Eat-City, had ever seen’. When Gesualdi and Di Stasio opened Rosati in the eighties the Melbourne binge meter was being seriously stretched but this, Veri.Tas predicted, would see it re-launched out into another quantum orbit altogether.
But this was old news to Hawkins. The pingsters had squittered it selectively and the blind parrots had done the rest. First tweeted by Kozinski in Oslo, Veritas had now morphed it back it into hipster print. It was a hit before the stoves were even lit.
Veri.Tas was the nom de pad of that budding tweetmeister who had single handedly broken the 2013 Wordpress scandal, shaking the repositioned new ChefMaster food and wine portal into some serious legal backpedalling.
Hawkins knew this was to be his final junket from the agency and this time he was going to enjoy Rio with eyes wide open. Fifteen years ago the other firm had sent him on assignment to test drive the new Musso over the Andes for a feature in the motoring arm of the magazine. He thought it was a well earned reward for the hard yards he had put in over those formative years. The brand of car should have been a clue for when he returned his food editor’s job had been given to the Sydney office and he was out on his own again. It had taken two good books and some serious networking with the old school set, to get him back in print with the opposition. Slowly and carefully he had worked his way back up to his rightful place as the much loved and trusted über food critic of the Australian media again.
The London arm of the agency had acquired The Bottled Water World’s Most Important Foodie Awards Party rights when the 2016 Olympics city was announced and as a prelude the party was to be in Rio this year. He felt flattered by the scale of the kiss-off.
Horace, his deep throat at work, had confirmed to him a month ago what he had already gleaned from the office vibes and other internal leaks that the second big restructure was on and he was not going to make the cut. Nobody in the office was happy and he was looking forward to getting the Dear John letter. The firm had become a fragmented shadow of its proud printed past since the last downsize. Everyone was working on a web based plan B.
He eased himself into the comfy pod pleased with the knowledge that the Afghan coffee he had before leaving home was just about to kick in. He had convinced himself over the years that his taste buds were harder to fool and that his bullshit meter was calibrated to a much finer degree when he was caffeinated in this medicinal way. It also helped him sleep.
The flying sommelier offered him the list and he chose the top domestic fizz with the fresh oysters and finger limes. He couldn’t be seen to be going the French on Qantas.
As the svelte hostess adjusted the reading matter she congratulated him on matching the terroir of the bubbles with the oysters and placed a handwritten welcome note from the cabin chef with a number to ring in Rio if he needed some local knowledge or supplies.
He was proud of his achievements. He never took a freebie unless it was from trusted professionals who knew how much he deplored cash for comment. On this, his slate was clear; his reputation was pretty much intact. His contributors’ salary and small retainer had kept him in touch with the common man and every time he signed the corporate credit card he was able to empathise with Mr and Mrs Average when he delivered his score. Value for money was one of his key criteria when reviewing a restaurant and he understood that there could indeed be a great deal of value for money at the top end of the market when armed with a company credit card. He was just as comfortable, at least in print, at a hands-on owner operated local or a pop up and always championed the dwindling remnants of old school hospitality of his fading generation. He was a true Melbournian at heart. The Palais was a part of his youth both as a music venue and the original cinema. He thought it was an inspired spot for McLean to launch his new venture. As a school boy he knew how to sneak into all the theatres and amusement parks in St.Kilda and forged his street smarts and cultural cred in the front stalls of the Victory and Palais from The Three Stooges and Western serials, later to hot schoolie dates graduating to Irwin Rado’s exquisite film festivals and midnight post mortems over schnitzel and Jazz at the Black Rose. But the unbreakable bond to the building was formed while listening to the Stones, Roy Orbison and the Easybeats from outside the stage door one wild night in the 60’s in the rain.
The old theatre was being restored with a good whack of State and Federal government money. The new management consortium was born out of the original Save St.Kilda protest movement when the site was first mooted to be re-developed about a decade ago. But they had all grown up since then proudly thinking that a grass roots protest had been able to make a difference and save the character of the precinct. This time around it would be a softer touch. A careful restoration combined with sustainable use of a passive and public space. A single screen 3000 seat auditorium, while as beautiful and historically important as the Palais was, had only a limited commercial use. The idea was subtle. McLean’s model simply did not exist except when it was performing. Four hours after last drinks there was no trace left. An easily digested concept borrowed Adam Tiahny’s treatment of Le Cirque 2000 in New York that was housed in a heritage mansion with similar restrictions to the Palais in that nothing could be allowed to alter the fabric of the building or its interiors. He had also borrowed from Michael Pollan and Marshall McLuhan with more than a passing nod to Barnum and Bailey.
It was after Kylie had asked McLean to cater for a mega charity bash for the Breast Cancer Foundation at the theatre about 18months ago that the concept began to emerge from the thought tablet.
A portable village square would be grafted on to the Palais. Complete with a Banqueting Hall cabaret inside for the highflyers surrounded by an outdoor pop up hawkers’ market and circus with side shows and screens for the happy peasants out on the street.
Kylie had planned a modest $2000 a head sit-down supper of home grown seasonal produce for 300 after the charity show. The line up included local Greens member in waiting Paul Kelly. Rachael Griffiths led the charity auction bidding. Add a flying trapeze avec une burlesque chanteuse with Julia Zemero as ringmeister and what you got was grass roots St.Kilda style with serious money pledged for the cause.
The evening had been a triumph. In a curatorial coup Kylie asked Baz Luhrmann to choreograph the evening which was quickly rumoured yet again to be her last live performance. The show began with Nick Cave and Tex Perkins simultaneously sliding down wires from the gods to the faux Royal balconies to hand-start the propellers of a couple of Sopwith Camels. After a few false cranks and loud backfires Nick and Tex got the planes revved up and as the lights on the balconies came up they revealed the rhythm sections of the two bands building up a killer cross hatched syncopated groove. Kylie strolled on stage dressed in understated Jean Luc Goddard ‘68 Paris street fighting chic. The show was lightly rehearsed giving it a dangerous edge. Lots of gasp inducing guests. Kylie in cabaret, no safety net with serious oids in the choir, orkestra and airforce.
She closed the show with Gurramul and chilled the crowd for what was to follow.
Only a handful in the audience recognised that Baz had borrowed the concept from an 80’s big fuck off charity bash in London that Ian Drury and Elvis Costello had produced for the Living with Bi Polar cause at the Hammersmith Odeon but Baz was only too happy to acknowledge the homage.
McLean had managed to inspire the country cousin restaurants with kitchen gardens to provide the largely vegetarian produce and it was all volunteer hands on deck in the new Podmaster Catering Modules that were being simultaneously launched into the pop up street market by the white hot Slipstream Design Co-Operative.
On arrival the foyer looked just as splendid as it had always looked with no clues to what would appear later. There was no interval and at the end of the encores the side doors of the Palais opened and those without supper seats poured out onto the pavement where circus OZ had set up a stage amongst a village of sideshows and pop ups to ease the pain of those not going to the after party cabaret. The outdoor component of the concept from McLean was an historic nod to the original carnival that stood there along the promenade till the sixties. Luna Park was open. All profits went to the charity.
While the big show inside had been in progress the roadies had seamlessly bumped in an Asher Bilu styled cosmic cabaret installation with a small stage into the centre of the Palais foyer that had a trapeze over the top from the balconies. 30 tables of 10. It was pure Pinder Last laugh retro Melbourne. Perfect.
The food served was a hit parade of McLean’s last decade of signature small dishes easy to assemble from five different mini Slipstream modules. The rat pack of Melbourne’s A list front of house doorbitches babysat the student waiters and each table had a well known face who managed the table-hopping strategy while pimping bids for the auction on their handsets. The older guests were talking Capote the younger ones Cadillac Bar. Over three million dollars was raised from the tickets, TV, Download rights, product placements and the charity auction. Everybody had made a fair cop. It was a smash.
Some of the industry had begun to see a pattern in McLean’s rise to the top of the Melbourne food scene. But few understood that his method was simply to go with the flow and when the push was strong, the gut instinct overwhelming and the smart money pump primed, he simply knuckled down and got on with it to set the plates spinning into the air. The lifestyle and social press just followed. No matter how silly and transparent the concept was, the scribes could be relied upon to boost it to a mega profitable level very quickly. What else could they do? It was not like he had an army of PR people either; it was just that his charm and chutzpah were irresistible and he had learnt to take his trusted people along with him for the ride for a fair slice of the pie. Over the years the press had swallowed the high-rise blingatorium with as much ease as the five star Las Vegas meets Gustave Klimt super shiny hotel dining room. They worshipped at the dude food megastores with the same relish as at the faux Parisian post ironic brassiere two decades earlier. He had never let them down with good copy.
This was to be the new amorphous Speigltent that you could bump into any space. You even took all your own piss and shit away with you if the venue had no plumbing and get brownie points for dumping it back at the farm. A real karma chameleon. The backup batteries were solar charged, you ate from recycled everything depending on the venue. It could be a dinner for 200 on Sèvres and Jensen borrowed from the High Street dealers or equally it could be unpronounceable recherché produce on restrained op shop chic for the same price. Only the suburbs and funny money went after the expensive bling.
Catering had been in the hands of the staid establishment for decades it was time for a more relaxed, sustainable way to launch the next new German eco-car or provide a hitching post for the rapidly emerging urban green-washed economy.
The first Palais gig had created such a buzz that it was ready to be repeated before the night was over. McLean knew his brand was getting invaluable value for the volunteer effort and he also quickly grasped that the business model to come out of this A list focus group would have to be limited to a short summer season to stop the concept from overheating. It had no name but Veri.Tas eventually christened it the Palais Ideal after the mad postman’s folly in Hauterives.
Hawkins was old school, he was taught to let a new venue settle in for a couple of months before giving it his professional attention but these days even a small opening let alone the theatre style flash-mob preview nights that major players held were micro-managed for the web so it was a case of joining the neophilliacs and just sucking it in.
He had played no small part in the rise of Mr. McLean. Hawkins was the first to review him after his prodigal return from France. This first restaurant celebrated his working class background with a refined peasant bistro in an old bakery in Wattletree Road that had more than a passing reference to Chapelle. They had met at Mietta’s and McLean followed Chapelle back to France to be with the master. The intensity of that first kitchen was deadly and McClean had attributed part of its gravitas to a short stage with Loiseau just before the great man had shot himself. It all added colour to what in Hawkins’ considered professional opinion was simply to date, the best food he had ever eaten in Melbourne. This crown of excellence he had repeated over the years in reference to McLean from the coolest, the hottest the most sustainable, the most exciting, the most original, most authentic or just the most!. Now he had to conceptualise yet another adjective to sum up the latest project.
Hawkins had been careful to keep a respectable distance from the industry. He got on well with all the main players choosing carefully his targets of negative criticism. Then if they did not react with too much hostility he would over compensate them the next time the opportunity arose. If they fell over in the mean time, well there was really nothing he could do. He was sued a couple of times but won most of the cases. The company losses to date were minor. The board loved the rise in readership that a good court case could provide. Over the years he had learned a great deal about defamation, libel, slander, and their associated laws and he had developed a very considered style where if he wanted to sharply criticise a restaurant he would simply give the chef or restaurateur enough quote-rope to do the deed for him.
Positive reviews were easy to write provided there was something new to hold up the hubris. It was not important that the new new was an obscure recycled concept, or just a direct copy what was important was that it was new to Melbourne. A really original concept was risky. He had struggled with this latest review but after interviewing McLean at his home he quickly realised that a compass could easily switch poles if the magnetic force was strong enough.
He looked at his watch that was still on local time, safe with the knowledge that when his much awaited review of McClean’s new folly broke online he would be peacefully flying over the Pacific.