John Fink plays guitar at a closed Bennelong Restaurant

Sophie McComas-Williams: Can you talk a little about how you were feeling while the pandemic unfolded?
Nikki To: “Personally I had my ups and downs, those initial few weeks in particular were very uncertain with things constantly changing. Professionally it was a similar story but I’m very grateful for you and our team for navigating through it all the way we did. It was devastating for our business - our work is so intrinsically connected to restaurants being open. But we’re lucky that a lot of our clients did find ways to stay open and keep us working with them, allowing us to communicate their changes. Considering how bad it could have been, especially in those first few months, it didn’t turn out as bad as it could have.

Buffet’s messaging to our audience and clients the whole time has been clear, don’t go dark, make sure you’re still connecting with your customers. We knew that no matter what happened, we wanted to keep telling the stories of the restaurants we work with, and are lucky that our clients still wanted and needed us to continue communicating for them. Almost all of them still had things to say, stories to tell.”

Neil Perry at Rockpool
Takeaway Bags at 10 William Street

SMW: Is that what sparked the idea for #hoursunopened? The thought that you wanted these stories to be told?
NT: “Initially, as you remember, the situation was pretty bad, and extremely stressful. I didn’t think of any of this during those first few weeks, because we were trying to sort out our business, and clients were getting their heads around what they were doing with new restrictions being announced every day. But after that initial panic had subsided a little our clients had mostly decided whether they were going to close all together, offer takeaway, or sell pantry products and wine etc. I thought of all those empty restaurants, more so from an architectural perspective as well as an emotional one, just laying there. This emptiness was different from being packed down after service, it felt like some of them had been ransacked, or something apocalyptic had happened - they’d been stripped. I caught up with Lennox Hastie at the time who suggested I shoot them - which was the exact same idea I’d been considering - and so I started with him the next day at his restaurant, Firedoor.”

SMW: How did you approach each shoot?
NT: “I approached some clients of Buffet, or people (chef or owners) who I felt a connection to - either to them or their space - from a story or photographic perspective. A lot of people I shot asked if they should move anything, tidy up, asked what they should wear or look like, but I didn’t want them to move or change anything, not the put-away chairs and stripped kitchens, the empty dining rooms, cleared-out wine collections nor bare fridges.

The Apollo sits empty

At the early shoots, the atmosphere was quite sad and apprehensive, especially the big ones like Bennelong. There’s something so eerie or amplified when you think of those amazing, iconic spaces sitting empty. Going to Bennelong was an experience. I hadn’t spoken to owner John Fink since it had closed - he was isolating with his father Leon, and none of his [Fink] restaurants were open. When he first got the keys to Bennelong in 2015, he played his guitar in the space when it was an empty shell, and so he brought his guitar to this shoot, when it was empty once again. You can tell in these photos that there’s been no human touch there for a while. He opened a bottle of Champagne and played his guitar in this empty, silent room. There was something massive about this space being closed, but it turned out to be equally as sad or eerie in the smaller spaces I shot too.

Shooting Jonathan Barthelmess at The Apollo, for instance, was emotional. We’re so close to that client, and have worked together for over four years, we know all the ins and outs. It may not have the same scale of Bennelong, but The Apollo has been one of Sydney’s most consistently busy restaurants for eight years now. To see that vibrant restaurant cold and empty at 5.30pm was sad and shocking.”

Scott McComas Williams, Matt Swieboda and Nathanial Hatwell at Ragazzi

SMW: What went through your mind during this process of documentation?
NT: “You can’t control what you can’t control, you can only control you and your response. Neil Perry mentioned that - he chose to really transform his business and resources and feed students and people on visas who can’t afford to eat [with his Rockpool Foundation initiative Hope Delivery, which is delivering hundreds of meals per day to those in need]. He chose to use what he could control to do something positive. I felt it was important to convey that.

A lot of our friends and our family work in restaurants, your husband owns one! So it’s been hard for [the reality of the impact] not to have an effect on us. There were times when I got really sad shooting takeaway menus for our clients. Even though it was positive to promote what people were doing, no one wants to put their food in boxes. Normally we shoot things people are so excited about, but these shoots had a context of devastation. On the flip side it really made me see how much pride restaurant owners have in what they do and their food. I’m glad they retained that pride, even when they never expected or wanted to change their food to be fit for takeaway. They just did what they had to do.”

SMW: Were there any other positives you observed during the process?
NT: “I love the Ragazzi set because that team just powered through this whole time. It’s obviously been hard, no one has loved this, but when I shot them it was all systems go, they were busy planning a new project together (watch this space). Shooting [Head Chef and co-owner] Scottie putting his pasta sauces in bags and selling wine at discount prices was crazy. I had to shoot that so he could look back and show his children. The first cacio e pepe he ever put in a bag!

It was the same with 10 William Street. Who’d ever thought you’d be able to get their pretzel takeaway? Normally you can’t even get in there, let alone get their signature dish to take home! A lot of the spaces I shot weren’t dormant. It was so cool shooting Marta’s Flavio Carnevale and Cafe Paci’s Pasi Petanen working on their new respective bakeries at 5am in the morning. Their bakery ideas were so intuitive to them, Pasi’s Finnish and Flavio’s Roman baked goods. It felt like a natural manoeuvre for them both. They were baking things they knew how to make or grew up baking, and they were massive hits. It’s not like we’re short on bakeries here, but they offered something different from their own cultures. What a unique opportunity to showcase something else to their community, something traditional.

Having said all this, it’s important to remember hospo is pretty fragile. Restaurants operate on a knife’s edge a lot of the time. Even if you’re doing well, it’s really hard. Some restaurants couldn’t manoeuvre too much during the restrictions, each for their own reasons. Whereas some could switch up and change, be malleable and turn into a bakery, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better than any other restaurant. I wanted to document all the different reactions. That’s why I added quotes about what each subject has learnt. Everyone has learnt something from this. Jonathan commented to me that this pandemic really made him stop and realise how much of his life his restaurants are. I went back to shoot again when The Apollo started to reopen, I didn’t want his story to be just that initial first empty shoot. He and his team moved through this in their own time when and however they could.”

Bagged Cacio e Pepe Sauce at Ragazzi
Flavio Carnevale at Marta

SMW: Do you feel the closures have also made diners more appreciative of what restaurants bring to our community?
NT: “Restaurants aren't the same as eating as home. People should really value this even more so now. It’s not the same anywhere else. It’s so easy to underestimate all the people that are involved in running a restaurant. You can’t translate the restaurant experience to home, and I hope we never can.”

SMW: How has the reaction been to the series?
NT: “All you want as a photographer is for people to feel something from your photos, whether good or bad. I was surprised and a bit taken aback by how much these photos have meant to people. I thought they might be a bit depressing, because they capture a moment in time the subjects maybe don’t want to revisit or dwell on. It’s become more meaningful looking back as they reopen, I hope there’s a sense of triumph or resilience in these photos that tap into when these restaurants started to emerge back out of hibernation.

Someone did say to me, ‘It’s just a bunch of closed fancy restaurants, TBH it doesn’t mean much to me,’ and that’s fine, a lot of people don’t see the ins and outs of restaurants like we do and perhaps don’t see the full value of restaurants, of tipping, of service or understand the actual cost of a dish. They often don’t realise that they’re paying for labour, produce, rent, bills, licenses and wages in that one dish. It’s not just a fancy restaurant, it’s thousands of jobs and livelihoods. Restaurants are an experience for diners too - there’s a buzz to eating out, there’s someone serving you and recommending you wine, people sourcing you amazing produce. Yes it’s a privilege to dine out, but restaurants big or small are so special. You and I know it because we see every side and behind the scenes, the prep and all the emotions. We try to tell the stories of these places through our work, and I just hope that maybe people who see all of this, start to appreciate the depth and layers behind a restaurant, they’re people’s livelihoods.”

Pasi Penaten at Cafe Paci

SMW: Now that things are slowly returning to something like ‘normal’, what’s your plan for the series?
NT: “Julie Gibbs is submitting the images to the Australian Culinary Archive for The Powerhouse Museum, which documents food culture in Australia and how it’s come to be today. That feels right for me personally, I didn’t necessarily set out for them to be for the media, but if they’re archived, it feels like a moment in time that’s been preserved. Maybe it would be great to do an exhibition one day, but I’m not sure yet. I just wanted to create this collection for me and those who’ve I shot. For better or for worse, it’s been a privilege to work through the pandemic and to document this.”

Explore the full #hoursunopened series at nikkito.com/hoursunopened