Looking for a sea change

Tobias Cox says Australian seafood is every bit as good as the American product.

Tobias Cox says Australian seafood is every bit as good as the American product.

Australian seafood could easily compete in an international market, as one top American chef discovered during a tour of the land down-under.

Tobias Cox has just had the trip of his life. Hawaii-born but raised in Colorado, Cox is now based in Florida, where he is an executive sous-chef with the Loews Hotel Group at Universal Studios, Orlando. He’s just spent two weeks travelling Australia, as part of his prize in the third annual Taste Down Under competition, sponsored by the National Food Industry Strategy Group (NFIS). “It’s just been overwhelming”, he says, “We’ve seen such extremes and been places where ordinary tourists just don’t get to go.”

Those places were strewn across six Australian states—from the Queen Victoria Markets in Melbourne to a sheep farm in the Adelaide Hills, an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory and the Sydney Fish Markets. On his travels, Cox has sampled everything from a range of South Australian oysters to West Australian pearl meat, fresh salmon roe in the Yarra Valley and barra from the Top End. But it wasn’t all about seafood—he says it will be a while before he forgets kangaroo meat… not to mention witchetty grubs.

An appreciation of Australian seafood was what won Cox his Taste Down Under experience. The competition, which aims to introduce Australian cuisine and products to young American chefs, is open to students and graduates at Johnson and Wales University, one of North America’s best-known hospitality training institutions. Entrants submitted recipes for three species of Australian seafood—Tassal’s Royal Tasmanian Salmon, Lobster Australia’s Western Rock Lobster and Newfishing’s Wild Caught Tiger Prawns. At a finalists’ cook-off in Miami, Tobias took out the Grand Prize with a spectacular salt baked rock lobster, accompanied by an avocado mango salad and ginger tomato iced tea.

With a new drive to sell Australian seafood to the US—playing on our reputation for a “clean, green” production environment and strong quality and safety controls—Cox says there’s no doubt Australians can match American product.

“Australian seafood is great,” he says, “but you do need to know how to use it. The rock lobster, for example, is a lot firmer than our Maine lobster, so timing during cooking it is really important.” Tasmanian salmon, in his view, is every bit as good as Seattle salmon—although naturally a pricier alternative by the time it reaches his kitchens in Orlando.

In the end, he says, the American consumer will take some convincing before deciding to pay more for an Australian-branded product, particularly when the local alternative is so much more familiar. What’s more, he says, few Americans have an image of Australian food products beyond the “shrimp on the barbie” and “blooming onions”—specialty deep-fried onion rings served at a reproduction Aussie steakhouse chain called The Outback! The challenge, he says, is not to focus on the quality, but at improving shipping and distribution chains to make our exports as appealing as possible financially, while still remaining at the higher end of the market.

The message Cox will be taking home with him is that Australian seafood is worth the extra cash—not least due to the care and passion shown by producers he met on his travels.

“We’ve been spoiled with the best restaurants and special wine dinners… and the produce… It just blows you away,” he says. “Even in some of the littlest towns, we found people with such passion for what they do. And I didn’t even know you had olive oils here but they were some of the best I’ve ever had. The taste is so clean you just want to drink it!”

While there’s no shortage of passion among small independent growers and producers in the States, he says he will return home struck by their Aussie counterparts’ pride and love for what they do.

For those interested in cracking the US hospitality scene, it’s interesting to learn that with what Cox calls the “new rock star status of chefs”, there’s a huge increase in the number of young Americans wanting to learn the trade. “But only about 40 per cent make it. And you’ve got to take some punishment first!” says Cox, who graduated in 1994.

Once they enter the working world, US graduates often find themselves in an increasingly corporate environment, with far fewer of the “independent” operations that he found in Australia.

“Chefs used to be only chefs,” he muses, “but now you have to be a businessman—as much of a people manager as a cook.”

Food safety and product liability are another major element in his job, in a society where food-borne illness and food scares attract major headlines. In fact, he will spend a staggering 20 hours a month on food safety training—receiving regular updates and briefings, and passing that information onto his staff in formal training sessions. Fear of litigation has Cox rigidly charting every step in the kitchen process. “It costs a lot in training, but if people sue you, that’s a million dollars,” he says.

Fine dining in the US is increasingly attached to a “corporate label” or franchise, Cox claims. Much of the product purchasing within a group like Loews is directed by a detailed analysis of trends as well as cost. Big restaurateurs and corporations have privileged relationships with top-quality purveyors, but for most businesses the profit incentive will drive all purchasing decisions.

“If I’m choosing between a $10 per kilo tomato and a $4 per kilo tomato, the question is, can you really tell the difference?”

Also vital to the success of Australian produce in international waters is the ‘story’ that goes with it. Cox says he won’t forget tasting Coffin Bay oysters in an oyster bar in Adelaide, drinking wine with a group of winemakers, tasting a pile of banana prawns at Donovan’s in Melbourne or the “freshest, cleanest” smoked salmon from Tasmania.

“To sell an Australian product to a guest you must create a story from it, they’ll think maybe, I can get the same feeling you did… Chefs are also salesmen these days, they have to sell themselves… and the product.”

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