Go into any restaurant kitchen in Australia and you’ll find men are often the majority. As chefs increasingly enjoy a level of mild celebrity, it means the equally hard-working women in hospitality rarely share the same limelight.
While there are many excellent female chefs in the city we could celebrate, we took the opportunity to meet the women in Melbourne’s hospitality industry who, for years now, have been getting on with it and making magic in restaurants; the ones who keep our glasses topped up and who know what we need before we do.
They’re often the quiet achievers of the restaurant world, the ones who orchestrate and maintain the consistency you feel around you at the haunts you keep returning to. Actually, they are probably a big part of what makes your favourite restaurant, your favourite. These are the people taking care of you front of house (FOH).
Anna Touhy was with the Van Haandel Group for 15 years, at its flagship Stokehouse, before fire razed it in 2012. Now Touhy is steering another ship, The Atlantic restaurant at Crown, working through huge turnovers while maintaining an impeccable standard.
Broadsheet: How long have you been working in the hospitality industry? And how did you get into it?
Anna Touhy: I have been working in the industry for just over two decades (maybe a little more!). I began hospitality when I was at university to help cover living costs while I was living in a dodgy share house. I had friends working in the industry, the way they talked about it made it sound fun. I was intrigued.
BS: What’s the best thing about working FOH (front of house)? And what’s the hardest?
AT: I have always thought that to look after people; giving them food, wine and great service is such a wonderful thing to do, especially if it is a special occasion. They have chosen your restaurant to celebrate in, I like that. Another thing I love about working in hospitality is the amount of people you meet. Over the years I have developed some fabulous long-term friendships.
The hardest? Occasionally the hours can be a little trying, but that’s something that you get used to.
BS: The restaurant kitchen is known to be male-dominated. Is it a similar scenario FOH? Have you had to manage much sexism in the industry or from customers?
AT: Yes, it is true that the kitchen can be male-dominated, but I have always found that a balance of female and male staff on the floor creates a great dynamic for customers.
At The Atlantic, I’m lucky to work with the executive chef Donovan Cooke, who is determined to create an ongoing relationship between the FOH and BOH (back of house), and is willing to share his wealth of experience with everyone.
Every now and again you can experience some, how can I say, unusual behaviour from customers, but there are ways it can be sorted out so everyone is happy.
BS: During your time in the industry, what have been some of the biggest changes in the expectations of diners?
AT: The biggest change I have seen is the increase in the number of restaurants and bars in Melbourne. It makes it so important to always have a point of difference and to have an edge compared to other restaurants. You must be all about passion, product knowledge and, of course, customer service. Without these, we may as well go home.
BS: How has technology changed the way we dine?
AT: Making reservations is a breeze now using a booking platform like Dimmi. It helps us and the customer because technology doesn’t over book like humans can.
BS: Where do you like to eat on a day off?
AT: We are so lucky in Melbourne because there are so many wonderful restaurants owned by women. I have been going to Cicciolina and Café Di Stasio for years, and I love a Martini at Madame Brussels, especially when Miss Pearls is there!
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