AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW
PUBLISHED: 22 AUG 2013 00:46:00
This is a year of milestones for me. It is 30 years since opening my first restaurant and 20 years since I first began writing for Fairfax. What a great opportunity to reflect how our food habits have changed and evolved over the past few decades.
The 1980s held such great promise, not only for chefs and restaurants but also for great Australian produce. My generation had been inspired by the “new wave” that came before us. And in turn those chefs and restaurateurs such as Tony and Gay Bilson, Stephanie Alexander, Cheong Liew, Phillip Searle, Patric and Chrissie Juillet, Jenny Ferguson, Mogens Bay Esbensen, Mietta O’Donnell, Peter and Greg Doyle and Michael Manners had taken much from the French new wave known as “nouvelle cuisine”.
I remember a lot of mousselines and bavarois and turned vegetables and rich sauces like beurre blanc.
And though the decade began persistently “froggy”, it was changing, fuelled by an eclecticism born of Australia’s ethnic diversity and the food our migrants had brought with them.
There was also a wave of confidence as we moved towards the bicentenary in 1988 and we celebrated 200 years of European settlement. The result was a feeling that Australia had grown up. And while we fell in love with migrant food and wove it across eclectic menus throughout the country, we all but completely ignored indigenous foods and missed an early opportunity to develop a true modern Australian cuisine.
By the time the decade was over, the movement towards a menu that skipped across several cuisines had achieved critical mass. Neil Perry’s Blue Water Grill in Sydney and Iain Hewitson’s Last Aussie Fishcaf in Melbourne were two of the first restaurants to champion the new style that would become known as “modern Australian”.
RESERVATIONS OVER RESERVATIONS
It wasn’t just the food in these restaurants that was changing. The Last Aussie Fishcaf played loud music. Blue Water Grill did not take reservations. Here are the opening lines for the latter’s entry in the 1988 edition of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide, edited by Leo Schofield: “Perversely, the management here refuses to take bookings. It’s a silly and arrogant idea and should be scrapped.”
Also in the entry is a handy description of the movement forward: “He [Perry] abandoned classic cream sauces and demi-glaces for a more modern kind of food, somewhat Californian in style, involving lots of grilling and a slew of oriental influences.”
People loved it. It was so simple and so easy, sitting on that balcony, with the sun making the water sparkle the length of Bondi Beach. It was easy to imagine a new sort of cuisine.
It was also a social change in the way we were using restaurants. Australians were eating out more and with that we needed more casual places to dine.
But we were never really comfortable with this “modern Australian” tag. It was a continuing discussion, eerily running parallel to the debate on whether Australia should become a republic.
Even among leading chefs there was disagreement. In 1995, in a debate on the question “Is Australian Cuisine Possible in a Multicultural Society?” held at the Treasury Restaurant in the Inter-Continental Hotel in Sydney, Tony Bilson asked a packed room: “Does it exist only because Neil Perry said it does?”
The SMH’s Good Food Guide is a good way to track this discomfort. The moniker first appeared in the 1993 edition and in the following year’s guide “Modern Australian” was by far the largest section in its “Index by Cuisine”. It continued to grow until 2005 and then something happened in the 2006 edition. It disappeared. All the restaurants listed previously under “Modern Australian” were now suddenly “Contemporary”, a heading the publication continues in its current edition.
‘MERELY AN AFFECTATION’
I spoke to then co-editor Simon Thomsen and he told me that in lengthy discussions at the time with fellow editor Matthew Evans, they “decided that modern Australian cuisine did not exist. It was merely an affectation”.
And that was it. I’m not sure that diners really care all that much about labels or names. They’re more interested in good food and a great experience.
For the most compelling argument on the subject, I would urge those interested to read One Continuous Picnic by the Adelaide writer and culinary philosopher Michael Symons, published in 1982.
What is more interesting, at least to me, is the development in Australia from a predominantly French-based restaurant repertoire to a more diverse and less complicated style fitting a modern Australian lifestyle.
In a 1993 column for The Australian Financial Review, I interviewed Gay Bilson, from the three-hat Berowra Waters Inn, and asked if the same people she was influenced by all those years ago still excite her. “No. No, but the same kinds of things excite me,” she said.
“It’s usually to do with texture, flavour – not complicated method. Janni [Kyritsis] every now and then says, ‘I’m going to stuff this thing and really I’m going to need a binder’ and I know he’s just about to say ‘mousseline’ [laughs] and I say, ‘breadcrumbs, rice – there are all these other things you can stuff things with’.”
This continuing exploration of ethnic cuisines is carried on today. Chefs are able to apply their skills at all levels of the market and cooking styles.
You only have to look at the improvement in the variety of artisan bread available, not only in our cities but also increasingly in country areas.
While we’ve gone through the Spanish, right now there’s a hamburger revolution as well as a Mexican thing happening.
And even if you have no interest in spending money to go out to fancy restaurants, you’ll see chefs on television. Adriano Zumbo even has his personal brand of cake, biscuit and macaron packet mixes in supermarkets.
One thing hasn’t changed. Restaurants have always been more than a place where we go to eat.
Hunger is only a small part of the equation. We are looking for the total experience and we want to be able to share with friends.
Once, we just told our small circle where we had been and what we’d eaten. Today, by taking a single photo and sending it to our social networks, we can tell the world in real time.