AN ODE TO RESTAURANTS PAST

I was excited by a recent article in the Sunday Age (14th October by Gemima Cody). Excited, because it highlighted two of my favourite Aussie restaurants of all time – Fanny’s and Two Faces. I realise that the purpose of the article was to publicise the newly released 2018 Good Food Guide, but it was heart warming to see kudos being given to a couple of the original 3-Hat establishments from the groundbreaking inaugural edition from 1980. (Two of four 3-Hat establishments in that edition – I presume one of the others was the wonderful Flower Drum, but what was the fourth?)

Actually, when I first came to Australia in the early 70’s, Fanny’s was one of the first restaurants I visited. Known in those days as Fanny’s by Gaslight, I had read about it in a local magazine and my notes tell me that I was highly impressed – not just by the food, but the ambience and the professional service as well. (Those were the days when my restaurant visits were infrequent enough for me to make notes). And, in latter years, Two Faces became a regular haunt, with Hermann Schneider commenting to me, many years later, that he thought I was in a dubious business of one sort or other, because I was obviously not his atypical client, yet always spent and tipped well. (I just spent a fair proportion of my earnings on restaurant visits – as any young chef should.)

To my mind, Gloria and Blyth Staley and Hermann and Fay Schneider were the forerunners of today’s inspiring restaurant scene. Sure, Ms Cody in her article was a touch disparaging about the classical ‘Frenchness’ of each establishment and, yes, cream and butter did play a significant role in their kitchens – particularly in those early days. But, I will always remember the tender, flavoursome Goose with Fresh Cherries at Two Faces and the Scallops Provencale at Fanny’s, which were opaque in the centre at a time when our wonderful local scallops were normally cooked within an inch of their life (and then for 10 minutes more).

Obviously, Vegemite Scrolls with Black Garlic and Miso and Camel Milk Sorbet using liquid nitrogen (Attica) didn’t rate a Guernsey. And neither did a menu like Dan Hunter’s at Brae, which centres around his inspiring gardens. (Although, Dan, a little credit to the original ‘gardener/chef George Byron wouldn’t go amiss.)

But the food at Fanny’s and Two Faces was inspiring nonetheless and this was a time when hospitality positions were rarely regarded as ‘real’ jobs and top quality produce was hard to find. (“Of course the fish is fresh Sir – it’s fresh frozen.”) Yet, even with such challenges, both establishments set what seemed at the time impossibly high standards and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for today’s vibrant restaurant scene. They inspired customers, restaurateurs and cooks alike (take a bow Luke Mangan, Andrew Blake, Teage Ezard, John Lepp, etc., etc.) and introduced us to the suave, urbane Claude Verysser, who ran Fanny’s dining room with such aplomb and the highly professional Anders Ousback, who oversaw Two Faces with flair and a delightful touch of dry humour. (Anders went on to run the room at Berowa Waters, where the food of Tony and Gaye Bilson was, to say the least, world beating – but that’s another story!)

I digress. I will always remember Mrs Staley sitting at the corner table, where she witnessed almost every dish as it exited the kitchen pass. And those kind, yet on the mark, words from Good Food Editor, Claude Forell when she passed:

“Gloria was an inspired impresario with a flair for design, a sense of style, an antenna for contemporary trends and an intuitive feeling for exquisite food.” How true!

Whilst a former apprentice from Two Faces, who preferred to remain anonymous, but is these days a very successful restaurateur in his own right, once told me:

“Chef not only had eyes in the back of his head, but could somehow tell – even if seated at the other end of the dining room – if you had the slightest f..k up in the kitchen. And, sure, you got a bollocking (only if deserved), but overall he was a generous and caring boss who, for our own good, installed in us a desire for perfection.”

So, were Fanny’s and Two Faces up there with the world’s best, like our current breed – maybe not? But did they serve bloody good food (which was innovative for its time) and look after us as if they really cared – sure did!

PS. And, just out of interest, it was not a trick question. My restaurant Fleurie was not the fourth 3-Hat restaurant mentioned from the 1980 Good Food Guide. I did receive 3 Hats, but not until later in the eighties, when I also had Hats at Champagne Charlie’s and The Last Aussie Fishcaf.

Quick Bytes – CLEVER DICK KIWIS

Those Kiwis have always been a clever lot – except when it comes to their political system, when one particular gentleman can be voted out  (more than once) – yet, because of the proportional representation system, can end up in the Parliament in a position of real power  (which, to my mind, will come back to bite the PM on the bum).

Anyway, I digress – back to those clever Kiwis. When plastic bags were banned from supermarkets, the customers quickly came up with a solution – they instead decided to take their goods home in the supermarket shopping baskets – you know the ones you put your groceries in whilst selecting your goodies. An Auckland supermarket has reported that they have lost almost 200 in one month!

Which reminds me of a Melbourne band called “I Spit on Your Gravy”, who found another use for the supermarket trolley. They tipped it on the side, lit a fire on the bottom and barbecued odds and sods on the top ‘grill’. My mate Phil Grizzley, lead guitarist from the aforementioned band, said it worked a treat, as long as you didn’t mind burnt offerings to which he added: “After all what is tomato sauce for?”.

Sadly, as sopping baskets are plastic these days, such dual usage will be out of the question. Planter boxes anyone?

And what about the canny Kiwis? They, whilst Aussies and others have entertained Harry and Meghan ‘right royally’, have taken them to the smelliest place in the world (Rotorua), made them rub noses with all and sundry and, as the crowning glory, entered them in a gumboot throwing competition (which, out of interest, Meghan’s team won). All of which cost buggar all, but the rumour that the Prime Minister presented them with a supermarket shopping basket full of plants she had personally picked/stolen from the Botanical Gardens is just not true.

THE JOYS OF BEING A FARMER IN OZ

Now, while I understand there are a number of problems supposedly associated with global warming (but do not necessarily agree with them), my main sympathy lies with our farmers – on whose shoulders the demands will be levied in order for Australia to meet the Paris Accord.

Because of the predilection of our livestock to excessively fart (and our farm machinery to belch out huge amounts of noxious fumes), the onus will be on them to drastically cull both farm animals and machinery whilst, at the same time, pay increasing prices for energy as the country attempts to reach what, to me, seems to be unrealistic alternative energy targets.

But, one has to ask, are we the only country that is attempting to adhere to such targets? (And, if so, will we make the slightest difference?) As we know, the USA has pulled out of the whole shebang and is happily building more coal and gas-fired power stations – as are many other countries, such as China, India and Indonesia. And, as well, it’s pretty obvious that none of these countries will be culling anything and, instead, will continue business as usual (using, in most cases, Australia’s gas and clean coal to do so).

So, where does this leave Australia? Up a creek without a paddle is a phrase that springs to mind. As does the fact that, whilst our energy is being put to good use around the world, our general populace can’t afford to heat or cool their homes, and businesses (as well as farmers) are facing an uncertain future, as power bills continue to escalate.

But, we’ll be fine, won’t we, because this country is destined to become the food bowl of Asia. If I hear that once more, I’m going to scream! Because the farms that are supposedly going to supply all the bounty are not only going to be affected by the adherence to the Paris Accord, but are also faced with the problems that are always associated with farming in Australia – drought, flood and let’s not forget the high cost of labour (that is if you can persuade anyone to actually work on your farm). And, then there is another significant problem – only a small amount of Australia is arable and much of that land, as we speak, is being gobbled up, as farms are being crowded out by councils and governments rezoning these areas for housing. Areas like Werribee just outside Melbourne, which was where much of Victoria’s greens were grown – now, as the locals say: “As the housing gets closer, even though we were here first, it is a problem because practices like spreading fertiliser, spraying agri-chemicals or running farm machinery 24 hours a day is not compatible with our urban neighbours.” Added to this is the fact that, because of this urban sprawl, speculators are buying up farmland at highly inflated prices and then sitting on it (unused), as they lobby the various authorities to have it rezoned. And, anyone who has ever watched a local council or state government at work will know exactly how that ends. (I know I digress, but look at all the Melbourne pubs that have been pulled down recently to make way for apartments. What is the common excuse? “We weren’t asked soon enough for protection.” What a load of bullocks! Isn’t that what you were elected to do – protect?)

But, back to the problems in the bush, which are fast becoming an Australia-wide problem.

First of all, we need to get out of the Paris Accord (and not just shelve it – get out of it completely). Then we need to fire up new clean coal or gas (or even nuclear) fired power stations. The urban crawl also has to be addressed – cutting migration would help, but so would an insistence that migrants must locate to regional areas – not Melbourne and Sydney, as is the current norm. And, not just for a year or so. Fruit picking anyone? Now, there’s a thought! And, above all, start building dams to conserve the water when it does fall. (Do you realise that only 1 per cent of the water that falls on this continent is saved?)

Hopefully, with our recent change in leadership, we have a Prime Minister who has the guts to tackle these problems head on. Then we can forget about farting cows and seriously talk about being the food bowl of Asia, rather than sitting back and watching as increasing numbers of farmers leave the land.

ps.  Obviously, the powers have begun listening to me, because in the past weeks not only have they been talking about coal, but they have also spoken of dams in the Northern Territory and migrants being forced to spend five years in regional areas where there is work available. Hopefully, this is not just hot air and we can look forward to a rosier future for the bush, especially now that the previous Prime Minister has sulked off home with bat and ball.

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