Thursday, July 28, 2011

Generation Food

The old restaurant group that I worked for in Melbourne ticked all the boxes when it came to appealing the generation it targeted. From the fit out to the menu to the ‘feel’ of the place, no stone was left unturned in our quest to extract as much spend as we could from our specified demographic.
Whilst I worked within the organization, I often marvelled at how the boss managed to effectively ‘nail-it’ so decisively yet at the same time I had an uneasy feeling that sooner or later our punters would be dying off and with them our offering will seem decidedly old hat.

When it comes to food, I have often wrestled with the notion of what constitutes a ‘timeless’ dish, a dish that transcends fashion and one that always seems to be popular, the dishes that everybody says, ‘Oh that’s a classic, everyone loves this dish’ etc.
I am beginning to believe that this is particularly true of the older generation especially when you consider say: corned beef, or lambs fry etc. These are dishes that are not so commonly eaten these days and it’s not a long bow to suggest that as a result of this they might even be considered passé. Or one could argue that for many of us they are not passé but have been given a modern spin and have morphed into that most ubiquitous of terms used to describe dishes of yesteryear, ‘Comfort food’.

But for the younger generations what are their ‘comfort foods’ as such? Is the food at restaurants these days the ‘classic dishes’ of tomorrow? Will the funky recycled 6 Degrees ‘look’ so common in Melbourne these days be the ‘laced curtain and doily-esque travesty’ of the future? Some people have suggested that fast food is the comfort food of the younger generations and hence many menus where the burger, slider, springy, wonton, dog and taco appear as a homage or also under the moiker of 'Dude Food'.

I know that many people and not just older diners struggle with the splodges, foams, gels, soils, dehydrations and skid marks that make a modern plate these days because to many its nothing they can recognize and to borrow a phrase from AA Gill, ‘It might be something but its certainly not dinner’. Food fashions come and go however some dishes which have been around for Donkeys have stubbornly endured, but why?

If you read the glossy food mags or eat out a bit you’ll be noticing a seismic shift in the way food is cooked and presented. In fact there is definitely a new aesthestic being practiced in kitchen throughout this country and it in essence eschews the notion that what you get put in front of you should be instantly recognisable.

What I also find particularly intriguing is that many of our most lauded hatted restaurants whose stock in trade to date has been premium ingredients with expert technique, are starting to look ‘old hat’ when compared to this new way of cooking and presenting food. As an example, a dish of lamb at one of our celebrated places might have the lamb as the ‘hero’ accompanied by several bit-players, each recognizable and in a way obviously complementary to the lamb. Conversely, the in this new way, the lamb might appear as a repeating motif on the plate, as an essence, a dehydrated soil or maybe as a bit of jelly. The resulting dish is not often something that the diner can identify and say, ‘Oh there’s the lamb bit’.

So when did this happen?

Well it may have had its germination when we started using rectangular, triangular and ovoid plates. The Molecular Posse who disbanded then reformed as ‘Tecno-mocion Cuisine’ have had a lasting impact but when they hooked up with the ‘Foragers’ and ‘Time and Place’ practitioners could have been the moment when food started not to look like dinner as we once knew it.
Having said all this, I am clearly seeing things through the myopia of my own prejudices and culinary influences so I simply might not be capable of understanding this new aesthetic. This doesn’t mean though, that I don’t appreciate it nor ignore its importance in the scheme of our culinary journey.

However the lingering question for me remains: From this bubbling new ferment will there be some long lasting and enduring food combinations that will stand the test of time and will they be the dishes people seek out when needing to be comforted by food?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Love letter to the Huon Valley

To my dearest Huon Valley,

I confess I’d only heard of you once or twice before, in snatches of text or the spoken word and usually in some context with apples. I imagined old trucks and apple boxes, woollen jumpers and men with pipes and hats, flannel shirts and rough hands blistered by splinters. Of woman, steeled by hard work, of sweet pies and spiced apple sauce to accompany the Sunday roast. Of orchard tending, raking carpets of russet Sturmers for the cider presses, the cool stores humming with the cloying aroma of crushed juice.
But I’ve come to learn you are much more than this. My thoughts of you are just reverberations of a time when you were alive with the industry of apples, sadly a time no more.
Yet I find your orchards of old, neglected and gnarled apple trees beautiful in a macabre sort of way. Twisting as if in anguish toward yet another season of torment where fruit will disgorge from limbs and hang, unpicked, inviting an aching mastitis of the branch and frozen in an agonising wait for the relief of Autumn.
Where the apple is your enduring spirit, the many waterways, tributaries creeks, streams and of course your mighty river are your arteries and veins and with each throb, a valley moment sharply focuses but for a second.
I close my eyes and following your coastline and verdant hills in my minds eyes is like languidly running my hands over your waist, little by little over your hips and coming to rest, cupping your glorious curves, your arcs and crevices familiar and yet alluring, promising much to the desirous, inquisitive and persistent enquirer.
Sheds of wood, sheds of iron, bleached or rusting, sentinels standing guard, sprout from you like points on a weathered map or like ancient runes.
White capped mountains, those dark glacial curtains in the distance, in one direction, separating you from the city beyond and in the other direction, a wild untameable landscape threatens to reclaim the hard fought order of your paddocks, fields and orchards.
You have left an indelible mark on me now, how could I ever go back to the linear boundaries of the quarter acre metropolitan confine? You have shown me that life is too short to live somewhere ugly and I’m glad I listened to my instincts when I flew here all those years ago and something stirred inside me as I drove over Vince’s Saddle and descended into your embrace. Something felt right about being here, being with you.
I remind myself of this when in moments that I’m distracted or when I’m mired in small mindedness, a soothing salve for me is to drive and drive I do.
I’ll self medicate with what ends up as an overdose of aural and visual stimulation as I take in aspects of your splendour and I usually end up at the same spot, almost spent, in a post coital flush of sorts.
From the crest of Silverhill, near where I live, I gaze across the river as the cold blue chill of early evening descends on the Huon River, a chorus of smoke plumes, curling skyward from the hearths of many homes all singing from the same Winter songbook. I take a huge lungful of air and regard the expanse before me.
I feel lucky, my glass is half full, the quietness around me like a coat but my heart is making a racket in my chest that I’m sure everyone can hear.
I’m still in love with you, Huon Valley.

Yours always

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Trip-A review of sorts

Finally saw a fillum that I’d wanted to see for a while now. It’s called ‘The Trip’ and stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. I’ve been quietly watching the career of Steve Coogan for some time now but have to confess I’d not heard of Rob Brydon before. It turns out they’ve worked before on two other Michael Winterbottom films, ‘24 Hour Party people’ (a fave of mine) and ‘Tristram Shandy, a cock and bull story’.

Apparently the movie is based on the TV series of the same name though I’m not sure if Winterbottom directed it and it did seem like a series of skits knitted together with some truly beautiful Northern English scenery used as segues into each. I got past the obvious cliché of the countryside slowing a person down in order to reflect and enjoyed the landscape and the meditative mood it set, especially with the beautiful music accompanying it.

Coogans character, playing himself, has been assigned to review some posh restaurants in the North of the country for a weekend newspaper. His girlfriend was due to come with him but they’re going through some personal boundary adjustments and he finds himself companionless for the trip.

He calls an old friend whom he has obviously not seen much of to accompany him after confessing that he had invited several other people to come however all had declined. What could have been an incredibly awkward moment is saved by the enthusiasm of Brydons character and hints at his optimistic and good if eccentric nature.

Coogan the character seems mired in the shallow pool obsessed with fame and celebrity and constantly bemoaning that he’s been overlooked for roles he feels he’s deserved. To me there are comparisons to be made with Ricky Gervais’s character in Extras who finds commercial success only to sabotage it for the allure of auteur status. His companion, a very gifted mimic and comedian though not of the star status that Coogan enjoys, seems to not let Coogans sniping and one upmanship get the better of him. It’s a great foil to see Coogans dispassionate and casual bed hopping with the Hotel receptionist and Spanish photographer and Brydons blissful life at home with his loving wife and new baby daughter. How does one measure success? Brydon by comparison, seems content, sensible and though prone to frequent hilarious comedic outbursts, is actually acting his age.

Over ten meals they discuss various aspects of their careers, friendship, and comedy and of course amazing impressions of Michael Caine, Woody Allen, Al Pacino and a few more I can’t recall. Trivia: I think Brydon orders scallops in some form or another for every starter at each restaurant-hows that for food nerdism by me?

There are several shots of food being prepared in the restaurants they visit and of the plated dishes as they arrive at the table. What struck me though was how unmoved they were by it all. It was also interesting to me that for all the trouble, blood sweat and tears the chefs poured into the meals, little was spoken about them much at all apart from a few funny quips here and there.

I found this very illuminating from the point of view of a chef. I’m sure many chefs watching this movie would be distressed that their plated constructions were not being fawned over like they imagined they might be, as if this, surely is the only reason to visit a restaurant? This point resonated with me, not because I am unable to see that not everything is about food, even if this film kind of is about food but more that people go out for different reasons not just what’s on the plate. I found the scene where both characters were the most animated and enthusiastic was when they sat down to a Full English breakfast outside in the glorious morning sun, all that posh eating apparently behind them.

I imagine the restaurants were real places so this might explain why there were no concrete criticisms levelled, though the way a very formal waiter explained some of the more Avant garde meals at one establishment had me giggling at the absurdity of it all. Coogans girlfriend , a foodie, had apparently picked the restaurants and I took his almost ambivalent approach to them as a way of coming to terms with his confusion at where he wanted to be in his life and where, in reality, he was. Safely back at home, Brydon and his wife share a humble bowl of something together and to me at least, this looked like the meal he most enjoyed.
As a food movie it’s OK, well it’s actually not a food movie per se, however it’s refreshing to see a movie that takes its time to reveal itself and rewards the patient.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Cradoc Abattoir saved!

Great news as I heard first hand that the Cradoc Abattoir has a new buyer who intends to re-open and start processing again for the region. Fastastic!

Friday, July 08, 2011

The way we were

Below is a breakdown of the hierarchy of a kitchen of yesteryear (thanks to Wikipedia). Bear in mind that many of the positions may have numbered many people. Large hotels commonly had this type if brigade as the norm. Restaurants traditionally had less but still their brigades were legion in number compared to these days.
This was a time where demarcation ruled, the chain of command was observed vigilantly and kitchens were rife with bastardry.

Chef de cuisine (kitchen chef; literally "chief of kitchen")
is responsible for overall management of kitchen; supervises staff, creates menus and new recipes with the assistance of the restaurant manager, makes purchases of raw food items, trains apprentices, and maintains a sanitary and hygienic environment for the preparation of food.

Sous-chef de cuisine (deputy kitchen chef; literally "sub-chief")
receives orders directly from the chef de cuisine for the management of the kitchen, and often serves as the representative when the chef de cuisine is not present.

Chef de partie (senior chef; literally "chief of party")
party used here as a group, in the sense of a military detail) – is responsible for managing a given station in the kitchen, specializing in preparing particular dishes there. Those who work in a lesser station are commonly referred to as a demi-chef.

Cuisinier (cook)
is an independent position, usually preparing specific dishes in a station; may also be referred to as a cuisinier de partie.

Commis (junior cook)
also works in a specific station, but reports directly to the chef de partie and takes care of the tools for the station.

Apprenti(e) (apprentice)
are often students gaining theoretical and practical training in school and work experience in the kitchen. They perform preparatory work and/or cleaning work.

Plongeur (dishwasher)
cleans dishes and utensils, and may be entrusted with basic preparatory jobs.

Marmiton (pot and pan washer)
in larger restaurants, takes care of all the pots and pans instead of the plongeur.

Saucier (saucemaker/sauté cook)
sauces and warm hors d'oeuvres, completes meat dishes, and in smaller restaurants, may work on fish dishes and prepare sautéed items. This is one of the most respected positions in the kitchen brigade, usually ranking just below the chef and sous-chef.

Rôtisseur (roast cook)
manages a team of cooks that roasts, broils, and deep fries dishes.

Grillardin (grill cook)
in larger kitchens, prepares grilled foods instead of the rôtisseur.

Friturier (fry cook)
in larger kitchens, prepares fried foods instead of the rôtisseur.

Poissonnier (fish cook)
prepares fish and seafood dishes.

Entremetier (entrée preparer)
prepares soups and other dishes not involving meat or fish, including vegetable dishes and egg dishes.

Potager (soup cook)
in larger kitchens, reports to the entremetier and prepares the soups

Legumier (vegetable cook)
in larger kitchen, also reports to the entremetier and prepares the vegetable dishes.

Garde manger (pantry supervisor; literally "food keeper")
is responsible for preparation of cold
hors d'oeuvres, prepares salads, organizes large buffet displays, and prepares charcuterie items

Tournant (spare hand/roundsman)
moves throughout the kitchen, assisting other positions in kitchen.

Pâtissier (pastry cook)
prepares desserts and other meal-end sweets, and for locations without a boulanger, also prepares breads and other baked items; may also prepare pasta for the restaurant

in larger restaurants, prepares candies and
petits fours instead of the pâtissier.

in larger restaurants, prepares frozen and cold desserts instead of the pâtissier.

in larger restaurants, prepares show pieces and specialty cakes instead of the pâtissier.

Boulanger (baker)
in larger restaurants, prepares bread, cakes, and breakfast pastries instead of the pâtissier.

Boucher (butcher)
butchers meats, poultry, and sometimes fish; may also be in charge of breading meat and fish items.

Aboyeur (announcer/expediter)
takes orders from the dining room and distributes them to the various stations; may also be performed by the sous-chef de partie.

prepares the meal served to the restaurant staff.

Garçon de cuisine (literally "kitchen boy")
in larger restaurants, performs preparatory and auxiliary work for support.

These days, modern kitchens rarely have such layered structures. In most cases a head chef will lead a small team that almost always includes a second chef, a qualified chef or two and maybe some apprentices. Even in my day, apprentices padded out the brigades as they were cheap and were afforded the luxury of being taught without the monetary constraints so often pressing on modern kitchens.

Head chef
Sous chef
Qualified chef
Kitchen hand

All of the tasks once performed by the army of cooks are now done by a small unit of people

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Lovely Bones

I was born on a cattle station in far North Queensland. It was a dry spring but water soon became plentiful and the pastures were soon sprouting.

The months flew by and I grew. When I was big enough, myself and many of my brothers and sisters travelled some distance, before we arrived at another station. Here we jostled for space with many more of my kind, there was no grass though, just grain. This place smelled different, it made us uneasy.

The day came when we walked single file into the building not to come out the other side. Though I sensed what was about to happen, the end came quickly.

I watched myself, upside down with the men clawing at my throat and belly. My innards gushed onto the concrete floor and next to me, my brothers and sisters, hung lifeless.

Moved by conveyor my body was quickly dissected by an army of bloodied workers.
My parts were quickly broken down, smaller and smaller.

Into the machine I went, shredded and mulched. Bits of others joined me. And still more pieces of others, into a mass of minced redness.

Another machine stamped out shapes of me and my kin, which were then wrapped and blast frozen, boxed and refrigerated.

The next day a large truck collected us and we travelled some distance before finally arriving.
Pieces of me soon found their way onto a hot grill then removed and placed with other food, wrapped and sold to the two people.

Who walked to a park, sat on a bench in the sun and consumed me and the fragments of others.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The hours killed me

When people choose to leave this industry they often cite the long and unsociable hours as the main reason. The reality is, and perhaps those considering taking this career path should take note, the basic premise is that when everyone else is off, you are on. It really is as simple as that.

Chefs in particular spend much of their time working horrendous hours for years gaining experience in kitchens of note in order to collect the skills and it has to be said, kudos, in order to open their own place and hopefully take their seat at the long table of culinary identities. The great irony though is: as their lives move along and relationships morph into families the pressure to ‘cut back’ begins to bite.

Thank goodness for the White Knight that is the CBD, which conveniently provides a luring alternative to those long days and nights. This is of course if you live within a train, bus or tram ride of a CBD and too bad if you live rurally. Like a Sirens call or a flourescent light to a moth, the simple words ‘Monday to Friday, days only’ are like a mythical fix for a junkie. ‘What, you mean I can still cook but only have to do days?’ they say incredulously at the interview, those lips parched from years of toil finding those soft words as lovely and restorative to say, like the juicy plop of a grape in a thirsty mouth.

Well there is a catch, there always is isn’t there?

Sadly the main conundrum facing these highly skilled chefs whom for the sake of simplification we shall deem ‘In-transition’ is that in many cases they will inevitably have to ‘dumb down’ their offerings. Well in the very least they might have to ‘down play their CV’ in order to get the gig that ticks the lifestyle boxes.

“Hmm, it says here that you were the head chef of a two hatted restaurant in Sydney, you were Skye Gygnell’s head chef at Petersham and you won an Electrolux award as emerging new talent so I have to ask: Why do you want to work in the head office staff canteen at Harvey Norman?”
The lure of the Mon to Frid gig is all powerful, especially if one is ‘In the family way’.

What does this reality point to? Is it a young person’s game? I’ve begun to think so. Does one have to sacrifice their hard earned integrity in order to appease lifestyle aspirations? Perhaps? Maybe by crossing that self-imposed line and giving up the currency that pushing oneself and ones boundaries seems to have afforded a particular suffering-identity of sorts, one has to acclimatise to the reality of nailing ones colours to the mast. That mast is the Middle: appeasing everyone, in order to make a dollar

And yet, so may game changers appear irrespective of age and un-mauled by the long talons of the status quo which suggests to me that we are in a remarkable state where the ferment is regularly disgorging talent and innovative gains that no committee, think tank or focus group could conjour.

It makes me smile and confirm my long held beliefs that this game can never be a finite science.
It’s funny though that in this article I started talking about the notion of the ‘hours people work’ yet has taken a different heading because the notion of ‘appeal’ is one that I ruminate over often.
I have come to learn that no matter what you might start out as in this game or whatever aspirations you might foster, ultimately your customers will define you. This can be a cause of great consternation for so many idealistic and innately stylistic operators. Why? Well when most of ‘em set up shop which holds up a mirror to their own personal tastes and validates their stylistic cred, so it’s pretty hard to swallow if punters don’t get where you are coming from and it resonates most loudly in the till, where ultimately it hurts the most.

It can also have such long reaching effects if you end up paying years later for that oversight. Licking your wounds and retreating into the bitterness that you were ‘too ahead of the curve’.
I can fully understand why this notion terrifies and hamstrings would-be operators into providing what they perceive as a ‘safe option.’

However, to me, the venues that radiate a uniqueness, an eccentricity, an owner-operator on the floor or in the kitchen will always attract my business and as the wonderful Merguez sausage-roll at Sweet Envy will attest, will also keep me coming back