Does Jamie Oliver know?

It’s one of many questions my being kicked out of Fifteen Melbourne provokes. Does Jamie Oliver know that Australia’s most experienced restaurant critic has been summarily ejected from his Australian operation? Does he care?

Probably not, because all publicity — even in this case — is good publicity, and I suspect that Fifteen’s phones are running hotter than ever with people wanting to eat there.

The Herald Sun – to which I contribute a weekly restaurant review column — is hopping mad. Australia’s biggest-selling newspaper contributed significantly to the hype around the Oliver caravan. Now, its critic has been booted out when he tried to review it. His companion, moreover, was the paper’s features editor.

Fifteen Melbourne joins that unsavory bunch of restaurateurs and chefs who bar my way. As I say elsewhere, they are gutless. Their chief aim — apart from trying to get publicity for such a strategy — is to take an unfair advantage over competitors by not having the courage even to run the risk of a fair and honest review that might be unfavorable.

I was unable to judge if Fifteen Melbourne was either good or bad. But I do know that it’s charging top dollar for food prepared largely by unqualified cooks. Most restaurants usually have three to four times as many qualified cooks as unqualified. Fifteen Melbourne reverses this ratio. Of the eight or so staffing the kitchen at any one time, only two, or at the most three, will be qualified, general manager Carl Forrest told me yesterday.

And where’s the money going? Fifteen’s a la carte prices are outrageous (bearing in mind who cooks the food) and its fixed-price menu — said to be $90, but not posted on its website — is also ridiculously expensive. Kitchen costs are low, and I suspect that Fifteen Melbourne is making a financial killing. I’d like to see an independent audit of its operations. I’d like to know how much of the take is helping underprivileged youth. I’d like to see a breakdown of the dollars. There are, too, schemes run by religious groups and municipalities, for instance, that get none of Fifteen’s publicity but do exactly its job. Indeed, any restaurateur who hires an apprentice is often giving a break to a youth with few options. How much publicity do the Jesuits or the City of Port Phillip or Mornington Peninsula Shire get? None, of course, because they don’t have figureheads like Jamie Oliver to attract publicity.

Those of you who have read the Herald Sun’s coverage of my ejection will know that other ‘critics’ are welcome at Fifteen. I’m the only one being discriminated against. If I tried to review other Fifteen restaurants — in London, Holland and Cornwall — I would also get the boot, Carl Forrest assured me.

Personally, I couldn’t care less. There are more important considerations. Something stinks at Fifteen and it isn’t the fish. Is it just me, or is that a whiff of money and greed, the flash of a shiny suit, that I’m detecting. And what of Jamie’s attendance at ‘his’ restaurant? He’s not due to visit again until 2008.

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