Essay

A culinary adventure

In a Sydney restaurant in 1978, what was called a "maritime" salad exploded my notion of Australian restaurant fare. Strips of abalone, smoked trout, poached squid and butter beans on radicchio leaves made spokes of a wheel. At the hub was a cabbage leaf filled with marinated scallops. A partnering creamy avocado dressing was beautifully balanced – smooth and fragrant, and neither too fatty nor too tart. A main course consisted of six thin slices of lamb – pink in the centre and fawn at the edges. They were the petals of a flower whose calyx was an inverted mushroom topped with a mound of tan garlic puree. The lot sat in a sauce enriched with a great burgundy. I wrote in The Age that the meal Patric Juillet put in front of me at his Cafe Nouveau was one of the best I had eaten anywhere – and by then I had been to Troisgros, which had two Michelin stars, and several one-star restaurants in France. Everything Cafe Nouveau tabled was light, subtle and sophisticated. I doubted that one could have consumed more scintillating food anywhere in the world.

Yet there was such a place. And it was in an Australian city.

At the time I hadn't yet eaten at Neddy's in Adelaide, where Cheong Liew, a refugee from anti-Chinese riots in Malaysia, was at the burners. A drop-out electronics student from Footscray Tech in Melbourne, he had been seduced by cookbooks. His interest and skills perhaps arose atavistically – he has fond memories of his family's chicken business, huge family meals, and picking tiny feathers from birds' nests, which were steeped for their spittle.

But when he opened Neddy's in 1975, he couldn't find the ingredients to concoct authentic versions of either European or Asian dishes. "Bugger you all," were his legendary words, directed as much at culinary orthodoxy as a certain frustration with life in Australia. His practical response was to let go of protocols and traditions, and merge Asian and European techniques and ingredients. For his patrons, he prepared the dishes he himself wanted to eat. They included sharks' lips and sea cucumber in a chilli-carrot sauce.

Three decades later, eating out in Australia is one of the world's great pleasures, one of our significant cultural trumps. In Sydney we have Peter Doyle's food at est, Chui Lee Luk's at Claude's, Sean Moran's at Panaroma, Tetsuya Wakuda's at Tetsuya's and Greg Doyle's at Pier. There's Bridgewater Mill near Adelaide and e'cco in Brisbane. In Batman's village we are embarrassed by cheap, quality restaurants. There is Jacques Reymond and va tutto, The Graham, Hotel Lincoln, Mo Vida, Maris, Tutto Bene, Canvas, and The Grand in Richmond. There are many more, and they keep coming.

In particular, there is a coterie of mid-level brasseries unsurpassed in the world.

Australia's culinary triumph is a complete and utter accident – serendipity defined. We are also the only advanced Western nation to have democratised eating out. Ordinary people in most Australian cities can delight in it. Prices are so low, choice is so big, that postmen and plumbers, foreign-exchange jockeys and bus drivers, merchant bankers and market gardeners can sit down together to delight in an unparalleled cornucopia of tastes and textures. (Sydney is the exception; it is a world city with world prices and scant concern for the needs of its locals.)

Many of the dishes slid in front of us are prepared in a fully-fledged national style, a mature culinary expression unknown elsewhere. I call it an "assembly" cooking style in which chefs cohere whatever they feel are appropriate ingredients and techniques. There is no real orthodoxy, no canonical dishes. The cooks of no other nation have taken the spirit of French nouvelle cuisine – which was about lightness and freshness and inventiveness – further.

 

YET PEOPLE SAY – JUST ABOUT ALL AUSTRALIANS SAY, unfortunately – that migrants have brought us our world-beating restaurants, our unique culinary culture. They're wrong. The migrants-donated-gastronomy argument is utter rubbish. Our rocketing from zeroes to heroes at the stoves of the wide brown land, accidental though it was, required necessary and sufficient conditions for its occurrence. Few have bothered to discern them, let alone investigate them with any rigour. It's enough to say that most of us love to think those millions of migrants since World War II caused our culinary revolution, gave us food and cooking. It's a warm and cuddly story, but a myth that is extraordinarily difficult to shake. We all like myths.

I've been thinking about Australia's extreme acceleration to gastronomic maturity almost since I wrote my first restaurant review thirty years ago. So here's my spin on what happened, supported by a few facts. But before we go any further, I'm well aware that you've noticed the immigrant names in my brief list above. The point is that they came to Australia young and completely unformed as chefs. What they learnt about cooking, they learnt here. Indeed, only twelve of the twenty-two principals who I believe created Australian cooking were immigrants. Only three of them were qualified cooks when they arrived. Amazingly, only nine of the twenty-two had formal culinary training outside what they acquired on the job.

I hope no one will deny the first and most important reason for Australia's gastronomic development. Until the 1970s, what food culture we had was primitive. We were devoid of even a canon of national dishes. Beyond a few idiosyncratic concoctions such as Vegemite, Pavlova and lamingtons, there was no consensus on what Australian cooking meant.

Scientists say nature abhors a vacuum, but this one took years to be filled. In the '50s and '60s, we grew up eating boiled vegetables and chops cooked under a gas radiator, which in professional kitchens is called a salamander and used with skill over short cooking periods. In my family, sausages were on Tuesday nights, there was an occasional Irish stew mid-week and, as we were church-going folk (like a significant percentage of the population then), we had a Friday night roast leg of lamb, which was eaten cold over subsequent days. We nourished ourselves in a simplified British style.

The scant restaurants of those days reflected an equal culinary paucity. There was steak diane, and chickens honolulu, kiev or maryland, depending on the garnish. At the grandest banquets, soup was turtle, and ham was york. Oysters, need I add, were the appalling kilpatrick, ruined with Worcestershire sauce and grizzled bacon-bits. Waves of European immigrants failed to influence even slightly how Anglo-Saxon Australians ate at home or in big-city hotels. The new arrivals went to live in their discrete suburban enclaves, killed the pig in the backyard and kept their fresh pork sausages and cured prosciutto to themselves. Some Italians became associated with a few posh city restaurants, which had no important effect on Australian cooking standards or culinary repertoires.

We presume that a kind of culinary osmosis occurred, that protean techniques and styles somehow seeped their way from immigrant clans into the whole national culinary culture. Not so. Anglo-Saxon contact with Mediterranean food was mostly at poor Italian bistros (where veal parmigiana or spaghetti bolognese were the most popular dishes) or at Greek fish-and-chip shops. Chinese immigration since gold rush days had set the precedent. In Australia's Chinese restaurants, we were served dumbed-down, over-simple interpretations of Cantonese dishes – chop suey or sweet-and-sour protein of some sort. You took your own pots to restaurants to take away these starch-thickened sludges to reheat later at home. Italian, Greek and Balkan places repeated this history. My guess is that immigrants believed more authentic culinary expressions of their ethnic offerings would scare Australians. It's interesting to note that our affair with pasta occurred not because it was love at first bite when we ate it in small ethnic restaurants, but because big food manufacturers began to market it robustly to us in the 1960s.

 

THEN THERE WAS THE PROBLEM OF LIQUOR LAWS, which were framed essentially to protect the profits of big brewers. In 1960 in Victoria, you could drink wine with meals only in big city pubs – which also, of course, monopolised beer sales. None of the nine categories of licences covered restaurants (the first "restaurant" licence was granted in August that year). A total of 1,590 hotels, 219 registered clubs and ninety-one wine saloons were permitted to serve liquor. Most of them were sordid joints where the licence expired at 6pm and the gents at the bar lined up their glasses before throwing down the amber nectar and returning to the missus. Only the breweries and the Methodist Church (and other killjoy, moralistic Protestants) were happy with the way things were.

But it was an important year for Australian drinking. Judge Archibald McDonald Fraser, chairman of Victoria's Licensing Court, toured Europe and the United States to research how liquor laws might be improved. His report is a gem: "The idea (in Victoria) of people keeping their eyes on the clock as part of the process of drinking seems to be childish and something unknown overseas." He criticised "perpendicular drinking" as opposed to the leisurely "horizontal drinking" he had witnessed in England.

It wasn't easy to change the laws – there was entrenched opposition – but in 1965 a new Victorian Licensing Act led to the hugely influential BYO boom of the 1970s. The prescient gastronome and South Australian Premier Don Dunstan ended his state's six o'clock swill in 1967 and moved to encourage outdoor and footpath eating.

The new Victorian law extended hotel trading hours and introduced licences for cabarets and theatres. Curiously enough, though, its revolutionary lever – the clause that altered forever the way Victorians ate out – seemed an afterthought. It compelled them not "aux armes" but "aux vins". Their day of vinous glory had arrived. The Act made "provision to enable persons to bring their own liquor into cafes and restaurants which are termed ‘unlicensed premises' and to consume it between noon and 6pm on week days". But the court could grant a permit, the Act continued, allowing "such consumption" between 6pm and 10pm. Initially, very few permits were sought – only fourteen in 1966, the first BYO year. Ten years later, three to four hundrednew permits were granted annually, and all of them stood for an eating place of some description. How did they survive?

From the mid– to late '60s onwards, spoilt and maturing Baby Boomers indulged themselves as never before. A bulge in the national demographic, they saw their pay packets grow by 15.3 per cent in 1973 (thanks to Gough Whitlam and a sympathetic Arbitration Commission) and a staggering

27.9 per cent a year later. Despite the Whitlam government's dismissal, strong wages growth continued until 1980. What to do with all that money? What people in sophisticated countries did with it – eat out.

Boomers were the luckiest people. The Menzies government had given them virtually free university educations, they had overflows of cash, and now they travelled, eating exotically. While the number of Australian residents taking overseas trips had once doubled in the decade from the 1950s to the 1960s, now it doubled in four years – 500,000 travelled abroad in 1972 and a million four years later. Culturally isolated by cruel geography, Australians in large numbers were for the first time gobsmacked by the civilising riches they experienced. They realised that, in many ways, Australia was culturally bankrupt. They wanted a piece of the action.

 

IN TRUTH, MOST OF THE RESTAURANTS of the 1970s were pretty terrible. I reviewed quite a few of them for The Age. Most tried to reproduce orthodox French dishes, but split sauces and wrong coqs au vin and veal blanquettes were all over the place. I'd lived and worked in France in the early 1970s, so knew the benchmarks well. Even restaurateurs like Stephanie Alexander, Mietta O'Donnell and Iain Hewitson started with enthusiasm but knew very little about what they were doing. Tough, consistent reviewing and an increasingly worldly clientele helped them to realise what they needed to know, helped them get their bearings. And, out of restaurant reviews in newspapers, a culture of reading about food arose. These days, I doubt that any other nation is more obsessed with books, magazines and newspaper sections prescribing what to chew and swallow.

Other factors were important. Australia was able to grow ingredients native to tropical as well as cool climates. A reasonably sophisticated transport system got them to chefs in top condition. In many cases, chefs were near their producers – something which is often not the case in Europe.

A parallel development in the diversity and quality of Australian wines was vital, and Len Evans' best-selling volume, the Australia and New Zealand Complete Book of Wine (1973), detonated a wine-drinking explosion. If Australians lacked a food culture in the crucial years of growth, they never lacked a spirit of adventure. It's true: we do give things a go. Eating out was a novelty, yes, but you wouldn't have got Europeans or Americans or Canadians to put what we did in our mouths. We were open to anything and eager for change. We embraced new food, and in the process created our own style.

For all that, I don't like some of the things I'm seeing. Unlike Melbourne, Sydney is practically without a middle level of affordable restaurants. The democratisation of dining and the development of a uniquely and adventurously Australian cuisine is stalling. Sydney is a world city, and overpriced eating out counts. Wealthy business types and tourists have skewed its restaurant profile. And in Melbourne I've recently observed the rise of restaurants more interested in marketing plans than gastronomy. Tao's, a franchise from Taiwan, and the Meat & Wine Co from South Africa are corporations first and restaurants second. They are just not good enough: you pay too much for their ridiculously ordinary tucker.

If we are to keep our independently owned restaurants and the high standards we have achieved, we must guard against restaurant corporatisation. We must frequent privately owned places more fervently than ever. A huge firm, Groupe Flo, these days owns most of Paris's most famous brasseries. It also owns the Hippopotamus chain of steakhouses. Big business provides most of the food at restaurants in tourist magnets such as the Louvre and Eiffel Tower. I asked a friend who lived in London until recently to list some reasonably priced places in the British capital. Of perhaps a dozen suggestions, only one was not a chain outlet or a franchise of some sort.

Having created the world's best eating out; let's see whether we can hang on to it in the face of the almighty dollar. I'm confident we can.  ♦

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