VALE VALERIO NUCCI

It was with great sadness that I read that Valerio Nucci had passed on. The founding chef of both Cafe di Stasio and Richmond’s Grand (where he was also an owner), I have been privileged to eat many a meal prepared by this master.

Because of his predilection for cooking good, fairly simple food that always used the very best ingredients and had tonnes of flavour, I always regarded Valerio as a chef after my own heart.

He had no truck with fancy pants rubbish and, in a day and age when Italian cooking in Melbourne was still dominated by the stodgy offerings of yesteryear, his light, fresh food was a revelation. I will always remember his light touch with pasta and protein alike and the fact that an accompaniment to a dish may have been as simple as a few slices of tomato, but always the perfect tomato (I often wondered where he found them) dressed with the best olive oil, a few drops of superior balsamic, a couple of perfect tiny basil leaves and a judicious amount of seasoning. Perfection on a plate! But, as any half decent chef will tell you, perfect simplicity is hard to achieve.

I often had a drink with Valerio after service at Donlvey’s George Hotel when I first set up Tolarno and I must admit we rarely spoke about culinary matters (except for my enquiries about those bloody tomatoes, to which I never received a satisfactory answer). The state of Fitzroy Street always interested him, as did what the rather diverse locals were up to. But, above all, he was just a good bloke to have a drink with.

When he moved to the Grand, I visited him fairly regularly over the years. And, whilst he was rarely in the kitchen in the latter years, his food philosophy remained.

I am told he then returned to Italy to run a family property and, if this was the case, I’m sure he would also have excited the Italians with his precise, flavoursome cooking.

Valerio, to my mind, was one of the forerunners of Melbourne’s food revolution and, as I mentioned before, I was lucky enough to enjoy his inspired cooking and have certainly missed both his company and his cooking alike in recent years.

 

note:  Valerio Nucci was a chef in Melbourne, Australia

Quick Bytes – DID YOU KNOW?

In 1946, amendments to the Liquor Licensing Act in NSW created their first licensed clubs and allowed restaurants to serve ‘light wine and malted liqueurs’ with meals until 8.30 pm.

But restaurants with seats in alcoves along the wall were excluded. The police presented evidence, in getting these banned, stating that the combination of cosy alcoves and liqueur would leave the door open for “a great increase in promiscuous sexual behaviour.”

THE ART OF DINING ALONE

As a man who produces a YouTube channel (Huey’s Fabulous Fast Food For One or Two) dedicated to producing recipes for one, it’s obvious that I would be interested in the increasing popularity of dining alone.

Actually, I have always been a supporter of such a practice and, in fact, at my restaurant Fleurie – which only had 44 seats and was always booked a month in advance (I wouldn’t take bookings any further out) – I always kept one table up my sleeve obstentially for mates, regulars and the like – a table that I also happily let for solo diners whether they were mates or not. But, I do remember the other hot restaurant of the moment Petit Choux not being quite so generous and turning away my Sous Chef because he wanted a table for one. I rang the owner who said: “Of course he can have a table and I’ll sit with him, otherwise people may get the idea that we let tables go for singles.” Well, John actually didn’t want to dine with him – not just because he was a bore, but because he actually wanted to dine along, was quite happy doing so and didn’t expect any special treatment because of same.

I was reminded of this by a recent article in The Age that spoke of a restaurant which proudly told of putting a goldfish in a bowl (named Embla) on a lone diner’s table for company. For some reason, Sydney’s Firedoor was quite proud of this, supposedly, thoughtful effort. And, other restaurants, whilst not repeating the fish dining companion experience, spoke of involving the guest in everything from video games and WiFi to specially created menus to detailed descriptions of a dish’s component to, worst of all, tours of the kitchen.

In fairness, I am sure there is the odd customer who enjoys such efforts. But, as a person who has always enjoyed the peace and quiet of dining alone, one can only hope that most staff understand that many such clients just want to be left to their own devices. And one can only hope that all staff are instructed how to read the signs, because we have all experienced those well-intentional waitpersons whose involvement in your dining experience goes something along these lines: “Hi, I’m Bruce your waitperson for tonight and I’m going to enquire every time you take a bite whether you’re enjoying your meal, and the rest of the time I’m going to stand at the end of the table and bore the shit out of you.”

But, jokes aside, there are good things coming out of restaurants realising that there is a demand for sole dining and not just at that table stuck next to the kitchen or toilet door. (L’Archestrate in Paris where, at regular intervals, Chef Alain Senderins would burst out of the kitchen to glare at the staff – banging my table as he did so.) No, what I’m talking about is seating arranged around the kitchen bar or on a communal table, which is now common practice in restaurant design. As is the offer, in many of our leading restaurants of half serves where applicable and a good selection of quality wines by the glass – all of which certainly makes the solo dining experience more enjoyable.

And the number of persons dining along is definitely increasing. According to booking service Dimmi, solo reservations have risen by 27% in the past year and according to hospitality professionals “there is no longer a typical demographic for solo diners. They range from young cooks wanting to experience other establishments to travellers and business people to my dear mate Siggy, who has been a happy solo diner for the 30 years I have known him and does it because he not only enjoys food, but his own company as well.

As Lennox Hastie of Firedoor states: “It’s actually a huge compliment for me as a chef and restaurant owner when someone comes in and eats alone, because they are purposely coming to your venue for your food – not because friends have dragged them there.” Very similar to my feelings all those years ago at Fleurie and, although I do appreciate his sentiments, when I visit Firedoor (which is certainly on my list) if he plops a fish in a bowl on my table, I will not be responsible for my actions – SASHIMI ANYONE?

 

COQ AU VIN REVISITED   (for 1)

Put 1 chicken breast, skin on, in a bowl and pour over 1 cup decent red wine. Marinate in the fridge overnight, turning once or twice.

When ready, heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and seal the drained breast all over (retaining the liquid). Remove.

Add 4-6 whole small button mushrooms to the pan with 4-6 peeled baby onions and 1 sliced small bacon rasher. Cook until coloured. Then add 1 heaped tbsp plain flour, mix very well and cook for 1-2 mins, before adding 1 cup beef stock, the marinating wine, 1 crushed plump garlic clove, 1 bay leaf, 1/3rd can diced tomatoes, seasonings and 2 thyme sprigs. Cook gently and, when starting to thicken, return the chicken and add a good slurp of fresh wine. When the chicken is ready, remove and if necessary cook down the sauce until thick and fragrant.

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER?

I read an article in the paper just the other day concerning the manners associated with hosting a lunch or dinner party at home. I was interested – not because I host many, if any parties at home, except for Xmas lunch, which is always a big affair and I even actually cook – but that’s another story!

No, the reason I was interested was because I was brought up in an era when good manners were the norm and there were unwritten hard and fast rules concerning everything from a thank you or condolence letter to the etiquette of a dinner invite.

But, back to the article entitled ‘How to be a good dinner guest’, the first point which I thought was pretty obvious – the need to arrive. Pretty obvious, but Mr Good Manners (me) was amazed to discover that people actually accept your invite and then just bloody don’t turn up! (Maybe take a leaf out of posh restaurant playbooks and start taking credit card details? Now, there’s a thought!)

Next – 15 minutes late is fashionably late and is acceptable, but no more (or less – I had a friend who was always at least an hour early, which throws things right out, as you tend to feel you have to look after them – serve them drinks, tidbits, etc., etc.)

Bring something – always! But, put a little thought into it. A small bunch of flowers is always good, but not a big arrangement that has the host scrabbling to find a vase/bucket big enough to hold them. Wine is fine, as long as the host is not a wine buff with an extensive cellar, who has already planned out the drinks for the night. I once took a bottle of not too shabby champagne to a leading restaurateur’s house. He didn’t know what to do, as the Dom Perignon was already open. Fortunately, we both saw the humour in it and just drank it later. Nice chocolates are good too, but not too many and not just a block of Dairy Milk from the local Woolies. And, something homemade is also always good.

Offer to help clean the table, etc., but don’t be too insistent or bossy about it and don’t ever bloody offer to clean up at the end of the night. Either drink along with the host or buggar off, as the case may be. And, if you are helping to clear, don’t then stand in the kitchen in everyone’s way discussing Johnny’s latest success at school or your thoughts on the current Prime Minister’s efforts.

And, to finish off, a few absolute set in concrete rules:

  1. Turn your blasted phone off.
  2. Don’t you dare ever ever take photos of the food.
  3. An old rule – don’t talk about politics, religion or even footy.
  4. Always complement your host on the food – whether it’s delicious or not:
    “I didn’t complain about the steak. I just asked what happened to the horse that used to be tethered out the front.”
  5. I’ve never had a problem with this as a host. I just tell people to p… off. But, if the host is not quite as forthright as me, read the signs – the look at their partner, the yawns, the “don’t you have to be up early”, etc., etc.
  6. And, last but not least, next day either a note, phone call or email thanking them for the day/night.

Follow these rules and you may even be invited again – or not, if you went on about that blasted footy team.

 

CHICKEN, BACON & MUSHROOM POT PIE

Preheat oven to 180°C

Cube 3-4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 2 cm cubes).

Heat a little vegie oil in a heavy-bottomed large pot and sauté ½ large chopped onion with 8 sliced button mushrooms and 3 sliced bacon rashers over a low heat until tender. Add a good dollop of butter and, when melted, add 3 tbsp plain flour and mix in well. Cook, stirring for a few minutes, and then add 2 cups chicken stock (packet is fine) and a good slurp of cream. Cook until thick, check seasoning and add the chicken. Cook for 5 mins and then transfer to a large pie dish (or individual ones – china not metal.)

Cut bought puff pastry sheets into shapes a little large than the bowl. Beat 1 egg with ¼ cup milk and paint around outside the top of the dish. Place the pastry on top, pressing firmly around the outside of the dish. Then paint all over with the egg wash and bake until risen and golden brown.

Serve with cooked buttered cabbage.

Quick Bytes – RUSSIAN BURGER KING

The Russian Burger King chain was surprised to receive a lot of flack about their ‘offensive’ social media promo, which offered a lifetime supply of Whoppers for Russian women who became pregnant with World Cup players.

The aim, according to Burger King was to “get the best football genes” and “ensure the success of the Russian teams for generations to come”.

And the reason they were surprised: “Russians didn’t seem to care much about the illegal drug regimes, which was the norm for so many years, so why worry about some lucky football player getting his leg over?”

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BEEF WELLINGTON AND CREPES SUZETTE?

I know we are supposedly eating out more than ever. (Although our eating habits seem to be changing in recent times with home delivery sites, such as Uber and Deliveroo  jumping on the bandwagon.)

But, as far as restaurant dining goes, we have certainly got more choice than ever. Still, or as a man who appreciates simplicity (great ingredients presented in a manner that enhances rather than obscures the prime ingredient), I am having a problem with the current obsession with extra long-winded degustation or multi-course menus. I noticed just the other day one particular establishment whose only offer is 16 courses and – get this – other courses can be added on at an extra cost, of course. Apart from being terribly sympathetic to the dish pig who has to wash all those dishes, this so-called ‘feast’ that involves 4 or 5 hours at the table, sounds to me like culinary torture. I’m sure the food is absolutely wonderful, but do I want to sit at the table for that long? I suppose, by the time I’ve taken a photo of every dish with my phone and posted on social media about where I am and how special I must be because I’ve scored a table, I’ve completely forgotten the main reason for being there – to have something to eat. It smacks of Emperor’s Clothes, doesn’t it? We’re too frightened to stand up and say: “I’ve just had the most boring night of my life, when all I basically wanted was a bloody good piece of beef or poultry or seafood, etc.”

Actually, while I’m bitching about restaurant choices, I’m also getting very tired of share menus. As a friend recently said: “If you want to taste this dish, order your own.” Quite right! I must admit though, I refused to give him a taste of my dessert. But, jokes aside – the share concept is becoming a bit much, because not all dishes are suitable for sharing and, anyway, I do like the idea of a main course of some sort or other. That said, I would happily share dishes such as a Chateaubriand (roasted centre cut of eye fillet, oven roasted and normally sliced at the table) or even that old fashioned favourite the Beef Wellington, as long as they are correctly garnished and are perfectly cooked.

And, while I’m obviously a little excited by such classics, I notice that Merivale’s new Sydney restaurant Bert’s has brought back the habit of carving and slicing at the table and a whole perfectly cooked large John Dory is filleted right there in front of you and is the star of the show. I can’t wait to visit and maybe we can persuade them to do the odd flambé or two. Actually, Bert’s appears to be a restaurant in the style of famous American establishments such as The Brown Derby, Delmonico’s and The Four Seasons, which were just as much about being pampered as they were about the food. And, I suppose, if we were looking for Aussie equivalents – in days gone by, Beppi’s in Sydney and Florentino, The Latin and Maxims in Melbourne would also have most probably fitted the bill. All of which put the customers on a pedestal, although I always felt that Vincent, the Maitre d’ at Maxims, let the side down with the ever-present lit cigarette in his hand. But, he did make up for that by whipping up a wonderful Crepes Suzette, which was almost as good as their famous Chocolate Souffle.

And, there’s more … for plenty of new recipes, log onto my YouTube channel – Huey’s Fabulous Fast Food For One (or Two) – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmvDLNrITNG0Gyhpz6350FA

image: Taste

 

Quick Bites – HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED WHERE THE HABIT OF TIPPING BEGAN?

In the Tea Gardens of London in the 1800’s, locked boxes with a slot on the top were left on the tables inscribed with the letters T.I.P.S.

If customers were in a hurry for their refreshment, they dropped a coin or two in the slot

TO INSURE PROMPT SERVICE

Obviously the originator didn’t have a great command of the English language – “insure” rather than “ensure” – or maybe this was just the old English spelling?

No matter, because the habit certainly took on and to this day it’s tips rather than teps and, in the States in particular, a lack of some will result in little or no service. And, in other parts of the world, a reputation as a ‘bad tipper’ will at the very least get you that dreaded table next to the kitchen or toilet door.
“I gave the waiter a tip – I told him not to step off a moving bus.” – Groucho Marx

WHAT A RIPPER IDEA – a 40 buck glass to drink my Coke from!

Riedel.png

I have to confess that I have always been a drinker of Coca Cola, particularly when working long hours in kitchens. My excuse is that, as a non-coffee or tea drinker, I need the caffeine and sugar to keep going and where better to get it than Coke?

But, although I am an avid imbiber of the black liquid, I must say I was boggled to hear that the greatest maker of wine glasses – Riedel – has brought out a glass specifically designed for us imbibers. Inspired by the original bottle contour, I am told that it will “deliver the optimal Coca Cola experience in both taste and sound”. The company, which is renowned for producing glasses that are designed to complement the wine (different shapes for different wines) may be right, but at $39.95 each, I certainly won’t be finding out. Just bring back the original bottle I say, but with the original cap – not these bloody awful screw tops – and I’ll be happy. That’ll do for my glass! And, give me one of those original Coke vending machines and I’ll truly be in heaven. Now, there’s a thought Riedel – what about a vending machine in the style of the original to keep both Coke and glasses cold (for an extra $10,000, of course)?

VEGIES – BROUGHT KICKING AND SCREAMING INTO THE CURRENT CENTURY

“We live in a society that consumes more meat than any other group in history … and most health professionals agree that eating so much meat takes a toll on us as well.” – Ruth Reichl, Editor, American Gourmet magazine.

I’m definitely showing my age, because I can remember when a request for a vegetarian option in a restaurant usually involved an offer of a pretty basic salad or a plate of vegies that were being served that day (as a friend witnessed – exactly the same as the person next to her, minus the meat). Fast forward to today and it is rare for a menu not to list a fair number of vegetarian alternatives of a serious nature.

So why such a change in a fairly short period? Sure, social media has certainly brought to the forefront pertinent facts, such as the huge amount of land needed for raising introduced animals, such as cattle and sheep, and the damage they do to the environment (without even mentioning the effect their farts have on global warming). And, we have certainly learnt that a huge piece of meat and a mountain of chips is maybe not the perfect balanced diet.

As well, the advent of kitchen gardens as part of many passionate restaurant chefs’ repertoires has certainly seen a change in their attitude towards vegies. As a chef-mate recently told me: “I didn’t realise how quickly vegies grow and I am continually waking up in the middle of the night thinking ‘what the f..k am I going to do with all those bloody artichokes, fennel bulbs, beetroot, etc., etc.?’” A bit different from my early days at Fleurie when I got so excited when my mate Boyd Piercy arrived with some just-picked baby tomatoes (still on the vine – my god!) or a tiny bunch of baby basil or mint.

Apart from that, it also has a lot to do with us all discovering that a meatless meal cannot only be bloody delicious, but exciting to boot. For example, chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Skye Gyngell, Sophie Grigson and Bobby Flay have reintroduced us home cooks to basics such as cauliflower, carrots, pumpkin, brussels sprouts and cabbage, as well as every grain known to man (or woman) and brought them kicking and screaming into the current century. A whole cauli baked in a very hot oven smothered in a brilliant blue cheese-spiked creamy sauce; my beloved brussels sprouts served raw, but finely shredded, in a Vietnamese slaw with lots of fresh herbs and Nam Jim dressing; Parisienne chef Guy Martin’s Pot au Feu of baby carrots; Skye Gyngell’s inspirational vegetable mezze platters or braised artichokes with fennel, tomatoes, olives and preserved lemon; or a Hewitson favourite – a Japanese red cabbage and pickled ginger ‘cake’ sprinkled with kecap manis.

And then there are more traditional favourites such as Pumpkin & Ricotta Lasagna, Eggplant Moussaka or Parma, as well as curries, chillies and even American-style spicy baked beans piled high with chopped avocado, sour cream and fresh coriander. My wife, Ruth, recently whipped up a delicious Leek, Potato & Cheese Pie with a puff pastry lid, and I will eat any variations on Ratatouille or Shakshuka, particularly if there is a good dollop of Persian feta or goat’s cheese melting over the top and good bread alongside.

Now, whilst all of these dishes sound (and are) dammed tasty, I must admit I am still not sold on the idea of becoming a ‘died in the wool’ vego. Although, I must admit, my red meat consumption has certainly declined in recent years.

What I would like to advocate is that even a passionate meat eater could benefit (as would the environment) from a slight change in our eating habits. Consider setting aside one day (at least) a week where our meals are based solely around vegetables – and, not like my niece, who at a young age announced she was not a vegetarian and, for the next few days, ate hot chips for breakfast, lunch and dinner!). No, what we want is the same effort put into your vegetable offerings as you would put into your normal meal – nutritious, yes, but above all exciting and full of flavour – something that both vegetarians and meat lovers will enjoy equally.

 

PS.

Just out of interest, the first Vegetarian Society of note was founded in 1847 in Ramsgate on the English coast. 150 members were signed up, but it had a fairly short life, as one of the other key rules was that all hot food should also be avoided, because according to the founding fathers “they acted injuriously on the teeth, debilitated the stomach and through that every organ of the human body.” What a surprise that particular society quickly disappeared without a trace.

 

PPS.

And, a few books that feature exciting vegetable recipes:

Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi

A Year in My Kitchen by Skye Gyngell

It’s All Good by Gwyneth Paltrow

Simple Recipes, Amazing Food, All Plants – Bosh! by Henry Firth & Ian Theasby

Plants Taste Better by Richard Buckley

and an oldie, but a goodie – Greene on Greens by Bert Greene
– Not 100% vegetarian (but pretty close), this books covers everything from artichokes to zucchini and almost every vegie in between. Tips on growing and purchasing, as well as hints – some super helpful, some not. For example, did you realise that the flowers of the kohlrabi, if left on the bush, keep garden pests away? Can’t say I did. And, Bert’s grandmother made dandelion liquor (not wine), which was absolutely disgusting, but was supposedly good for the digestion – if you could keep it down! Or that the name pea was the singular abbreviation of pease, which was the original name of two or more of those yummy little green numbers. Fascinating!

Quick Bytes – NOT HAPPY MR LETHLEAN

John Lethlean, restaurant reviewer and culinary commentator from The Australian newspaper, is one of Australia’s few journalists who is qualified to hold such a position. (Terry Durack, you can also take a bow.)

But, reviews of Merivale restaurants in Sydney in successive weeks, Mr Lethlean! Really? Now, I have certainly nothing against the Hemmes family or their amazing ability to keep coming up with the most stunning hospitality operations, but surely John you could have put a few reviews between Bert’s and Hotel Centennial just so it seems, dare I say it, ‘fair’, even if it is hard to ignore anything new from this stunning duo – especially if the hugely talented Danielle Alvarez is also anywhere near the stores.