The West

Growing pains for Perth food industry
Clint Nolan, owner of Harvest. Picture: Rob Duncan / The West Australian

Few could argue that these days Perth's food and beverage scene is fast tracking at a blistering pace.

There's the recent re-branding of Burswood Entertainment Complex to Crown Perth and its conga line of big names - Rockpool, Nobu, Guillaume - making the pilgrimage west.

Jamie Oliver is set to land in the city early next year. On the home front, the CBD's new Brookfield Plaza has brought with it a level of world-class sophistication previously lacking locally, with The Trustee, Heritage and Print Hall openings derailing any further talk of the city being dismissed as sleepy.

Eclectic small bars are opening on a seemingly weekly basis, and even our fast food is becoming more gentrified.

And that's not to mention all the bells and whistles that the 10ha of Elizabeth Quay will bring with it, including pop-up kiosks, restaurants and cafes. While Perth is unlikely ever to rival bigger, more established food-centric cities such as New York, its hospitality industry nevertheless seems to be going gangbusters. There's a wider selection of eateries for diners to choose from, an increase in job creation and a shake-up in food, service and venue quality.

"With all the new places opening up, it's certainly making staffing tight for the industry at the moment," says Clint Nolan, the chef/owner of Harvest, La Cholita and Who's Your Mumma.

"But I think that will subside in time, where there will be a lot more professionally trained staff available. Certainly for the short term, things are tighter on the employment front. It doesn't affect trade for us though, as we're pretty isolated in the styles and venues that we have. They've each got their own character and clientele."

David Coomer, the owner of Pata Negra and new director of food at Print Hall, tends to agree.

"Staffing has always been a pain," he says.

"The people have to come from somewhere. But I think all the new openings will do wonders for staff training. The more quality operations are around, the better quality our trainees are going to be, if you can find them to start with."

The high cost of food, both for diners and for restaurateurs, is nothing new to Perth. Factors such as our isolation, food freight costs, staff penalty rates and high rents have all been cited as reasons to bump up the price of the average meal. These days, many if not most main meals crack the $40 mark, while similar dishes in the Eastern States are still in the $30 range.

"We will always have the tyranny of distance," says Coomer. "At Pata Negra, we're passionate about buying locally. But unfortunately a lot of stuff we need has to come from the Eastern States too, so we have those big freight cost issues."

Although according to Matt Stone, executive chef to Greenhouse Perth, Melbourne's Silo and an assortment of pop-ups, high food costs can often be due to one-part acquisitiveness, one-part complacency.

"I'm lucky enough that I've been kicking around between Melbourne, Sydney and overseas a fair bit lately," he says.

"And when I come back to Perth, I feel some restaurants are taking the piss a little bit with the prices they charge. Of course some food in Perth is going to cost more, but I don't think that's always the case.

" Because we've been limited with the restaurants we've had here for so long, there are mediocre places that are charging a lot more for food than they probably should, and those prices have stayed. I mean, you can go to an average pub and pay $45 for a steak, chips and salad, and the chips have come from a bag. But Perth people have been paying these prices for a long time, so a lot of restaurants continue to charge high.

"I really love that in Melbourne there's a great variety of mid-range restaurants that are serving beautiful food at a really affordable price. I'd like to think Greenhouse fits that category but there aren't many other mid-range restaurants in Perth. And with all these big restaurants coming over, I hope that food prices drop due to producers growing in larger quantities and getting better yields. But I don't know if that will happen."

But it's not all bad news. In fact, according to some, the future looks positively day-glo.

"With Perth growing up and creating its own hospitality culture, sure it might be tight in the short term. But in the long term, it may stop our young final-year apprentices or anyone with any real professionalism moving to either Melbourne, London or New York to obtain that experience," says Nolan.

"They're going to want to stay in Perth, because Perth will have the diversity and something to offer. That's what I'm looking forward to. I mean, industry professionals are moving over here because of what we have to offer. We've got the weather, we've got the beaches. It won't be long. That's when we've made it. That's when Perth will have really grown up."

"We have those freight cost issues." David Coomer

The West Australian

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