Few other industries possess as many awards and top lists as hospitality. That piece of paper taped to the kitchen wall printed with the faces of food media grows ever long with the augmentation of the digital age, and with it comes a confusing number of titles to compete for.
It’s not just Best Restaurant anymore. Awards have been broken down by category so far that it feels as though any day we’ll be awarding Best Restaurant Dishy (we all know they’re the real kitchen heroes anyway).
Add to that the fact that every outlet in this ever-changing landscape has their own set of gongs to bang, it begs the question; in an era where awards are handed out just for turning up (and by everyone), do they mean anything anymore?
When it comes to the direct impact an award can have on a business, the extra bump can be crucial when you’re a newborn. “When we started out nearly 10 years ago, awards had a huge impact for us,” says Vicki Wild of Sydney fine dining gem Sepia (whose awards are too numerous to list). “We didn’t have the budget for PR and it really gave the business the attention that it needed.”
And what about these days as an established business? “Awards and lists are fun when you’re on them, and not when you’re not,” says Wild. “I’d be lying if I were to say we didn’t appreciate them, but Martin (Benn, executive chef and co-owner) isn’t a high-fiver. We’re much happier when we do our own thing. I don’t feel the need to do certain things differently just to be considered.”
For industry veteran Maurice Terzini, it’s a matter of reassurance. “After all these years, the main awards (Fairfax’s Good Food Guide and Gourmet Traveller, for example), give me a sense of confirmation that I have consistency [in my business] and for my customers, the same. It’s a reinforcement of our standards, and of course, it’s great for staff morale.”
On the other side of the country, Joel Valvasori, chef/owner of Perth pasta palace Lulu La Delizia says it also reminds customers who may be distracted by new openings and other factors, that they’re still here (and awesome). “I’ve never seen the impact as much as I’ve seen it here to be honest. Maybe it’s because we are a small restaurant, but every handful of people per service [who come because of the media coverage from an award] adds up at the end of the week.”
Those ‘main’ awards Terzini refers to have plenty of company these days. So does this dilute the potency or value of being ‘in’? “Both internationally and domestically, there are so many awards,” says Wild. “A non-industry friend said to me, ‘God, your industry is SO scrutinised’. And the fact is we’re all doing something different, so sometimes it’s odd to compare apples with oranges. I think the industry and the public will ultimately get sick of it. For the moment, these things may get a run for a little while longer, but I don’t think they have legs for the future.”
In terms of PR, does a business need it to get a leg up on the awards front? While it’s widely accepted that certain international awards require a fair degree of lobbying from the right PR to even get on the playing field (a conscious choice Sepia chose not to undertake), is it any different at home?
Monica Brown, arguably one of the most powerful PR fixers in the world says ‘yes and no’. Brown has a roster that has included Heston Blumenthal and many of the top 20 in the World’s 50 Best.
“It’s our job to bring restaurants and chefs to the media’s attention, but it’s still their job to decide for themselves if they’re worthy; we have no control over that,” she says. “But if you’re engaging PR to get you on a list or an award, that’s a sure path to madness. You may get your 15 minutes of fame, but it lends you no gravitas for long-term business viability.”
Terzini believes striving for awards has for some, distracted them from the soul of hospitality. “I’m a big believer in hitting your financial goals, but I think we don’t talk enough about the social role that restaurants play, and that’s being forgotten,” he says.
“People live their lives around the restaurant table. Celebrations, fights, business deals, entertaining; the role that restaurants play socially has been overshadowed by a focus on awards. Sometimes I feel awards will drive the industry to just a competitive place rather than what it is supposed to be, which is to provide a place to live life.”
Wild agrees. “Who doesn’t love an award?!” she laughs, “but that’s not why we do what we do.”
This article originally appeared in Hospitality’s August issue. Subscribe here.