The first time the words “caviar” and “bumps” appeared together in a sentence on Broadsheet was in December 2019, in a preview of the then-unopened Sydney restaurant Mimi’s.

Executive chef Jordan Toft’s plan was simple: rather than offer up caviar in typical style, on a blini or toast with chives and crème fraîche, Mimi’s was going to serve it from a big theatrical trolley being pushed around the dining room, dolloping a small mound of the delicacy directly onto people’s hands, and giving them an icy shot of vodka to down with it.

It was a blockbuster hit.

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“Jordan developed this service where the trolley’s wheeled out when the guests are placing their order, and they do a genius job of it,” says Lisa Downs, caviar ambassador for Simon Johnson, Australia’s largest caviar importer. “I think it’s fair to say that Mimi’s is broadly responsible for putting caviar bumps on the map in Sydney.”

Caviar bumps are mentioned much more frequently on Broadsheet these days, and restaurateurs around the country – and the world – are jockeying to get themselves a slice of the bump pie. But are caviar bumps just another ironic permutation of the high-low fad (cc: cheeseburgers paired with champagne)? A way for restaurants to boost their bottom lines with an easy upsell? A cocaine joke gone too far? Or could they be a cost-effective and flavourful way for you, the customer, to experience one of food’s most iconic indulgences?

Turns out, it’s all of the above.

For almost as long as humans have fished for sturgeon (to the point of global wild-fishing bans), we’ve consumed their roe, which is salted and cured to become caviar (check out our full caviar explainer here). But it was something off an offcut – used for medicine by Persians in the fourth century, and later as animal feed by Russians in the 12th century – before becoming a working-class staple and, later, a luxury item thanks to the Russian tsars, who influenced the appetites of the aristocracy. Enter the 14th century caviar bump.

“Once caviar was widely consumed, it was traded in the fish market,” says Downs. “And if someone was buying caviar and wanted to make sure that it was good, they would be given a bump onto the hand, rather than giving everyone their own spoon – it was probably the cleanest part of their hand, too.”

Beyond just being a way to save on washing up cutlery, there’s a taste-based rationale for the bump: because of the roe’s high fat content, caviar needs to be kept in very cold storage to keep the fats within the membrane of the roe.

“But like all things high in fat, if you warm it, it gets much more flavour,” Downs says. “I often use the analogy of letting blue cheese from the fridge come to ambient temperature.”

The idea is that the bump goes onto a thin-skinned part of the hand, between the thumb and forefinger, which warms the caviar quickly – expressing its full flavour, quality and potential faults. Since then, the caviar bump has been the de facto way for caviar producers to showcase to caviar sellers, who now use the same technique to sell to chefs.

“Ten years ago, when I started doing this, I would go to kitchens and ask chefs to hold out their hand, and some of them actually thought I was taking the mickey out of them,” Downs says. “And now the other day we did an event for 1000 people, and as soon as they saw the big tins of caviar they came towards us holding their hands out.”

In the last decade, caviar bumps have jumped from insider tool of the trade to the menu mainstream.

“A win-win for restaurateurs and customers”

“On a trip to Paris in 2011, I went to a restaurant called Guy Savoy for my birthday,” says Jason Jones, owner of Melbourne’s Entrecote. “[Head chef] Guy knew it was my birthday, and he proceeded to bring this trolley and gave us a caviar bump – which I’d never seen in my life – followed up with a shot of iced, chilled vodka.

“It was this amazing experience, and ever since then I’d wanted to do it in a restaurant.”

When Entrecote moved from South Yarra to its new Prahran location in 2021, Jones finally had the floor space to make it happen. You can have your bump two ways here: with a glass of Taittinger champagne for $50 or a two-sip vodka Martini for $35.

Entrecote now serves just under 400 bumps a week.

“We were blown away – we do about one and a half kilos a week, and that’s just in bumps,” he says. “We literally have a trolley person on full time, and I would guess that about 30 per cent of our customers have a caviar bump on arrival.”

Although Entrecote has always done caviar service the traditional way, with all the usual accoutrements, bumps now outsell caviar tins at the restaurant.

“Rather than having to spend hundreds of dollars on caviar service, it sort of gives everyone an affordable taste of luxury,” Jones says. “It’s a beautiful experience to be able to give a customer when they come in.”

According to Josh Rea, the founder of Sydney-based provedore Gourmet Life, which specialises in luxury foods, bumps are a win-win for restaurateurs and customers.

“A lot of chefs, when they first heard of them, were initially reluctant to actually take a large tin,” says Rea. “But now I’m definitely noticing more chefs offering a spoonful of caviar on menus rather than a $150 or $200 30-gram tin,” says Rea. “It allows them to move through bigger volumes of caviar and buy it at better prices, while consumers see a lot of value in just buying a spoon.”

Because caviar bumps come from larger tins, usually ranging from 500 grams to a kilo, it’s more cost-effective for providers and chefs to obtain.

“It’s a great way for chefs to purchase caviar at a better price,” says Rea. “If we buy big volumes from the farms, we get rebates, so by handing those volumes on to chefs, they can drop the cost.”

Whether or not those savings get passed on is up for debate, but with caviar bumps proliferating around Australia, diners are starting to have a good idea of what a fair rate is.

Caviar is famously an acquired taste. It’s also famously expensive. This makes it a costly taste to acquire. One advantage of getting little bumps instead of going the whole nine yards with a tin and its accompaniments is that you can figure out, in a relatively affordable way, whether or not caviar is actually something you enjoy eating.

And from what Rea’s seeing, people are definitely enjoying them.

“Sales are cranking,” he says. “I’d say at least 30 per cent of the caviar that we sell would go to venues that are using it for bumps.”

“This little moment of playfulness and deliciousness”

At Mimi’s in Sydney, the caviar bump is selling better than ever, and it’s become the beachside restaurant’s signature.

“The idea of the caviar bump was that, as people sat down and settled into the room, this little moment of playfulness and deliciousness – of using your hands – would speak to the rest of the meal you would be having,” says Jordan Toft, Mimi’s executive chef. “I was probably naive, but it definitely took off more than I thought.”

Although Toft is widely credited with bringing the caviar bump to Sydney, it’s a title he’s reluctant to claim.

“I’m careful not to put myself up as the person that came up with something, because I believe that everything’s been done before, but I had never seen it in another restaurant,” he says. “It wasn’t about pomp and ceremony and trying to get the Instagram photo, it was more about setting the tone for Mimi’s – a touchpoint, in the beginning of service, of tactile conviviality.”

Though the caviar bump will doubtlessly drop in and out of menus, its rising popularity as an alternative to traditional caviar service will have a lasting impact, Toft reckons.

“There’s still a time and a place for the old-school [way] of serving caviar, but this has given prevalence to caviar being more in use,” he says. “Caviar is still a luxury, and it’s not for everyone, and it’s not for all the time, but I think caviar bumps have opened it up to more people.”