Photographer, and Co-Director of Buffet, a content agency for the food and drink space, Nikki To is as much a part of the Australian food and drink industry as any hospitality worker. And she’s as talented as they come.
From behind her lens, she provides a window into the industry, capturing the people, processes and creations with honesty and intuitiveness. Her ‘Hours Unopened’ series shared a unique insight into the true vulnerability and desolation of the hospitality industry during the height of the pandemic. We chat to her about what it meant to capture those moments, and what she values most about her line of work.
TP: How did your ‘Hours Unopened’ series concept come about?
NT: It was a really weird time when COVID first hit, we were trying to navigate around it and work out what it meant for us at Buffet. We create a lot of content for the food and drink industry, so when the pandemic hit, we were trying to help our clients get the message out about closures and restrictions. A few weeks into it I went to catch up with Lennox [Hastie]. When I arrived [at Firedoor] it felt so eerie. All the chairs were packed up and it was just him in this dark, quiet restaurant. We started talking about how sad and surreal the whole situation was…that there were all these empty restaurants – normally buzzing and alive, the energy and soul of Sydney dining – now just shells. As we were chatting the idea formed to document it all.
TP: What was your aim with the series?
NT: I didn’t really have a clear cut ‘aim’ when I started to shoot this series. My background is in documentary photography, and what was happening felt like a really significant moment in time, so intuitively I just wanted to capture what was happening. I photograph so many other big moments for restaurants in my line of work it almost felt weird not capturing this. Although what was happening wasn’t positive or celebratory in any sense, which is usually the reason why I shoot for restaurants, it was still significant and part of their story. I guess looking back, even a year or so on, it really was a moment in history.
TP: You didn’t have plans to publish them initially, what changed?
NT: No, initially I didn’t have plans to publish them. It was a really sad, vulnerable time – for everyone – and what I was capturing often felt very intimate and personal, particularly for the people who were part of the restaurant I was shooting. I would try and shoot at the same time of the day or night that they would have been open so it was very surreal and sad going to shoot at a restaurant on a Wednesday or Thursday night when it would usually be full, but instead sitting in the middle of the restaurant in the dark with the chef and/or owner. After capturing a few venues and talking to those involved with the venues and those around me about the images, I noticed that people were quite moved by the imagery, it started to feel like the shots triggered feeling about the wider impact of the pandemic. Sure, to some it was just your favourite restaurant being closed for a while, but for others it really conveyed the huge knock-on effect of the pandemic. Staff weren’t working; suppliers couldn’t sell their produce; rents weren’t being paid…and I don’t think people were necessarily comprehending that, particularly those outside of the hospitality industry. The industry being shut down and restaurants being closed was so much more than not being able to go out to eat and I hoped that these images would help trigger the portrayal of that. On the flip side, some of these profiles captured the ‘pivot’ of the pandemic, places like Cafe Paci and Marta saw an opportunity to create baked goods and offer that to the public as best they could. So, although it was a really sad moment in time, there were so many different stories to capture and these venues either lay dormant or were put to a different use while the pandemic swept our city. I’m really glad that I was able to capture a part of that for this series and could eventually share it publicly.
TP: Were you surprised by the resilience that the industry showed?
NT: As a photographer I’m often a bit of a fly on the wall, I’m often seeing the bigger picture when it comes to restaurants – front of house, back of house, pre-service antics and of course the whirlwind of busy service when a restaurant is full steam ahead. So, I guess I see what a diner would see but I also see ‘behind the scenes’. In that sense, I’m used to seeing people in the industry pick up and pivot when things don’t go according to plan, whether that’s a big picture move or change in direction within the business or small shifts and changes to suit different situations during a service. I guess what I have been quite struck by is the way this resilience has continued, blow after blow, over what’s now become years of intermittent lockdowns, the people within our hospitality industry have just been so tough. The industry has been crippled by the pandemic and even now when restaurants are allowed to be open without capacity restrictions, they can’t even book to their full capacity because of staff shortages and supply chain issues. Despite this they keep going and that’s inspiring to see knowing how hard it really is. I feel very proud to be part of the industry and to be able to support my clients and friends through photography and creative communication via our work at Buffet during these times.
TP: What do you value most about working within the hospitality industry?
NT: The people. Without a doubt it’s the people. I’ve been so lucky to have created such a wonderful network of friends and colleagues in hospitality. Combining these friendships and relationships with a love of food and drink…it’s an amazing, exciting environment to work in, there is never a dull moment. What’s been nice about building relationships and working with people over time is that you get into a rhythm, you become comfortable with a team which allows you to develop a very intuitive and creative working relationship. It doesn’t make it work feel like work! I’m also very struck by how much talent and passion there is in the industry. Of course, the chefs, but also front-of-house, marketing teams, design teams and suppliers.
TP: Which females in the hospitality industry do you admire?
NT: Oh, this is a hard one. There are so many! A few that come to mind straight away are:
Melissa Leong, I’m always struck by her depth of knowledge, impeccable taste, and the wonderful example she sets as a woman with such a high profile in food media.
Elizabeth Hewson who is a close friend and someone I have had the privilege to work alongside executing countless creative projects for the Fink Group restaurants (Bennelong, Quay, Firedoor, Beach & Otto) and her own projects in food.
Shannon Martinez, I’m not really sure if there is anything that can stop this woman! She’s an absolute powerhouse and a leader in the plant-based dining scene.
Shanteh Wale, who has just wrapped up 11 years as a sommelier at Quay and I love what she’s doing with her podcast to bring the community together over the topic of wine.
Aneliese Gregory, doing what she loves down in Tassie!
O Tama Carey, because she’s such a strong woman, and her food is unique, and genuine, and heartfelt, and soulful. And of course, my friend and business partner Sophie [McComas-Williams] who I am inspired by every day and the entire Buffet team we’ve grown over the past 5 years. Buffet is almost an all-girl team and they’re all such fiercely creative, supportive but at the same time independently talented women who I have much respect for and am very proud of.