When it comes to picking good restaurants, it’s fair to say Matt Preston is more qualified than most. As well as being a judge on top-rating TV show MasterChef Australia, he has helped decide the winners of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the Restaurant & Catering National Awards for Excellence and The Age’s acclaimed Good Food Guide.
So, what exactly does he look for in a noshery? Whether it’s a local eatery offering Chinese dumplings or a fine dining venue with views over Sydney Harbour, Preston says it’s all about the experience.
“The whole job of a restaurant is to enhance your enjoyment with the people you’re with,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be the most correct or fancy restaurant. It’s about your emotional reaction. For me the ultimate accolade is when you go out on a Friday night and it’s so good that as you’re leaving you book a table for the next night. The next level down is that as you’re in the cab going home you text your five best mates and say: ‘You have to go’.”
Over the years, Preston has seen a noticeable shift in the way restaurants are assessed. He believes lists like the delicious.100 have ‘recalibrated’ the way they are reviewed. “I think the interesting thing now is that when I was reviewing 10 or 15 years ago it was all about picking the best, and I think that was in terms of did it use truffle? Did it have a big or extensive wine list? Did it have waiters in white gloves or a champagne trolley?
In the last 20 years in Australia we have changed the way we eat out. The white tablecloth restaurants are still there but it’s a whole suite of different things we might look for in a night out – somewhere that has great atmosphere and great food at a great price. The fine dining stuff is probably more the date night restaurant.
“There’s a whole new generation of people eating out now. What’s fascinating is you look at a strip like Swan St at Richmond in Melbourne and the restaurants are not fancy, they’re not expensive and they’re not going to win awards for being ground breaking, but they’re pumping on a Tuesday night. That’s exciting.”
Preston says we have seen “mass democratisation” through magazines food like delicious., TV shows such as MasterChef and social media. While people used to go to restaurants based on what critics said, they will now ask their Facebook friends for recommendations. But he believes there’s little restaurants can, or need to, do about this.
“You don’t need to engage with it,” he says. “I’ve stopped following lots of restaurants that just post pictures of what’s on their menu that night. I don’t really care. I’m more interested in where they have been. Using social media as a marketing tool is a bit tawdry. It should be a third about you, a third about other people and a third… stupid. It’s about finding an authentic connection.”
The hardest thing restaurants have to do, Preston believes, is get people to come inside. When they do, he says you need to “massively overdeliver”. “If you ask people there’s a list of maybe six places they go to regularly, and unless they move they will be going to them for 20 years,” he says. “They will eat more than 800 meals there. If you connect with people on that level, it’s far easier than trying to find 800 new customers.
“I think there’s a real danger in trying to be all things to all people. There are certain places you go to and they do three things really well and you go: ‘I really need that burger… it’s calling me’.
The fact that people are looked after, and the service is efficient, is a given now. The customer wants fresh, bright food. It’s a lot more Italian or Vietnamese in inspiration than French. I think of it as a lot less heavy than ten years ago.”
One trend Preston clearly isn’t a fan of is the growth of restaurant chains. “I think it’s a very, very rare chain that maintains quality from their first restaurant to their 15th,” he says. “They’re businesses, not charities, so you know if you’re servicing 15 restaurants through a central kitchen you’re going to reduce your costs quite dramatically, but is that where customers want to eat out? I like it when the person whose name is behind the shingles is behind the stove.”
But he is a fan of what he terms “the produce revolution” and “the Indigenous revolution”. “It’s good to see small producers being championed,” he says.
Like all of us, Preston can’t eat out all of the time and also spends a lot of time at home cooking for his young family and testing out new recipes. He recently released his fifth cookbook, Yummy Easy Quick, which contains more than 100 recipes for fast, straightforward meals.
“The principle behind this one is really simple – it’s to answer that question of: ‘What’s for dinner tonight?” he says. “Most people who are cooking for their family or friends have a repertoire of 10 or 12 dishes. I’d like to increase that repertoire by three or four recipes – stuff that’s quick to prepare rather than quick to cook. Hopefully the ingredients are things they will have in their pantry already.”