Indentured Labour: Camy Shanghai Dumpling House’s secret, part 2

Last time that I mentioned Camy Shanghai Dumpling House, I conjectured that the popularity was due to its open secret status and cheapness. At least now we know where the cheapness comes from: not paying their staff. From the Herald-Sun:

Mr Chang worked 13-hour days from 9.30am-10.30pm with only five-minute breaks, which had to be approved by the boss, for $100 a day.

He worked six days a week and his only holiday was Christmas Day, according to Federal Magistrate Grant Riethmuller. “It is clear that the patrons attended for the quality of the Shanghai dumpling-style cooking rather than the ambience of the premises,” Mr Riethmuller said.

Mr Chang feared if he lost his job his visa would be cancelled and he took action only after he had permanent Australian residency, the magistrate said.

The court found that Mr Chang had been underpaid from December 2004 to January 2008.

Mr Riethmuller ordered restaurant owners Min-Seng Zheng and Rui Zhi Fu to pay $172,677 in unpaid overtime and penalty rates, and $25,000 of superannuation. Their lawyer, Alex Lewenberg, said the owners planned to appeal.

I also praise Federal Magistrate Grant Riethmuller for his knowledge of the premises.

Your Kitchen Sucks

“I’ve seen enough people not cook well. I don’t want to watch people very pleased with what they’re doing but doing everything wrong…What I found on MasterChef when I was on it, some of the basic things the contestants were trying to do – they didn’t know the basic things, such as pastry making,” she said.

Margaret Fulton on her time on Masterchef. My bet: she won’t be back in 2011

I can’t watch amateurs cook competitively for the purposes of entertainment. I’ve tried and I fail.

The chaotic race against the clock to serve up plate after plate of congealed food to pregnantly pausing celebrity judges is not pleasurable. I cringe every time someone cooks “Asian” or “Thai-style”. Amateur knife skills make me feel like throwing a shoe at the flatscreen or inventing a witless hashtag to hurl into the collective Twitter void.

I dipped into Masterchef, Australia’s most popular supermarket advertising platform. I watched My Kitchen Rules until I ran short of shoes, enough to discover out that two sisters beat a guy with a beard. I’m still not sure if either television show is about food or why Australia is altogether transfixed in numbers that are not shy of phenomenal.

The aim of modern Australian competitive food television is for above-average home cooks to create “restaurant food” which is the new shorthand to describe the decorative arrangement of morsels on a plate in the style of an imaginary transcontinental degustation. It is more of a form of food styling than cooking because the viewer can only judge the meal on how it looks.

It is the food that restaurants would cook if they were limited to shopping at a duopoly supermarket or trapped on a desert island and a mystery box washed ashore, filled with ingredients from nowhere in particular. 10,000 shipping containers go missing overboard each year, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that one contains chilli, besan flour, a bottle of muscat, lentils and gorgonzola. There are no seasons in the supermarket’s fluorescent glare, nor real ethical objection to eating endangered species.

For contestants, the skill most valued is the ability to cook from everywhere and if possible, serve it up at the same meal. Competitors seem to be mocked if they stick to any one food tradition. A real impediment for a contestant is depth of knowledge of a single cuisine or technique.

People with actual experience in a commercial kitchen seem to never make the cut on the shows as contestants and there must be thousands of talented kitchen hands who apply. There is a need to uphold the myth of the home prodigy and that fine food is the result of an innate talent rather than endless repetition and incremental improvement on recipes.

So what keeps Australia feeding the reality food TV maw?

The strained drama and the forced chaos, the characterisation of good guys and bad guys, the perverse delight of watching fat guys eat on our behalf. Predictable schadenfreude at destroyed recipes. There are boxes filled with arbitrary surprises. The promise of fire. Watercooler conversation.

My fear is that competitive food television dissuades people from learning about food. It reinforces that meals must be fast and picked from the supermarket shelves. Every moment in the kitchen is a stressful race against time rather than hours that can be savoured and enjoyed. Gay Bilson takes this up over at the Monthly in her dissection of My Kitchen Rules

Cookery is manipulated towards competition and tortured plating. This kind of television is turning cooking – something we do to survive as pleasurably as might be possible, some better than others – into a contest. Make a sport of it, turn it into harmless, competitive fun, and more people will become interested in food? Surely, the subliminal connection to hierarchy, to competitive jubilation or shame, taints any spark of interest. The insistence on “restaurant” food, the profoundly conservative idea of it being different to home-cooking, does little to further the undeniable satisfaction of something like a large bowl of beans.

The joy of home cooking is that it can be profoundly social. You can inflict recipes on others that aren’t at all feasible in a restaurant due to ingredient cost, time or your insane personal whims.

This year’s season of Masterchef starts next week. If you skip it this year, there are three more years of it in the pipeline. My tip for this season of Masterchef is to spend the entire time that the show is being aired in the kitchen. Work your way through a classic cookbook. Find out if you can cook four of Jamie Oliver’s fifteen minute meals in consecutive order. Learn some knife skills. Enrol in TAFE: there will always be a shortage of real, trained chefs because it’s an awful way to make a living. Spending that hour in front of Masterchef will leave you with nothing.

Melbourne Restaurant Name Generator

Not sure what to name that new cafe or restaurant that you’ve lovingly crafted from rotting couches in a Melbourne laneway? Can’t find an fitting piece of pornocracy or Italian horror film to print on your disposable coffee cups?

All you need to do is combine an honorific of some kind with the name of a character on Mad Men, or parts of a spaghetti Western with a radio call sign. Or do all four at once and then follow whatever food trend is hot right now.

I think you should name it:

Press reload for more random free advice.

There is a one in nine hundred chance that you’ll get the exact name of a real restaurant. Sorry.

Oysters are functionally extinct

Oyster shells
Photo by Astacus

Enjoy those wild oysters while you still can: just in from the American Institute of Biological Sciences,

The overall condition of native oyster reefs is poor in most of the 144 bays in 40 ecoregions we evaluated. Although individual oysters are still present in most places, records of historical (past 20 to approximately 130 years) and recent abundances show that many reefs that were once common are now rare or extinct as ecosystems. Oyster reefs are at less than 10% of their prior abundance in most bays (70%) and ecoregions (63%). They are functionally extinct—in that they lack any significant ecosystem role and remain at less than 1% of prior abundances in many bays (37%) and ecoregions (28%)—particularly in North America, Australia, and Europe. Very few bays and ecoregions are rated as being in good condition (> 50% of reefs remaining). Our results most likely underestimate losses because of the lack of historical abundance records, which particularly affects assessments in South America, temperate Asia, and South Africa.

They go on to say that their estimates are conservative. The report also manages a shout out to Georges Bay, Tasmania, the last home of wild ostrea angasi, which was recently opened for harvesting.

Footscray Market Christmas Opening Hours 2010

As my local market still doesn’t seem to have a website, the posted opening hours for the Footscray Market this Christmas are:

Tuesday 21 December: 7:00am-4:00pm
Wednesday 22 December: 7:00am-6:00pm
Thursday 23 December: 7:00am-6:00pm
Friday 24 December (Christmas Eve): 7:00am-8:00pm
Saturday 25 December (Christmas Day): Closed

The market will remain closed until Wednesday 29 December. Consider my public service duties for the year fulfilled.