Jason King Part I: The State of the Sydney Food Scene
5 May, 2020
Jason King is a long-time movie buff. 23 years as a projectionist is a career consistent with a man whose most enduring love is that for film. For Jason, the lines between his passions and gainful employment have never been blurry, but entirely absent. For this reason, it is unsurprising that what started, 6 years ago, as hobbyist food reviewing and photo-taking, is today his primary income-source. “I am a food photographer, food social media manager, content creator and restaurant reviewer. Sydney food is my life.”
The last half decade has been a time of evolution and reshaping for the Sydney food scene. Sydney’s food culture is an infinitely shifting form, and as it has grown and developed, so has Jason, and more so with it, and as part of it, as opposed to alongside it. For this reason, his position is prime to provide some rare appreciation and insight into where our city’s dining scene has been, its current state and where we can expect it to go.
Where have we come from?
When asked about what he believes has changed most significantly within Sydney’s dining scene, during his time of transition from recreational to professional food photography, Jason alludes to the heightened expectations Sydneysiders have regarding their cities hospitality industry. “People are steering away from the fast food they previously ate, and the burger scene has slowed – people still want them, but they want better quality burgers”. The truth of this is reinforced by the number of restaurant and café closures, of which there is an over-representation of burger outlets. Sydney’s love affair with American style burgers is stronger than ever, but we have more so adopted the concepts and themes than the execution. Ice-berg lettuce, tomato sauce and thick patties have fallen out of favour. Potato rolls, smashed patties, LA style wrapping and bold branding are hallmarks of the American cheeseburger, but Sydney’s adoption of these characteristics are more tributary than practical. What costs $2.40 stateside at In-N-Out is likely to well exceed $10 at a Sydney outlet, because Sydney’s expectation is for what Jason calls “premium burgers”, meaning quality grass-fed beef and a certain level of expertise at the hot plate.
The current which underpins Sydneysider's shifting attitude towards burgers is probably a subset of something bigger, which Jason summarises succinctly as “people in Sydney want better food”. Location, food quality, service and individuality are no longer factors which in isolation will ensure longevity in an industry which has never been so competitive. But this is very much territory charted by our Southern neighbour. Sydney, from a foodie’s perspective trails Melbourne in many ways, “it [Sydney] is younger. The Melbourne food scene feels like it has been around a lot longer and is more established. Melbourne does precincts better than us, but the food in Sydney is good when you know where to look.” At the top-end, Melbourne and Sydney have a comparative quality, but Sydney’s dining perhaps lacks the density of such quality that comes with the incremental maturity.
Where are we now?
Jason was asked ‘What do you love about Sydney food culture?’, and in many ways his answer addresses the strengths of the city’s dining, and therefore the current state of play, or the ‘where are we now?’ His answer, “the amount of diversity there is with Sydney food. Sometimes, I can go an entire week without eating the same cuisines.” Sydney is undoubtedly spoilt for choice when it comes to international cuisine. The CBDs Asian eateries, and the West’s Middle Eastern restaurants offer unadulterated authenticity, with many owned and operated by families whose members were born in the home nation of the respective cuisine. However, the multiplicity of benefit is realised when our diversity becomes a contributory influence to established practice. In short, fusion. For example, many of Sydney’s most adorable Eggs Benedict and French Toast-serving cafes are grounded by traditional Middle-Eastern flavourings. Fusion often represents the birth of the unique. “Good Sydney food and a good Sydney food experience means not just exceptional food but unique food. You can have a million curries at an Indian restaurant, but when you hear they have a Balmain Bug curry you are going to order it.”
Where are we going?
Rating platforms and social media have a powerful hold on Sydney eateries and it is hard to think this will be any less-so five years from now. One only need spend a minute amount of time on Zomato or Google Reviews to notice the favourability of reviewers more-often hinges on service or ‘experience’ related factors, over that of taste. The emphasis of the future is undoubtedly “exceptional service, from the second you make contact to the point of departure. The wait-staff should know every dish and be able to make informed recommendations.”
When addressing the question of “where are we going”, it would be wasteful to not take Jason’s perspective, and address the subjective ‘where should be going’, rephrased as ‘what are we currently missing?’ Jason cites Jamaican, African and ‘Deep South’ American cuisine as being under-represented in Sydney’s eateries. “I could kill for a good Gumbo or Jerk Chicken. Sydney also needs a Lobster Roll and New Orleans style restaurant. Anyone who opens those would have my business.”
This Part One of a two-part feature on food photographer Jason King. In Part Two (read here), we quiz Jason on his most-adored dining areas of Sydney, as well as his ultimate day of eating in the city of Sydney.