What’s under the hat?

‘Laughter is brightest in the place where food is’ says an Irish proverb. This aptly describes the joy of eating out. Sharing and celebrating food has always been part of the human story and dining out with loved ones an important social ritual. Pandemic-forced closures have reminded us, it is impossible to replicate the thrill of dining out: arriving at a table that is not at home; chatting amidst busy restaurant noise; perusing the oh-so-many-options menu; listening to the waiter tell the daily specials; and smiling, and laughing, as food is prepared.

At the end of 2020 financial year there were about 44,000 cafés and restaurants in Australia. These ranged from cheap eats to the eye wateringly expensive, casual fare to fine dining. Within this in vast selection the competition was fierce, choices often overwhelming.

The yardstick that indicates good from excellent is the peer-reviewed food guides and ratings systems. These ranking systems advise diners where they are likely to encounter a good through to outstanding dining experience. In Australia the long established Australian Good Food & Travel Guide (AGFG), and its chef hats, is one of the most respected rating authorities among chefs and diners alike.

What do chef hats mean for a restaurant, and its chef?

Like all good stories it helps to start at the beginning, to understand why chef hats are so acclaimed. The Australian Good Food & Travel Guide was launched in 1977 as Australia’s first national restaurant, accommodation and travel guide. Originally called Guide Bonvoyage it was inspired by the internationally renowned Michelin and Gault Millau guides. Australian influence saw Guide Bonvoyage renamed in 1984 as the Australian Good Food & Travel Guide (AGFG). Despite Australian dining being lauded internationally the Michelin Guide has not come to our shores. The Michelin Red Guide covers Europe, Asia, and America, with Singapore offering the nearest starred restaurants.

It’s important to note that there’s no such thing as a Michelin-starred chef. Stars are awarded to the restaurant, not the chef. AGFG differs slightly: they awards hats to discerning and exception chefs (as stated on their website), however it is the restaurant that is listed for its ‘hats’. AGFG hats are judged on six areas (ingredients, taste, presentation, technique, value and consistency) and given a score out of 20:12–13 points:

  • commended, a good restaurant
  • 14–15 points: one hat, food quite out of the ordinary
  • 16–17 points: two hats, exceptional quality of cuisine
  • 18–19 points: three hats, superlative food & wine, internationally acclaimed.

Another interesting (but confusing) fact is that Australia has two well-known food review organisations. One is the above mentioned AGFG, and the other is the Good Food Guide. Both nominate chef hats, but the rankings and institutions differ. Good Food Guide (GFG) is a Fairfax media publication, in circulation since 1979 when The Age GFG was launched. The Sydney Morning Herald GFG was released in 1984, Brisbane Times GFG in 2012 and national GFGs were launched in 2018 and 2019. However in 2022 the publication is returning to its Victoria and NSW roots, featuring highlights on the rest of Australia. The 2022 GFG is due to be released late 2021 (they did not release a 2021 publication due to COVID-19).

The Good Food Guides has a one to three hats rating, three being the highest, whereas AGFG has one to four hats with different scoring. Both guides award their ‘top hats’ (three or four) sparingly. It is not surprising that this top recognition is coveted by many chefs. And bestowed on few restaurants…only where a dining experience is truly extraordinary.

Who is wearing the latest top hats?

Quay (NSW)
Sixpenny (NSW)
Bentley (NSW)
Momofuku Seiobo
Tetsuya’s (NSW)
Attica (VIC)
Brae (VIC)
Vue de Monde (VIC)

Since the AGFG’s inception in 1977, a score of 20 has never been awarded and rarely has a restaurant been awarded a 19: Quay has this current top hat in 2021.

For industry peers and consumers alike, the term ‘hatted’ has become part of the Australian lexicon. And the benchmark (to be hatted) gets higher every year as produce, service, innovation, competition and the whole industry improves. To quote Heston Blumenthal (2014), ‘Australia’s has the biggest food explosion I’ve ever seen’.

It certainly is an explosive space to watch as ‘hatted’ restaurants move and change ranks, some up, some down, in the dynamic, and sometimes mercurial, Australian hospitality industry.