Australian lobsters are in abundance. A tight export market has resulted in a plethora of high-quality produce that’s not leaving our shores, which means chefs can get their hands on the best of the best for a relatively accessible price point.

But restaurants and suppliers have been doing things a little differently this year due to lockdowns, delivering lobsters in boxes instead of plates during stay-at-home orders.

Hospitality speaks to Richard and Thuy Pinson from Red Claw Seafoods about how they are continuing to support fishermen and restaurants while tapping into a new consumer base along with Chefs Brent Savage and Tristan Rosier, who offered diners something special in a challenging climate.

Richard and Thuy Pinson are behind Red Claw Seafoods in Sydney; a premium supplier that delivers everything from live lobsters to crabs and pipis straight to New South Wales’ top restaurants. The Pinsons are the exclusive seafood suppliers to groups such as Merivale and Crown Sydney and supply many other venues, but their regular operations changed when restaurants were forced to shutter in response to the pandemic.

The initial 2020 closures also happened to overlap with the shutdown of the export market to China, which meant lobsters were not only abundant, but significantly cheaper. While Red Claw sends products overseas, supplying local restaurants is a core part of its business model, which means the Pinsons were able to continue taking seafood from fishermen who had surplus product on their hands and in their boats.

Lobster from Red Claw

“When we had the first shutdown, we were supporting our fishermen who didn’t have China anymore,” says Richard. “There are some fishermen who relied on export only and didn’t look after the domestic trade. The night before [lockdown], we’d taken a full boatload and found our friends in hospitality were very supportive in terms of buying them directly. Our direct sales started by supplying members of the hospitality industry.”

Friends and family of hospitality workers were keen to have access to products that typically wouldn’t be available to them beyond a restaurant environment. “We’d offer them to people who we already knew and they were getting orders from their friends and family, so we were moving lobsters that way,” says Thuy.

“It wasn’t like we needed to make money, it was more, ‘Let’s just move them and make people happy’. When we finished the boatload, we thought we’d better do the right thing and stay home.”

Fortunately, restaurants in New South Wales were able to reopen after a relatively short lockdown, and the bounce-back was strong — as was the demand for luxury dining experiences. Red Claw rolled out a lobster and Champagne campaign across select Merivale venues.

“It didn’t replace or even partly replace the export market we previously had, but it did keep the fishermen in work,” says Richard. “Domestically, the price of lobsters dropped significantly and it encouraged people attending our client restaurants to order live who hadn’t before. It created demand because diners were able to order live over frozen without a great price differential. We found that once they tried live, they didn’t go back.”

While the majority of restaurants in New South Wales closed for dine in once again during the most recent lockdown, Red Claw decided to make their catch available direct to consumers for the first time — and the demand was healthy.

“Because we had the previous experience with people reaching out to us when [the first lockdown] happened, we thought we’d try and accommodate it again and do contactless deliveries,” says Richard. “From our point of view, it was not motivated by any commercial goal; it was about continuing to serve the dining public and look out for fishermen.”

Red Claw pipis and lobsters

Consumers ordered restaurant-quality seafood to their doors, and received incredible bang for their buck despite the challenging environmental conditions. “Winter is traditionally a time where lobsters are more expensive because they’re harder to catch,” says Thuy.

“There’s still a bit of export going on, but there’s enough catch to make it cheap; the price is reasonably low and affordable for people, which was another motivation to get it out there. We thought we’d test fire it and the response was overwhelming, so we just kept rolling and it’s been a lot of fun seeing people post their dishes on Instagram.”

Red Claw called on the expertise of Executive Chefs Dan Hong (Mr. Wong, Establishment precinct, Queen Chow, Ms. G’s) and Jordan Toft (Mimi’s, Bert’s) to create informational videos on how to handle live seafood as well as provide some guidance on dish preparation.

“It’s one thing to go out and catch it, but to be able to respect a live animal, kill it humanely and then cook it is very grounding,” says Thuy. “We get requests to kill or split lobsters and we say no because it takes away from the live experience. I think it’s important to do it yourself a bit more [instead of] having everything cleaned and pre-packaged. There’s a lot of appreciation for food when you go through that process.”

Chefs are also getting in on the lobster action. The Bentley Group Co-Owner Brent Savage observed a shift in customer dining behaviours post-lockdown (round one) at his restaurants Cirrus and Bentley; one where customers were looking to treat themselves.

“People want to make an experience out of their time now and lobsters at Cirrus have been more popular,” says the chef. “It’s always been popular, but now it’s a menu item we can’t take off.”

For dine in, Cirrus takes pre-orders for live lobsters that are served with a choice of salted duck egg yolk, chilli and tarragon, black pepper sauce or brown butter and citrus. “It’s a case where the fresh lobster is cooked and served with butter and fries on the side to make it very simple,” says Savage.

Brent Savage and Nick Hildebrandt

Lobster is also available by request at Bentley. “A couple of times a week, people would be asking for an off-menu lobster item,” says Savage. “It might be more luxurious and done in two or three parts.”

Tristian Rosier’s Arthur restaurant in Surry Hills added lobster to their to-go menu during lockdown, with the crustacean featuring in an upgraded cod and scallop pie. “There are customers who have plenty of disposable income they couldn’t spend on dining out or travel, so premium products such as lobster are a real treat,” says the chef.

Rosier plans to add lobster to the menu for dine-in service, which will be a new addition. “We’ll be keen to explore lobster on the menu as one of our additional courses,” says the chef.

The significant price drop has made purchasing lobster more viable for restaurants; however, it is still a high-end product at the end of the day. Savage works with a number of suppliers to secure the best deal, preferring to use eastern rock lobsters at Cirrus.

“I think the cold waters of Tasmania produce the best lobsters in the world, but we often get them locally off the New South eastern coast,” says the chef. “Everyone puts a market price on them and it’s the same for us as buyers; we’re looking for the best price. We did notice a change around the time of the export ban and they were significantly cheaper for a while, but they shot back up like crazy around Christmas [2020].

“They’re still consistently cheaper than they have been previously, but they’re still a luxury item and never what you would call ‘cheap’ — but it’s cheap for what you’re getting and what you could be paying.”

Arthur’s lobster

Lobster has historically been out of budget for Arthur, but the restaurant started to showcase the crustacean along with other shellfish due to the price plunge. “We source our lobsters from Tasmania, New South Wales and Western Australia through Martinʼs Seafood and Red Claw Seafoods,” says Rosier.

“The prices definitely dropped at the end of 2020, but have stabilised somewhat. Generally, when everything comes to a halt, the prices drop to clear the stock and then it comes up slightly as fishermen reduce their fishing. But the price reduction itself means it’s a much more achievable product for us to use.”

Savage chose not to serve lobster in a takeaway format during lockdown. “I find lobsters are best when they’re killed fresh and served,” says the chef. “I’m not sure how it sits with me ethically having something sitting around because they can take on ammonia really quickly and they can spoil. If I’m going to put our name to it and put it out there as a luxurious product, I want to believe that by the time it gets to the customer, it’s in the best-possible state. We will continue to run lobster as a feature item on our dine-in menus.”

While Sydney restaurants have only been back in business for just over a week, diners have been flocking back to venues to enjoy memorable experiences once again. And what could be better than an expertly prepared lobster? The answer is two.