Award-winning food writer Anthony Huckstep has gone from being out of work at the start of the pandemic to creating Australia’s most successful food podcast. He’s shared stories from hundreds of restaurant owners and workers that give an honest look at how the industry has suffered during the pandemic — and its incredible resilience. Anthony joined us to share his story and shed light on how the food industry is changing right now.
The pandemic started with a horrible bang for Anthony Huckstep, like it did for so many of his friends in the restaurant industry as Australia entered lockdown.
“At that time, I was the national restaurant critic for Delicious, Qantas, and GQ,” Anthony says. “But without restaurants being open, obviously there’s no need for a restaurant critic. I mean, there’s a fair argument that there’s no need for a restaurant critic anyway,” he adds with a laugh.
Anthony was very suddenly without work and dropped into financial uncertainty. But the final article he published before work dried up grabbed widespread attention from restaurateurs — and started Anthony in a different career direction.
“The last article I wrote was about the collapse of the restaurant industry. And the outpouring of grief and concern was so overwhelming. Thousands of people were contacting me from the industry...It was at a time when no one knew what was going on. There was no government support. People were standing everyone down. I think at that time 85% of restaurants were trading insolvent or completely unviable.”
“I was suddenly in a position where lots of people were asking for help. And one thing that I knew was that I could give a voice to everyone...I rang Neil Perry, who’s become a friend over the years, and said, I’m going to start a podcast and we’re going to talk about what’s going on. We hit record. I had no idea what I was going to ask him. We just went for it.”
Giving the food industry a voice and community
Eighteen months later, Anthony’s podcast, Deep in the Weeds, has given hundreds of passionate chefs, restaurant owners, and workers a space to share their stories. They have brought tears to Anthony’s eyes, given everyday Australians an honest look at the people behind their dining experiences, and illuminated how the industry has changed.
“Because the customer is always right, they’ve never felt that they could have a voice and really speak their mind. But now they’ve had nothing to lose. And I think giving them that safe space has allowed them to actually speak like they’ve never spoken before, without the filter that food media normally puts on the industry.”
Anthony says that he hoped the podcast would give people in the food industry something crucial that the pandemic had taken away from them: a feeling of connection with their community and industry.
“They need that connection. Everyone in food is creative, they’re emotional, they’re passionate, they love the connections — whether it’s with a pig farmer, or over a plate of pasta, or standing in a vineyard. It’s those connections that they’ve lost. So what the podcast did was give you a glimpse into people’s lives…And they’re sharing stories of experiences that might be similar, like hard times as an apprentice, or difficult guests, or the best night of their life.”
The side of restaurants most Australians don’t see
When asked to paint a picture of the business owners and chefs he talks to, Anthony wanted to clear up some common misconceptions:
“The majority of restaurants in Australia aren’t the Rockpool Group or these bigger entities...most restaurants in Australia are small, family run, single site establishments that run on the scent of an oily rag. The owners usually earn less than their staff.”
“The media’s image of restaurateurs driving Maseratis and living the life is pretty unrealistic...People aren’t in it for the money. They’re in it because they love it, it’s their life, they live and breathe giving people these experiences.”
How the food industry is changing for better and worse
There’s no escaping the fact that the people who keep the food industry running have experienced terrible trauma over the past 18 months.
“People have closed restaurants — their dream restaurants,” Anthony says. “People have lost their jobs. Some of them won’t ever catch up again...I don’t think you can underestimate the trauma that has happened to this industry. And it’s an industry about celebrating: about giving people experiences that everyone will remember.”
“I think in a year’s time there will be many more restaurants closed. And that will be down to them not being able to get the right staff...people have moved out of the industry because they don’t see clear career paths any more because of the damage that has been done.”
Anthony emphasizes that it hasn't been all doom and gloom — and if you listen to his podcast, the most remarkable thing is how tenacious and adaptable the people of the restaurant industry are.
“There have been some incredible changes and shifts. Restaurants are switching to set menus...it enables them to streamline their costs, know exactly how much food to prep, and how much food to buy.”
Anthony says that one of the biggest shifts he’s seen is in opening hours. Many operators have moved away from the old mindset of ‘staying open all the time to catch as many people as possible’ for a model that puts more weight on efficiency and margin.
“What I think the pandemic has done is, for a lot of operators, made them realise, hey, I don’t have to work 7 days a week, I can work 4, and if we do this, and this, and this, we can have a margin that’s the same.”
More than 300 stories shared and counting
Today, Deep in the Weeds has 65,000 monthly listeners, cementing its place as one of our country's most successful podcasts.
“When we started this,” Anthony says, “none of us knew what the hell was going on. I was just of the opinion that if you can help, you should — and I thought that by doing the podcast, it might help. I didn’t realise that we would have this many listeners all over the globe. I mean, I’ve always had a face for radio but I never knew I’d have a switch from critic to being shoulder to shoulder with the industry.”
“I’ve had letters from people saying it saved them on a particular day, that it made them feel like they’re not alone...That it’s made them have a community when they felt like their community was gone.”
Anthony Huckstep is an award-winning journalist, author, food consultant, and host of two smash podcasts: Deep in the Weeds and The Crackling. He also co-authored the groundbreaking Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook, which Neil Perry hailed as “The bible of seafood”.