RUNNING a successful restaurant in the middle of a city has its challenges, but add the tyranny of distance and making ends meet at the ends of the earth can be down right frustrating.
The problems include finding fresh food, staff willing to live in a remote area, call-out fees for technicians when equipment fails, and finding a regular supply of diners.
These are the problems faced by chefs manning the stoves at the growing number of dining establishments springing up to cater to the penchant of well-travelled food lovers for remote food destinations, according to Restaurant & Catering Australia.
Down dusty tracks and at the end of very long highways, chefs in regional South Australia are battling supply chains, market forces, and even the elements to provide diners with what the have come to expect in urban restaurants – and send them on their way with an experience they will never forget.
Soul Projects director and chef Kirby Shearing, best known for his foraging passion and fine-dining style at establishments in the southeast of South Australia, has nurtured valuable local contacts to overcome his main problem of fresh supply.
His latest restaurant project, in the Lakes Resort in Mt Gambier, takes just about everything a local Burmese family can grow in their unique market garden out of Kalangadoo, an hour’s drive north of the regional hub.
He builds his menus around them, ever thankful for their “consistent supply”, which he recognises is a rare commodity in rural Australia.
“It’s so frustrating to be operating in an area renowned for produce such as premium potatoes and onions, and not being able to buy them locally,” he told Restaurant & Catering Australia magazine in September, bemoaning a system that encourages growers to sell in bulk to city markets, instead of looking after local providers.
Instead, he reluctantly buys well-travelled spuds, and cooks with leeks fresh from the Burmese family’s soil.
Kirby loves to forage for native plants, but with his own business to run, reality has set in. The 15-hour days “trying to manage everything” allows no time for romantic forays into neighboring fields, and his specialty of sourcing sea greens snatched from coastal rocks and crevices is limited to precious hours on his one day off.
“Foraging is time consuming, but at least I have this great local line of supply now,” he says.
In the coastal town of Robe, four hours south of Adelaide, Adam Brooks, the chef and owner of the town’s finer diner Sails, also shapes his menu according to local produce but says it wouldn’t work without the restaurant’s “garnish garden”.
Despite the coastal location, buying local seafood is cost prohibitive and supply is unreliable, he says.
The small top-ups of all types of food that city restaurants enjoy are too cost-prohibitive to contemplate, so staff must be extremely organised in terms of ordering, and also be inventive with menus to ensure they can deliver quality on the plate.
Again, local markets are used, but these also suffer seasonal supply problems in and out of the remote, yet major regional city.
Staffing in remote regions is another major business headache.
The hunt to fill restaurant positions is “constant” at most restaurants and chefs describe the staffing situation as a “revolving door”, which gobbles up time and money, according to the chefs.
Staff tend to come to the regions, to live but they soon decide they don’t want to stay says one chef.
Most hospitality workers are travellers and backpackers who, by nature, move on much more regularly than the hours they work.
Local workers don’t stay either. Anecdotal research indicates that in Australia hospitality is rarely seen as a long-term career path. Only chefs and restaurateurs tend to put down roots around their country businesses.
Hotel careers.com and hospitality websites show that in Europe, for instance, it’s more common to find - and for companies to expect to employ - experienced wait staff who proudly look back on decades of service in one dining establishment.
Husband and wife team Nick and Maxine Ikonomopoulos, owner and chef at John’s Pizza Bar and Restaurant in the desert town of Cooper Pedy, barely have time to stop shuffling pots to chat about catering logistics in their South Australian outpost.
Again, menus are based on a changing collection of ingredients according to what’s available.
“If they send the wrong thing and stuff up the order, I’m stuck with it,” says the country chef who has become adept at “substitutions”.
“It’s not like you can send it back, “ she says. “Everything comes once a week, and everything apart from milk, fruit and vegetables, is frozen.”
She is even bound by regional regulations that only allow her to buy milk from Port Augusta, 550km down the road.
With other supplies from making their way up from Adelaide and Port Pirie, there’s no chance of following the low-food-miles trend. And, the chef laughs at the concept of growing anything in a kitchen garden in the desert.
She also cannot attract trained staff, but those who work with her and then move on are better off for the expertise she shares.
Freight costs add a considerable level of angst to the regional chefs’ bottom line.
When that bottom line is so tentative, dollars for marketing and advertising to drive more customers deeper into the country also is minimal.
In Mt Gambier, Kirby is thankful for social media, which gives him cost-free promotional opportunities. He is a regular on Facebook and Twitter and is dedicated to managing his website soulprojects.com.au.
Every South Australian chef and restaurateur interviewed would not swap their position and lifestyle, despite the challenges.
The longevity of some of their establishments proves they prefer to be creative to survive.
Bill Lindsay spent more than two decades working in Melbourne and Adelaide before returning to his hometown to run the Murtoa Railway Hotel.
“I wouldn’t swap the country lifestyle for my family for quids,” says Lindsay, who has experienced business city and country style.
“Business is tough, but life is good,” he says.