Quick Bytes – THERESA MAY TACKLES FOOD WASTAGE

I don’t know whether you have noticed – but, in the middle of the political crisis in Britain about Brexit, the Daily Mail’s lead story was dedicated to the fact that Theresa May is championing reducing food waste and thought it was perfectly fine to scrape the mould off a jar of jam and eat what is underneath.

Admittedly, when questioned further, she admitted that it was most probably a case for the individual, but I don’t think I’d want her running my kitchen – let alone my country.

(The Daily Mail also noted that most jam sold in Britain originated in either France or Germany. So, after Brexit, jam should maybe play no role in her breakfast anyway?)

I also liked opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn’s comments. As a lover of both making and consuming jam, he noted: “I never personally get around to scraping off mould, as my delicious efforts never last that long.”

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.

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

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.

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

 

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.

Move over Gordon f…ing Ramsay and Jamie Boy, a true English super chef arrives in Oz (and I bet you he doesn’t have any problems keeping his doors open!)

I’m enjoying the new Fairfax Good Food sections and, in particular, was very interested in an interview with English chef, Alastair Little, which revealed that he is to take over the late Jeremy Strode’s CBD Restaurant in Sydney. Excited because, to my mind, Little was the star of those heady days in London (the eighties) when ‘young Turks’ such as him, Simon Hopkinson, Rowley Leith and Marco-Pierre White showed the world that English boys could actually cook. Although, the early days from this self-taught cook were not all beer and skittles.

“My cooking career was launched at the Old Compton Wine Bar. ‘Launched’ is perhaps the wrong word – kick-started is more like it, in that the Chef left and I volunteered to have a go. The very next day I was cooking 80 lunches armed with a copy of Elizabeth David’s ‘Provincial Cooking’ and a self-confidence that can only be viewed as foolhardy. My first ever review followed soon after. The Times Diary made several pleasant comments about the wines, the quality of the breads and cheese, but observed that ‘the only cooking he noticed was by a young man who was preparing lamb chops by the simple expedient of setting fire to them on the grill.”

Fortunately, by the time I came across Chef Little, he had honed his skills a little and was heading the kitchens at L’Escargot in Soho, which was owned at the time by wine guru Jancis Robinson and her husband, Nic Lander. Interestingly, also ensconced in the kitchen was one of our most talented produce-driven chefs, George Biron of Sunnybrae at Birregurra fame (now Brae). The food was marvellous – simple and fresh, yet highly skilled cooking.

After a stint at the highly rated and influential 192 Kensington Park Road, Little returned to Soho and opened his own eponymous restaurant in Firth Street.

I ate there a number of times (my brother Don owned wine bars nearby) and it was actually those visits that encouraged me to return to Melbourne and open a 40-seater – Fleurie – following the Little (and, dare I say it, Biron) principle of ‘keeping it simple’. In fact, I think it was a wonderful Tortino of crisp potato topped with the most perfectly cooked, spotlessly fresh anchovies and a scattering of what the Italians would most probably call ‘poor man’s Parmesan’ that tipped me over the edge. Sadly, I could never find, at that time, anchovies of the quality that would make such a recipe proud, so my dream dish never made it onto the Fleurie Carte. But, hopefully, Mr Little has more luck and the dish will feature in Sydney – I will certainly be keeping my fingers crossed. But, no matter what, I will be looking forward to more inspired cooking from the master.

PS.
Alastair Little and I, seemingly, have another thing in common – we both taught ourselves to cook (or at least to appreciate great produce) with the help of Elizabeth David and, in particular, her book “French Provincial Cooking”, pub. 1960. I will always remember, at a time when commercial tomatoes were pale and insipid, her tale of the joys of eating just-picked tomatoes with good bread and the best butter from Normandie. Little was obviously also impressed, because he talks of presenting an entree of a great tomato with mozzarella and the best olive oil, and gobsmacking the locals who had been brought up on Italian restaurant fodder of salads dressed with the oil from the chip fryer.

PPS.
I also noticed that his new restaurant will feature freshly shucked oysters with tiny spicy sausages. A wonderful flavour combination – the salty brine of the oysters and the hot spicy sausage. This recipe also featured on Jeremy’s menu, as it did on a number of my restaurant menus.  Although, I must admit, I didn’t pinch the idea from Little, but instead first encountered the dish in Bordeaux (circa 1970), where it was always washed down with a glass of crisp, flinty Muscadet – yummy!

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