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FOOD & DRINK

'Empty Chairs At Empty Tables' Is a Portrait Series Capturing Melbourne's Hospitality Industry in Hibernation

The photographs and film feature much-loved local chefs and venue owners, including Guy Grossi and Karen Martini.
By Libby Curran
September 24, 2021
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By Libby Curran
September 24, 2021
  shares

We're all very familiar with the sights and sounds of a buzzy full restaurant, the chefs behind the pass doing what they love and crowds of diners gathered to enjoy their work. But lockdown has presented a sombre flip side of this; those same restaurants emptied of life and standing eerily silent, as the hospitality world waits to return. It's these more intimate scenes that a documentary project Empty Chairs At Empty Tables has set out to capture.

The compelling photographic series and accompanying film are the work of photographer Mark Chew, and his son Archie Chew and partner Alicia Easaw-Mamutil, both videographers (Alicia + Archie). With most of their regular work on hold due to lockdowns, the trio completed a pandemic pivot of their own, turning their skills towards a new project exploring the realities of a hospitality industry in hibernation.

Seven local chefs and restaurateurs feature in the series, shot in Mark's signature documentary style, including Guy Grossi, Karen Martini and France Soir's Jean Paul Prunetti, each captured in striking black and white, sitting in their own empty restaurant.

"I wanted to show what it's really like, what restaurants and chefs look like when they're not doing what they're destined to do," Mark explained to Concrete Playground. "We didn't want it to be too negative. We wanted to give the chefs the opportunity to talk about why it's hard for them [and] what's at the end of the tunnel."

And the stories confirm that the reality of venue closures goes well beyond silent dining rooms, with each of these restaurants existing as part of its own community.

"All the chefs made the point that cooking the food is a big part of it, but it's not all of it," the photographer said. "It's about the performance and the buzz. There's a little bit of theatre, there's feedback from the customers, interactions. And a lot of that is what keeps them stimulated, keeps them pushing on."

The film itself captures another layer, sharing an extra dimension not always accessible by photography alone. "When Mark goes and takes these portraits, there's always these really great stories that come as a result because the actual process involves getting to know these people," explains Archie. "It's nice, with the video you get to see how the photograph is made."

"It's what I know...It's what our family knows...It's what we've done traditionally over three generations...My Dad was proud of this city...To see it on its knees...sometimes brings a tear to your eye..." — Guy Grossi of Grossi Florentino.

"You miss the energy of service...We're cooking all this food and sending it to faceless people. It's the monotony... you pack it...it goes into a box and it's goodbye to you!" — Hannah Green & Rosheen Kaul of Etta.

"Society needs these links....to have people happy in the head...to communicate with each other...we have basically lost all that..." — Jean Paul Prunetti of France Soir

"In hospitality you are always presented with different challenges....and you can go up or down or around or under.... open longer...adjust your hours...adjust the menu...change the décor. You can pretty much adapt.... But there is no adapting to being told you cannot open." — Karen Martini of Hero.

"Being in a restaurant, working in kitchen or front of house...it's kind of like a big family. And when you're not with your family...It is hard ...right?" — Khanh Nguyen of Aru.

"Hospitably is more than just business...with the restrictions we have in place just now...hospitality becomes purely about business ...purely about staying afloat." — Daniel Leuzzi of Freddy's Pizza.

"Without a covid pandemic hospitality is fucking hard. It hurts, its painful if you want to do it well. Perhaps it's not worth it now...that's an idea that's popped up." — Tom Giurioli of Freddy's Pizza.

While Empty Chairs At Empty Tables digs into an unfortunate chapter of Melbourne's hospitality story, it also gives an optimistic nod towards the — hopefully — not too distant future, when the industry is allowed to blossom again. And it serves as a reminder of why these passionate people are so important to our community. As Archie reflects: "It's about so much more than just food."

Check out the full film here:

cp-line

See more of the project over at Mark Chew's website and Instagram page, and the Alicia + Archie website and Instagram.

Top Images: 1) Guy Grossi of Grossi Florentino; 2) Hannah Green & Rosheen Kaul of Etta; 3) Jean Paul Prunetti of France Soir; 4) Karen Martini of Hero; 5) Khanh Nguyen of Aru; 6) Daniel Leuzzi of Freddy's Pizza; 7) Tom Giurioli of Freddy's Pizza.

Published on September 24, 2021 by Libby Curran

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