Cooking the bunyip

What is contemporary Australian cuisine? “Fresh Australian cooking with fresh Australian ingredients embracing lots of different cultures... I bring them all together,” says chef Cheong Liew.

What is contemporary Australian cuisine? “Fresh Australian cooking with fresh Australian ingredients embracing lots of different cultures… I bring them all together,” says chef Cheong Liew.

A restaurant used to be identified by the origins of its cuisine, but now the contemporary Australian trend raises questions over source and history. So if we’re all eating contemporary Australian cuisine, what exactly is it? By John Newton

The bunyip is a mythological Australian animal whose presence sorely taxed the early European inhabitants. On 11 February 1847, the Port Phillip Herald wrote that “…naturalists of every grade have, since the plantation of the Australian colonies, been racking their brains with fruitless researches as to the existence or non-existence of the supposed amphibious monster, y’clept, amongst many other designations, the bunyip.” It occurred to me, as I was thinking about this article, that we have a modern bunyip in our midst: what has been variously called modern Australian cuisine (ModOz) or, more recently, contemporary Australian cuisine. Like the bunyip in the early days of the colony, everyone talks about it, but nobody quite knows what it is.

But here’s the really scary thing. In the last Restaurant & Catering Australia Benchmarking Survey (2006-07), in the national profile of cuisine types, double the number of restaurants called their food contemporary Australian than in previous surveys: CA (as we’ll mostly call it from now on) went from 15.9 per cent to 34 per cent. Check the graph.

We’re no longer Thai or Italian or Mexican or Indian or French—we’re contemporary Australian, whatever that means. And that’s what I intend to examine in this article. Is it, as food writer Jill Dupleix once wrote, “…a glorious new way of cooking that is sweeping all other cooking under the carpet”? Or does it exist, as Tony Bilson once quipped, only because Neil Perry said it does? If you want to know what’s cooking, you go into the kitchen.

So I began this investigation by talking to Cheong Liew, who has a Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the food and restaurant industry through involvement in developing and influencing the style of contemporary Australian cuisine. But I don’t believe he is, as claimed by Italian Australian gastronome Rosario Scarpato in a magazine article and later at a paper delivered at a symposium of gastronomy, a proponent of global cuisine. Scarpato talks of a cuisine that “surpasses geography.” As much as Liew’s techniques and ingredients do that, there is something else to contend with: a blend of attitude and geographic destiny, and it can’t be ignored.

Liew uses ingredients and techniques with global abandon, but his feet are firmly planted in a place called Adelaide in the state of South Australia on the island continent of Australia. And when he cooks, as he did at a wine dinner, such dishes as blue swimmer crab and Malacca rojack, Kangaroo Island marron baked with a lime marron mousse, and loin of Kangaroo Island lamb with Szechuan pepper, buttermilk chilli, lamb kidney and garlic sauce, he is betraying at once his origins and his whereabouts.

When asked what he thought CA was, Liew said, “Fresh Australian cooking with fresh Australian ingredients embracing a lot of different cultures—the techniques more than the dishes. I bring them all together.

“My own culture,” he said, “brings out the personality of my style of cooking. Basically, I’m using a lot of my culture’s judgments when I cook.”

And that culture, he reminds us, was also open, as CA is today, to a multitude of cultural influences. “Going back 600 years in Asia, there was a mix of cultures. When I was learning about kampong food [Malaysian village food], I learnt that it included influences from Arab traders, Indonesia, China. They took on all these cultures, and at the same time were trying to cook dishes to please the traders. It was like the old gold rush days in Ballarat, when the Chinese cooked wombat stir fry or their own version of steak and chips for the miners.

“And in Australia we have very open minds—even many Chinese restaurants will have a couple of Thai dishes,” he says.

But Liew is lucky. He has a starting point: the food he grew up with. “This book,” he wrote in the foreword to My Food (Allen & Unwin 1995), “is about my continuing culinary journey, after I came to Australia at the age of 20 and discovered new influences to add to the old.”

Another chef lucky enough to have culinary roots is Melbourne’s George Calombaris. For a while, however, Calombaris turned his back on his roots and, at Reserve in Federation Square, served such dishes as beef and ice cream: sugar-cured braised beef ‘croquet style’, studded with bone marrow, seeded mustard mash and brown onion ice cream.

Neither the restaurant nor the food was entirely successful. The onion ice cream wasn’t bad, but not as good as the version I first tasted from chef Francis Paniego at Echaurren in the Rioja town of Ezcaray in Spain. Both chefs—Calombaris and Paniego— were in the grips of the style known as ‘molecular cuisine’, whose most famous proponent is Ferran Adriá of El Bulli in Spain.

And before getting back to Calombaris and what he is now cooking—far more successfully—it’s worth noting what Adriá said about his own cooking when I interviewed him in Barcelona. With his food, and modern Spanish food generally, experimentation is made “firstly with Spanish flavours, although I believe the future is not the cuisine of different countries, but the cuisine of different cooks. “But you cook where you find yourself, and I find myself in Spain. If I go to Thailand and stay there for a month, I might think I know the flavours of Thailand. But when I go back to Spain, I can only create a version of Thai food. You must have a great respect for Thai culture to cook Thai food.”

Calombaris finds himself— and many would say found himself—as a chef of Greek heritage cooking in Australia. And in his new restaurant, The Press Club, he has returned to his ethnic roots, but with a difference.

“We take all the basic ingredients,” he told me, “and put a new twist to them. So Mum and Dad’s salad [horiatiki] gets shaved turnip added to it for crunch. We take a traditional spanakopita [a spinach and feta filo pastry pie] done as it has been done for centuries, and stuff it with mussels and braise them. We take the classic ideas and put a contemporary gloss on them.”

But is that contemporary Australian—or just contemporary? Or is that tradition with a twist the hallmark of CA? And, if so, how much twisting is too much?

A few years ago I was on my way to a meeting in The Rocks, Sydney’s oldest suburb, and now the home to numerous tourist eating houses and hotels, as well as a couple of our finest restaurants. Outside one of the former, the restaurant in a 3-star hotel of no great distinction, I was stopped by a menu displayed on a board. There was obviously, in that hotel, a chef who had been given the freedom (dangerous word) to unleash his version of CA on the diners in his restaurant. To be fair, I didn’t eat in this restaurant, so the food could well have been magnificent. Call me prejudiced, call me jaded, but years of reviewing and reading menus have taught me to mistrust a dish description over 20 words and two nationalities. Here are some dishes from that menu, chosen at random: risotto of Japanese scallops and fresh herbs with a green coconut curry sauce, and breast of chicken filled with a smoked salmon and shallot mousse, accompanied by lemon peppered potatoes, green beans with a light dill cream sauce. Our own sun-dried tomato fettuccine, fetta, olives and Asian vegetables in a roma tomato sauce.

Freedom in the kitchen can be dangerous when it is not accompanied by wisdom and technical ability. “That’s the reason I put so much emphasis on skills,” explains Tony Bilson. “French pastry cooking, Japanese fish cooking. If you don’t have the technical skills, it’s like trying to be a painter and not being able to mix colours. You may have a vision, but you can’t make it happen.”

David Pugh is the chef at Brisbane’s very successful Restaurant Two. On the menu you’ll find Port Lincoln blue fin tuna two ways— seared with organic sesame and ginger butter, carpaccio with Daikon apple and cucumber jelly. A deconstruction of that dish will take you to Venice, South Australia and Korea. Yet, unlike that appalling mishmash, your taste brain tells you it works.

Pugh’s view of CA is downto- earth and rooted in the kitchen. “It’s very much a restaurant cuisine,” he maintains, “but it’s not the ones at the top dictating it, it’s the ones in the middle.

“At the top you’ve got (chefs like) Peter Doyle and Shannon Bennett trying to outdo the French—that’s all smoke and mirrors. What we’re after is return clients— it’s not about who’s in the kitchen but what’s on the table.

“My first 10 years were French cooking,” Pugh said. “Then I worked at Baguette with Timmy Kemp in 1998- 99, and her background was Palace Thai cooking. We were doing things that David Thompson did later. We did chicken Krung Thep. You’d braise chicken in turmeric sauce, cool it and put it inside taro pastry—two for an entrée, three for a main. It was torture for the apprentices, but it was an instance of doing what I was strongest at and what Timmy was strongest at.

“I’ve worked with Italian chefs and with a Moroccan home cook. I also glean experiences from my staff—at the moment I have someone in the kitchen who was at Aria and Tabou—I look at some of the things they did there. It’s all about experience,” Pugh said.

Tony Bilson says he believes CA is simply a matter of self-identity. “Unless a restaurant chooses to identify itself as serving a national cuisine, it is, by definition, contemporary Australian.

“It is possible to argue Australian cuisine has affected the newest trends in modern French cuisine”—what he calls the rejection of regional influences—“because two of its top exponents, Pascal Barbot (L’Astrance) and Thierry Marx (Château Cordeillan- Bages), say their cooking has been influenced by working in Australia.” There’s a turn-up for the recipe books.

So how does a young chef begin to grasp this elusive cooking style? For Bilson, it’s straightforward. “Go to work in France. I would assert that French cooking is the only one with creativity at its core. Then go to China and Japan—certainly Japan. You can’t know what you’re going to cook until you have the techniques and experience of flavours.” Sound advice. It’s almost churlish to point out that Bilson himself is almost entirely self-taught—like many great Australian chefs.

For Cheong Liew, it’s a mixture of learning and decision-making. “The formal training somewhere like Regency or Ryde is very important. That’s the foundation. Then you can go and graft other things on top of that.” Should they adopt a cuisine, I asked? “Sure, if they’re competent,’’ Liew says. “It would be a bit of a challenge. But first of all, choose the best ingredients wherever you are. Find out what’s fresh and use it. That’s the best advice for any young chef.”

Have we tracked down that damned elusive bunyip? Maybe not yet. As David Pugh says, “It’s still a mixture. And if we ever do have a cuisine of our own it won’t be for a very long time—in the meantime, we do an amalgamation of what we know.”

And what we know isn’t too bad. As Cheong Liew said, “We must be doing something right—people around the world regard our style of food highly.” Whatever it is.

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