Melbourne-based chip enthusiast Brandon Gatgens has very definite ideas about what constitutes an order of “minimum chips”.
“Minimum chips should cost $2.80,” he tells me down the phone, “and they should be big enough to feed two people, with one of those people feeling a bit uncomfortable by the time they’ve finished.”
Brandon is something of a minimum chips expert. He runs the Instagram account, @minimumchipsmelbourne, which catalogues and probes Melbourne’s (rather arbitrary) chip-based metric system. Every week, he and his wife Claire visit a suburban fish and chip shop and order minimum chips. After these have been scooped and fried, Brandon busts out his digital scales (carefully hidden back in the car) and measures the order, noting the “chip-to-cost ratio” and ranking each chippery accordingly. It’s like Potato Economics.
“I have had people suggest that I should count each individual chip,” he laughs, “and maybe give a score for big chips versus small chips versus crunchy chips. But I’m not really interested in rating the chips. There’s no opinions on the channel, just facts – price and weight.”
The idea for @minimumchipsmelbourne started, as these things do, in a heated late-night pub debate. Brandon said the conversation quickly turned from Socrates’ famous philosophical riddle, ‘How many potato cakes do you have to order before earning a freebie?’, to ‘What exactly constitutes minimum chips?’ And, rather like an order of minimum chips, things got heated fast. “Very quickly it became an emotional debate,” Brandon says. “People get surprisingly passionate about this sort of thing.”
But he raises a good point. What is ‘minimum chips’ anyway? Technically, the minimum number of possible chips you can order is one (or zero, if you want to get metaphysical about it). Nobody knows what happens if you order a “maximum chips”. But for at least the last forty years, in suburban fish and chip shops all over Australia, the term ‘minimum chips’ has come to mean the minimum number of potato chips which are economically viable to fry at a single time.
It would be nice to imagine an objective and universal ‘minimum chips’ out there, perhaps underground in France, resting inside vacuum-sealed bell jars next to the official kilogram. But because the fish and chip industry is mostly made up of independent small business owners, the concept of ‘minimum chips’ has come to mean almost anything—from a small handful to one scoop, to one-and-a-half scoops. Or, in the case of Brandon’s ‘Clubhouse Leader’, St Charles St Fish and Chippery in Seddon, a whopping 609grams for just $4.
“It was spectacular,” Brendon reminisces down the line. “Nearly 700g of chips for $4. It was a busy night, and those guys went above and beyond.”
The history of fish and chips in Australia goes back at least as far as the late 18th century, when British settles arrived in Melbourne and Sydney with nothing but a deep fryer and a dream. But interestingly, the concept of ‘minimum chips’ isn’t universal across Australia. Victoria has it, as does Adelaide and Tasmania, but Brandon says chippery owners in NSW and Perth won’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Chips there are more likely to come in regimented ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’.
“There’s a lot of regional variation,” he says. “I also had this theory that minimum chips would vary from suburb to suburb, maybe based on socioeconomic lines, like petrol. But there is no real yardstick: the clubhouse leader is still in Seddon, which is quite an affluent suburb.”
Some countries have already pushed for chip measurements to become standardised. There have been calls for uniform minimums in New Zealand and the UK, with research suggesting that variable portions encourage unhealthy eating and make it hard for consumers to predict their actual purchase. Which I suppose is a fair point—we don’t ask our mechanics for a “minimum fix” or our doctors for a “minimum surgery”. Minimum chips are one of the few times when we’re happy to hand over our money just to see what happens.
But I also think regulating minimum chips would ruin their delicate economy. Minimum chips are the deep-fried reminder that capitalism works. They’re a fluid (and delicious) measure of inflation, supply and demand, set by the provider and tested against the free market every single day. Only communists would want to control minimum chips.
Brandon says standardisation is unlikely to happen anyway, if only because there’s no realistic way to police how many chips each chippery puts in their fryer—and pitching that scheme to voters would be political suicide. He’s focussing on bigger questions, like that old potato cake conundrum.
“How many potato cakes do you have to order to get another one?” he says. “I reckon once you order four you should be getting five.”
Hungry for chips now? Here are Melbourne's best fish and chip shops.
Image credit: Gilly