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).
Jane Semple has worked as a sommelier at some great restaurants; Albert Park’s The Point and Brooks of Melbourne among them. Her last dining-room gig was at Brooks, which closed suddenly in September (it now houses Philippe Mouchel’s eponymous restaurant).
Since then she’s had a break and is now the proud owner of small catering company, Goodie. She talks to us about her days on the floor.
Broadsheet: How long have you been working in the hospitality industry, and how did you get into it?
Jane Semple: My parents loved eating out, we'd dress up. I was in awe of the waiters and maître d'. When we lived in Melbourne for a couple of years in the mid ’80s, we went to the most glamorous place I could have imagined – Rosati, where Ronnie Di Stasio ran the show before he opened Café Di Stasio. I was bedazzled. For my 16th birthday we flew from Adelaide to Melbourne for dinner at Rosati. I wore a pink satin bustier and a black tulle skirt and a vintage beaded cardigan.
Like many uni students I worked in a restaurant at night and on the weekend. This was in the ’90s. The ’90s were so hot. Adelaide's restaurant scene was particularly florid; chefs like Cheong Liew, Lew Kathreptis, Anne Oliver... I was at Cafe 48, we had 20 wines by the glass. The owner, Tony Adey trained me so well.
I soon fell in love with my part-time job and it became a passion I've pursued ever since. I've tried to leave it, but I can't.
BS: What’s the best thing about working FOH (front of house)? And what’s the hardest?
JS: I was and still am so absorbed in the culture of restaurants. I learned so much every day. For example, at Brooks, we’d learn about the diet of the hand-reared ducks from Mt Macedon we had on the menu; research the viticultural practices of my favourite Barolo producer, she's a one-woman show, incredible; study the background of the new Bruny Island oysters; taste the new release of Yarra Valley wines with the second-generation wine maker, I used to taste them with her father.
The best part of all, though, was hosting our guests in the dining room and sharing all of this with them.
BS: The restaurant kitchen is known to be male-dominated in most instances, is it a similar scenario FOH? Have you had to manage much sexism in the industry or from customers?
JS: There have been moments over the years. I've learned to hold my ground and that’s a skill you gain over time.
BS: During your time in the industry, what have been some of the biggest changes in the expectations of diners?
JS: With shrinking domestic kitchens, even smaller amounts of time dedicated to cooking and ever-increasing urbanism, people are eating out often. I'm aware that people prefer more casual dining, with sharing plates, and there are excellent spaces dedicated to this with really high-quality food and wine offered. The frequency [at which they eat out] makes for more savvy diners, but I feel there is less of a real attachment to gastronomy, a lack of transcendence and a loss of, what is fast becoming, the dark art of deep conversation.
BS: How has technology changed the way we dine?
JS: People can book online, that's handy. I did experience a guest late last year who was researching the wines on the list with a search engine on his phone. I wondered why he wouldn't just ask me, I suppose some people don't trust service, particularly in Australia. Maybe sommeliers have brought that on themselves? Then, on more than one occasion we have had people who spend the evening on their phones. They are not part of the club.
BS: Where do you like to eat on a day off?
JS: Most special occasions are celebrated at Cafe Di Stasio, it's in my DNA. Lau's impeccable Cantonese cooking and sumptuous service. Kirk’s Wine Bar, a great CBD outpost on the weekend; Gertrude Street Enoteca – Brigitte [Hafner]'s cooking is so refined yet relaxed and it's just so stylish in there; Ladro for pizza. I love my local pub, The Grosvenor, for grass-fed scotch, a decent glass of wine and the footy.
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