Monday, December 01, 2014

Luxury



Let it be noted that I’m a bloke of simple tastes. I’m aware that I’m a complex person full of contradictions and frustrating personality traits however and perhaps to contest this, it’s the meekest of pleasures that resonate within me the most.
This, I suppose, adds yet another layer of exasperation to those within my immediate circle who grapple with my peaks, troughs and especially gift choices at birthdays and Christmas.
When it comes to the notion of luxury it might appear to the casual observer that I have little or no understanding of the ‘so-called’ finer things in life.
It would be a superficial case of deduction more than likely based on my disdain for wearing labels, a trait that I equate with spruiking oneself as a walking billboard.
Perhaps my blue-collar up bringing might influence my would-be arbiters estimation that I might gleefully hurtle toward the gaudy, the ostentatious and the lurid should I ever come into lotto money often associated with the just-whitened-teeth and Thailand tan of the newly rich?
Should this occur, me winning the lottery that is, my driveway’s blue metal would not feel the crunch of a Ferrari’s tyres nor for that matter a Rolls Royce.
There would be little evidence of the excesses of a newly acquired wealth actually.
Yes, I would probably purchase the motorbike that might make me happy for a while. Of course we would have a trip overseas. Or two.
And we might consider the procurement of another family home to move into.
However would these purchases elevate us into the realms of a luxurious lifestyle?
Well it depends on what you consider luxurious?
This question reminds me of a similar question that is regularly posed to people in the glossies and that question is, ‘What would be your last meal?’
Their answers allow the reader sketch a picture, albeit a naive one, of how a person prioritizes the notion of luxury in a food context.
Amongst the requests I am intrigued by the examples of Bacchanalian excesses that are often at odds with the persons whom I’ve bee surprised and it must be added, disheartened to learn, might not have been as classy as I’d chosen to believe.
I’m also taken aback by the most dull and prosaic wishes where clearly not enough thought or panache was evoked in order to answer the question thoughtfully. Yes some could have tried to enlist a sense of irony into their answers but this can shape their response as glib and therefore not to be taken seriously.
One example that stands out for me which illustrates sublime appreciation of luxury and the undeniable authenticity of a bona fide aesthete is that of Phillip Adams who said all he would require in his last moments would be a pot of his favourite tea.
Now that is an assured final sensual and sensory pleasure from a man who feels not the need for one last extravagant flourish but that of a simple solitary cuppa.
All class.
I ponder this as my bread browns in the toaster. We were discussing luxury over bowls of Bolognaise last night and I woke up trying to make sense of the currency of what it means to me.
My toast pops and I juggle it from hand to hand onto the chopping board.
I let it sit for a mo, allowing the immediate heat to dissipate, as I’m particular about different spreads on my toast and their relationship to the action of melting butter.
For instance, if vegemite were my choice this time, I would allow the toast to be buttered immediately as I enjoy the melding of melting butter and the salty spread.
However this time jam is my topping of choice.
I cut the butter in wafer thin slices and place it on the cooling sourdough like one would a serving of cheese. Its edges blur but the solidity of its shape stays intact. Next I smooth dollops of strawberry jam over the butter in flowing strokes.
It looks pretty as a picture, the warmth of the toast lifts the aroma of summer toward my nostrils and I’m aware of the sound of the birdlife outside, the smell of the coffee brewing and the morning breeze lapping at the curtains.

A moment of pure luxury.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Fire always wins



Its not without irony that a crucial part of what attracted me to the Red Velvet Lounge in the first place was the mighty wood fired oven and more specifically, the notion of cooking with such a primordial element, fire.

I viewed this archaic oven as a conduit to a new chapter in my working life and in the process, re-connecting me to the wonder and possibilities of what being a cook meant back before life got in the way and everything got so serious.

Viewing this oven as a ticket to re-inventing myself from the jobbing chef with what I had considered a fairly unremarkable career albeit with a few exceptions here and there but also lurking I suspect was a motive to re-calibrate my own professional cringe at the industry choices I had made over the last three decades.

Looking broadly I could say my whole life could be punctuated by the leit-motif of flames and here are a few examples.

My first memory of dancing flames, smoke and heat was of our rusted 44 gallon drum, the weapon of choice for the legions of suburban rubbish burners, ‘the incinerator’. Its menacing name was seemingly at odds when it was not in use. In fact weeds and flowers poked up through its metal fatigued holes and perforated edges. Sometimes Nero our black kelpie would sniff and dig around its edges, his nose alerted to some un-burnt morsel and even Ginger Meggs our cat was known on occasion to curl up for a nap inside where flames had danced.

However, when it was in use it was a very different beast indeed.
Dad used to stack as much as he could into its girth and as the flames caught, he would stoke it like an engineer might a steam trains firebox. The radiant heat would wilt the grass and sometimes the soursops would even hiss as their moisture bubbled and evaporated with a pop. I could almost hear it gasp as the oxygen was drawn into the base and the fire above blasted like a forge.

One particular arvo using the incinerator, dad being fully ‘refreshed’ with homebrew, conspiratorially whispered his yeasty breath into my ears, ‘Watch this’ and with an accurate lob, all the more impressive considering his afternoons imbibing, arced an empty spray can right into the fire.
He had barely enough time to push my mop of hair down as the shrapnel pieces from the exploded canister fizzed past our ears with the mightiest of booms.
We both turned and smiled at each other.
‘Don’t tell mum’ he smiled through the mimed words just as Mum hurried down the back steps to see what had happened.
Wow, fire is amazing I thought at the time.

During a particularly bitter winter one year we were all huddled in our little living room warmed by a stout and shiny kerosene heater, its flames visible through the small round holes at its base. I must’ve been about seven or eight as my little sister was just a slip. Getting up to collect something, I managed to trip on the hem of my oversized dressing gown, which bought my entire thigh in contact with its surface. I can still remember how much it hurt and crying myself to sleep that evening after a visit to the emergency ward. I had been branded, my wound would take months to subside and understood wholly what fire could was capable of.

At the back of that same cottage in Kew, was a kind of common area shared with houses in our street that led a to a large open drain lined with bluestones. Every year when the rains poured and the water level rose from trickle to at times, a torrent, our neighbors and ourselves would toss any old rubbish into it and watch it disappear past our fence lines and into the large dark abyss of the underground pipe opening.
In our first year living there and not yet accustomed to the neighborly ritual, dad took the initiative and enlisting my help, pushed an old car wreck at the base of our land into the fast flowing drain. It vanished in a flash and made a hell of a clutter at it thrashed its way into and down the underground tunnel.
A neighbor across the drain raised his can of beer in silent appreciation of dads industriousness. It was a different time back then.

In the drier months, me and a mate would traverse the drain on weekends, sometimes crawling for kilometers underground until one time we ended up at the Yarra across from the golf course and with the towers of Willesmere looming.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized exactly how dangerous these expeditions were when the nightly news seemed to be regularly reporting the drowning deaths of boys through similar misadventures in those dank tunnels.
It’s difficult to imagine just how awful one’s last moments might’ve been in that cramped space flooded by putrid water. Sometimes I wonder how some of us got through childhood and our teenage years with all that risk taking.
People say that insulating children from risky play or boundary testing behavior prevents them from developing into rational decision making adults capable of assessing the dangers that life can present.
I would say from my experience that exposure to risk taking could actually motivate someone to keep rolling the dice and continue to push their luck and as the law of averages proves, eventually luck runs out.

Back to the open drain. Beyond where it was swallowed into the ground by the cavity of the aforementioned tunnel, was a scrubby bit of land with the usual junk, car wrecks and overgrown vegetation. These days it would’ve been turned into a Skate park by do-gooders but back then it was known as a tip by everything else but name.
Me and my mate would ride our dragsters around its environs and assemble gathered detritus into rudimentary jumps in which we would try to emulate Evil Kenevel.
Eventually the lure of smoking ciggys wafted into our realm and after scabbing a few off his older brother on day we pedaled furiously toward our tip and amongst the mounds of clay, the weeds and the stones puffed awkwardly and pig-sucked the menthols.
Being a wheezy asthmatic my dalliance with smokes was always going to be short lived and so my attention turned to matches whilst my mate continued to puff.
After becoming quite adept at flicking lit matches toward my mate who would swat them away like the Ninja he thought he was, my attention turned toward a new target, a large thatch of dry scrub nearbye.
The first match hit the target, rested on its side and then burnt slowly down until it petered out emitting a curling trail of smoke.
The second match also hit the target but also managed to combust some of the dry vegetation into a little baby fire. My friend beamed at my new prowess with the matches, the two of us, a formidable Ninja team, he with the moves and me with the matches. We were too busy congratulating ourselves to see that the baby fire had grown into a teenager within seconds.
In less than a minute the fire had now spread to surrounding bushes and before we could scramble to our feet, the wind had arrived and the fire hitched a ride.
I was shitting myself as I saw how quickly it spread. Quickly, large plumes of smoke expanded and rose in dirty black clouds as the flames spread even further.
My heart went cold as I realized that all the fences that bordered this land could easily catch fire and then maybe burn people’s houses down.
Panicking now, I ran up to the closest fence that happened to have a doorway in it, pushed my way through and ran up to the back door banging hard to get someone’s attention.
An surprised elderly man opened the door and after glancing at me, his attention was drawn to the smoke behind his fence line.
‘Somebody’s lit a fire‘ I squealed, my arm involuntarily pointing toward the fence.
‘Was that somebody you?!’ he asked angrily before I burst into tears and ran off through the fence.
We pedaled home hard and in the distance I could hear the fierys making their way toward the call out and I felt like vomiting.

When I arrived at Cygnet on the night of the RVL fire, a similar feeling in my stomach revisited itself once again. My family and my second family, the staff and friends, huddled arm in arm, their tear streaked cheeks illuminated dramatically by the pulsing red lights of the fire appliances.
The weary firefighters, all of them volunteers and people who make up most of the tradespeople of our town, rested by the fence, their protective clothing smeared with the grime of fire and water.


These are the people who risk their own lives to save people and property and I can’t thank them enough not just for saving the building and my business from total destruction but also just for doing this job.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Embarrasing pantry items-Food Wastage

Apparently Australian households squander about 350kg of food every year. In fact, it is said that 20% of food purchased in Australia is wasted, this equates to a staggering $8 billion dollars or 4,000,000 tonnes of food per year!

Though the reasons of this are manifold, an emerging understanding that the influence of cooking shows is bearing down and exacerbating the wastage problem as people try to emulate the prefect results they observe on the tellie.

Professional kitchens at the high end of the eating spectrum have always tended to be wasteful especially when it comes to portioning proteins and trimming vegetables. The reasoning behind this is twofold, firstly to highlight the usage of the best bits and secondly to present aesthetically pleasing vegies.

I can personally attest to the thousands of carrots, turnips, swedes and potatoes that I have ‘turned’ over the years before the practice became unfashionable. Not to mention the fields of broccoli, cabbage, lettuces and spinach that I had trimmed for the bits deemed choice by the chef.

The best way one can determine the difference between ‘high table’ food and home cooked meals besides the price is the fact the for the most part, the vegies seem to be more or less left in tact in the latter. At the RVL, all our green waste, food scraps and table waste (except meat of any kind  is kept aside for a pair of lucky pigs. Other green waste is put into our compost tumbler and we rarely throw out food due to use by dates or spoilage and generally only have paper wastage from packaging.

In addition, the ‘use by’ date phenomenon has much to answer for the high yields of food wastage. Personally I’ve always understood this mechanism to be a caveat against possible litigation should the consumer become ill after consuming a product due to an unreasonably long time passing after purchase.

I’ve also become aware of the cynical means of manipulating consumers by getting them to unnecessarily discard out of date products and then purchase more to replace them. Also I reckon the ‘just in time’ protocols of supermarkets and other retailers provide in distributing produce has supplemented the problem by creating a ‘finite’ amount of product at any given time, there bye embroidering a bit of urgency into the food shopping experience.

In yesterdays paper a farmer was photographed holding a bunch of carrots that were too big and ugly apparently for the supermarkets to sell. They were due be left unpicked and hoed back into the soil.

This sits alongside the pictures of great hangers filled with rotting produce from around the globe destined for waste because they are deemed unsuitable for a number of reasons.

How ridiculous and exasperating that this occurs.

As I look guiltily over the contents of my own kitchen cupboard at home I understand that the average Australian household has enough food at any given time to feed a family of four for a month!


Don’t know about you but I’m gonna try to use all of the food in my cupboard before I buy more.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A comment to a facebook post about Manu's restaurant closing

Perhaps Melbourne has reached the peak of what many people have been predicting for some time-and that is there are just too many restos so the ones on the marginal side of the ledger are folding much quicker? 

Is it any surprise reall
y when we're all aware of how much it costs to design + fit out a joint these days? Many operators choose to spend way more on this side of things than the basics of hospitality right, like good food + service. 

Every time I visit my old hometown I'm blown away by the amount of businesses competing for a slice of the pie. On a recent visit I was shocked to hear from two credentialed + experienced operators that they were just 'treading water' + not making any money at all! Shit, if they are struggling, what hope is there for the newbies? 

Adding to the mix is what I believe to be an emerging reluctance from savvy restaurant goers to patronize the Big Box Restaurant group venues, instead preferring to visit places that share a more nuanced, individual + niche aesthetic.

Whilst there have always been bright sparks with more dash than cash who’ve rolled the dice and opened quirky venues, now more than ever has seen the landscape shaped by this new breed of operator responding to what they see is an opportunity to be really niche. Their influence has touched the bigger operators, even in places like food courts where design touches and food offerings mimic those who are legitimately on-trend.

There have been several restaurateurs that I can think of that could be described as ‘delivering to their generation’ and have built successful empires as a result. However the numbers are not as high as they used to be and many have divested themselves of under performing venues.

Conversely, it appears that the MADE group act swiftly when faced with underperformance and have re-booted venues as a result. Whilst this might seem harsh, PM 24 anyone? It’s impressive that they can act without sentiment and cauterize a branch so the tree can live. Maybe this is the new model for an effective restaurant Group?

However the end game for many restaurant groups seems to be catering to the cheaper end of the market. I’m not sure if this is by design or circumstance though because there aren’t too many examples of restaurant groups with flagship restos that have multiple venues with the same cache as the standard bearer. 

What tends to happen is the winning formula aka fast-ish food concepts end up getting rolled out because they are tried and true. So, as the group gets bigger, their aversion to risk taking with a new concept increases. This is demonstrated by St Katherines closing to make way for a Hellenic Republic and the plans for more Jimmy Grants souvo bars. It also goes some ways to explain the rush of pedigreed operators to open a burger, bbq or noodle joint. 

They know the money is there.

Katrina’s point about key personnel ‘having to be there’ in situ rings very true to me. I’ve long questioned the dining publics tolerance for ‘Paying for the star but getting the understudy’ even though this is doing a disservice to the talented people at the helm of venues whom have a namesake patron. That old adage that Ramsay uses, ‘You buy an Yves Saint Laurant suit you don’t expect him to do the stitching’ is sounding more and more hackneyed as money is getting tighter for the discrepancy spend and people are more choosy about where they spend it.

However as long as conventional thought continues to take the safe option I hope that there will always be someone willing to have a crack at doing something unique and if they fail, its not through lack of trying.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

40 ways to apply for jobs: Chapter one.

The following post was prompted by yesterdays Facebook update by Ros Grundy when she detailed the travails of her son who is seeking work. I wish him all the best.

My first ‘real’ job post-school, was organized by my father.
Several parent teacher meetings throughout year ten failed to alert my 15 YO self to the scholastic icebergs looming on my horizon.
My old man seized the moment and my professional tiller by arranging a summer job for me washing dishes that eventually led to an apprenticeship in cookery.
Lord Curzon’s in North Melbourne was just around the corner from the printing college my father taught at and on the goat track from the college to the Black Prince hotel, a favourite for the instructors’ lunchtime parmi’s and bevs.
It was a spectacularly inauspicious start to my career and remains steadfastly at the opposing end of the broad spectrum of great food and inspiring people I have worked with.
Perhaps out of respect for the efforts of my Da securing me the job I stayed for a full year until the environment became so intolerable after arriving home from work limping after a particularly nasty bit of workplace violence to which my parents had been made finally aware. Not that they were ignorant, its just that I hid the reality from them, thinking that maybe this was just ‘how work was’.
Driving to work with dad the next morning, I remember becoming anxious as his steely silence and percolating tension that would bloom into the mushroom cloud of rage to be visited on the restaurants owner when he answered the door.
The sight of my newly-baptized old boss cowering under the clenched fists of my old man relinquished me of any debt I might’ve imagined I owed both of them and from this point on, I applied for subsequent jobs myself.

Now the convention of the day was to scour the papers for the job adverts, circle the appropriate ones, write an introduction, attach your CV and mail it off and wait for a reply. I was discouraged from ringing possible employers for a follow up call to see if they had received my application, as it wasn’t the done thing.
Several job applications later and no replies, I decided to break with established protocols and just randomly ring the restaurants. This actually yielded a positive result and I got a job that made me re-evaluate the whole business of typical job applications.

Now, two years into an apprenticeship and through Trade School, I had become aware of the strange Caste-System of the restaurant pecking order. All of a sudden I realized that I worked in a super-daggy place and I needed to move up the rungs and apply for a gig in a pedigreed establishment. I came to understand that working in respected places would help my career in the long run so I began scouring the Age good food guide and applied for jobs in hatted restaurants.

In one such place I was dispensed a valuable lesson in the prejudices of a prospective employer. A two-hatted restaurant, long gone, in South Melbourne, whose two principles icily chastised me for not completing year 12.
I squirmed in my shirt and tie and squeaked with an increasingly dry mouth that it wasn’t a requirement to commence an apprenticeship and I was dutifully admonished for not showing any tenacity. The sweat gathered around my hot blushing collar to be momentarily cooled by the ‘whoosh’ of air as my humble CV was tossed toward me dismissively with a wave of a hand.
Come back with your HSC, I was told.
A footnote to this story is that years later I answered an ad for this very place, no longer hatted and its glory days since past. I was welcomed enthusiastically having worked in Michelin starred restaurants abroad and the interview progressed quickly to the point of offering me the position, to which I respectfully declined. Perhaps not completing year twelve was no longer the hindrance I was made to believe it once was?

On another occasion, this time sharply focused on obtaining a job with a celebrated matriarch of South Australian country cooking, I hassled her repeatedly until she relented and hired me. This was to become the modus operandi I would adopt for all future job applications and it nearly always worked.

These days when people rock up to the café looking for work I am always impressed that they have the gumption to put themselves out there.
It takes guts to open oneself up to scrutiny, critique and the real possibility of rejection. Anyone can have an intro letter written for them, a CV compiled and referees enrolled but it’s a brave person to do it all in person.
My advice though to those seeking this path: arrive pre-or post service, look neat, show some knowledge about the establishment you are applying to and be prepared to do a trial at a moments notice. Remember, you want the job right? So sell yourselves, impress your potential employer and make it easy for them to consider you.
Above all, don’t take conceivable rejection personally as it will occur no matter how positive or prepared you might be. The trick is, to get over this quickly and move onward and upward.

Hey good luck out there!

Cheers Steve

P.S.
I received a CV via email without a covering letter or introduction yesterday. The mobile contact number was disconnected so I looked up the contact address that the person had listed on their CV and found their home number. I called the number and got a hold of the person whose name was on the CV and asked him he purpose of his contacting me with his employment history as there was no other information with his email to which he replied 'I dunno' After a moments pause he said it wasn't him who sent it, so I said Thanks + goodbye.
I really really hope this wasn't the start of those numerous and pointless job applications that the unemployed are supposed to reach in their employment search quota?! 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Do you know the way to San Marino?

missing in action

When I lived in South Australia I validated my taste for Coopers Sparkling ale, wild harvested olives and San Marino prosciutto, not necessarily combined or in that order but certainly individually.
A few days ago I was researching Tasmanian made prosciutto and wasn’t making much head wind. Yes there are some fine examples of home cured hams of the prosciutto genus and humbly, I include my own in this category however commercially there appears to be none available. If someone can point me in another direction to the contrary I would be greatly appreciative.

As a result the fond memories of the San Marino prosciutto that had lingered in my sub-conscience for years, materialized before me like a ghostly manifestation of the Flying Dutchman through a fog.
The web searches I made for contact details proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated and was, as I later discovered, to be as elusive as the afore mentioned ship of folk lore.
Finally I made a call to the deli in the Adelaide market where the Marino family started it all approximately 40 years ago.

I was stunned to learn that they had not only stopped producing the prosciutto and their small goods, but had gone broke and lost everything including family homes. All that remained was their small shop in the Adelaide Central market.

The reason for their demise?

I was told that when the Australia government relaxed the laws on the importation on Italian prosciutto a few years back, the market was flooded with cheaper imports and San Marino could simply not compete.

The irony of making a product that was unable to be procured in Australia for so long only to be usurped by that very same product years later was not lost on me.
I felt very bad for the Marino family.


Can anyone else shed some light on this situation?