Sydney is a long way away. So it’s not surprising that we’re more familiar with the emerging food scene in, say Scandinavia or Spain. But when two pre-eminent Sydney chefs visited the UK, they told Tom Vaughan about a city in contention to be a major culinary powerhouse of the future
This is a shit product,” opines Mark Best as he sips a double espresso with a Grinch-esque grin across his face. Meanwhile, Pete Gilmore draws on his flat white and reflects: “Oh, yeah. Sydney folk have high expectations when it comes to coffee,” he replies. His voice booms low in a friendly baritone, that Australian linguistic idiosyncrasy – the high-rising intonation – framing the statement as a question. “It’s something we really miss when we’re in London.”
Best, chef-patron at Marque Restaurant, and Gilmore, executive chef at Quay Restaurant – both in Sydney – are two of Sydney’s highest-regarded chefs. We’re drinking what they deem a mediocre coffee in the bar at London’s Brown’s hotel. Best sits tall, thin and upright, Gilmore is shorter, tubbier and with that deep voice. Both of them are never a few sentences away from some cause of mirth, chuckling together with barely disguised larrikinism. They are on a diplomatic mission to London to raise the awareness of Sydney as a culinary destination, and can’t for the life of them find a good coffee.
It’s shouldn’t be that hard, but it seemingly is (raising awareness of Sydney, that is, not finding a good coffee). Best and Gilmore could both be counted among the world’s elite chefs – and they are merely the tip of the iceberg of the culinary scene that has emerged in Sydney over the past 15 years. But, as we establish often enough throughout the conversation, Australia is a long way away.
Over the past decade and a half, the Sydney food scene has – in many ways – mirrored London’s culinary explosion. “It has become a big place for fine-dining since the mid-1990s,” Gilmore says. “There has always been space in the top tier but now it has really boomed.”
Best agrees: “Especially since Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese. Sydney has become the hub in South-east Asia for the banking industry.”
“Then, of course, there were the Olympics in 2000,” Gilmore continues.
As in the UK, an increasingly foodie populace is driving the expansion of fine dining. When Gilmore featured on the final episode of the second series of Masterchef Australia in July, showing contestants how to cook his famous snow egg dessert recipe, the show attracted just under 4.5 million viewers at its peak – the highest-ever figures for a non-sporting event in Australian TV history. Now he can barely walk down the street without being recognised. Is the culture of the celebrity as alive in Australia as in the UK? “It’s bigger in the UK, I think,” says Gilmore. “We’ve got all the same Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay shows but it’s not to the same extent as over here.”
Like other major 21st-century financial centres – New York, London – the strength of the Sydney food scene lies in its diversity. “We’re pretty lucky,” Gilmore says. “Our dining public have generally been exposed to so many different food styles over the years that you can almost do what you want and not be judged for getting too far away from a traditional style.”
However, unlike major European and North American cities, Michelin’s lack of presence in Australia means that, historically, there has been no point of reference for Aussie chefs against the rest of the world. The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Good Food Guide – which awards hats like Michelin awards stars, on a ranking of one to three – has been the principal barometer of success. Quay and Marque are two out of the three restaurants in the city with three hats.
Things really changed for the country when the S Pelligrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants came to prominence following its launch in 2002, say the pair. Suddenly Australian chefs were pitted directly against their peers across the globe. In last year’s rankings, Quay came in at 27th, while Marque appeared for the first time, coming in 67th place and winning the Breakthrough Award. “It has given us a forum,” Gilmore says. “Beforehand, nothing like that existed. Now when we come over for the 50 Best awards it’s a chance to catch up with chefs across the world. As a result we all communicate with each other. I’m regularly e‑mailing and talking to René (Redzepi) at Noma. Plus there are all the food festivals that now happen worldwide.” For chefs, the world is becoming a lot smaller.
Like Redzepi at Noma, neither chef is overly influenced by traditionalist cuisines – which is even more surprising when one considers that part of their respective educations were served at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and Alain Passard’s L’Arpège in Paris (Best) and some notable UK country house hotels (Gilmore). Influenced but not controlled by the classic Gallic style they would have learnt in such establishments, both men’s cuisine is much more pan-continental – expressing individual styles rather than that of a certain country or tradition. As such, it’s no surprise to see them name-check El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià as a huge influence: “Ferran’s legacy won’t necessarily be in his techniques,” says Best. “It’ll be in the idea that anything is possible. He unshackled a lot of chefs.”
The principal direction of Sydney’s fine-dining at present is towards individualistic expression over culinary heritage, say the pair, with the country’s outstanding seafood at the heart of the cooking. Best and Gilmore view themselves as something of the middle generation in Sydney’s culinary scene. Before them came the likes of Neil Perry, whose restaurant, Bluewater Grill, took the city by storm when it opened in the early 1990s, and Tetsuya Wakuda, owner of Tetsuya’s, which sits at number 38 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the only other Australian entry after Marque and Quay. However, when Tetsuya’s lost a Chef Hat, going from three to two with the publication of the 2011 Good Food Guide, it sent out a big signal.
“The man’s an absolute legend and an internationally renowned chef,” says Best. “But when he lost that chef’s hat, it showed that the food scene was moving around him.”
The generation beneath Best and Gilmore is pushing Sydney’s food scene forward at an alarming pace. On a recent visit to Noma, Best discovered there were six Australian chefs in the kitchen, while the likes of Dan Hunter – an Aussie who was head chef at the two-Michelin-starred Mugaritz in San Sebastien – are making waves having returned to Australia from their travels. “All these young chefs are coming back from their time abroad and they represent this huge groundswell of talent threatening to break through,” says Gilmore. Best agrees: “It’s going to be very exciting. I’d love to see this next generation really push on and define Sydney.”
How do they view London’s restaurant scene? “Maybe it’s a bit behind,” Best says. “There are a lot of places here drawing on, say, Spanish or French influences but they need to kick on and develop their own unique style.
“What’ll be amazing is seeing Heston open up [his restaurant Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel] in January,” Best continues. “From the look of it he’s going to show that the UK has got a huge culinary heritage and chefs are only using a small part of it.”
Accepting that fine-dining is increasingly boundaryless, would either be tempted to move their boundary-pushing cuisine to London?
“It would make most sense,” reflects Gilmore. “New York would also be amazing. An offer would have to be on the table for me to move, though. You do sometimes feel a bit isolated in Australia. We know we’re doing amazing stuff, but the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily.”
Mark Best began his working life as an electrician in the gold mines of Western Australia before commencing an apprenticeship at the Macleay Street Bistro in Sydney in 1990. The experience ignited a passion for French cuisine and in his fourth year he was awarded the Josephine Pignolet Award for best up-and-coming chef in New South Wales. Alongside his wife, Valerie, Best opened Peninsula Bistro in Sydney in 1995. In 1998 he moved to Paris to work with Alain Passard at his three-Michelin-starred restaurant, L’Arpège. He followed this with a stint at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, before returning to Australia and opening Marque in 1999. His culinary style centres on strongly aesthetic dishes that let the ingredients shine. Best’s awards include Chef of the Year in the 2010 Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide, Restaurant of the Year for 2010 at the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Awards, and the S Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Breakthrough Award for 2010.
Born and raised in Sydney, Peter Gilmore completed a three-year cooking apprenticeship by the age of 19, then moved to the UK for three years where he worked in country house hotels before returning to Australia, and gaining critical recognition as head chef at De Beers Restaurant in Whale Beach, New South Wales. It was during this time that he created his signature style, drawing inspiration from nature and working closely with farmers and producers. His innovative dishes celebrate the diversity of nature, and play heavily with different textures. Gilmore was appointed executive chef of Quay Restaurant, in Sydney, in 2001. The restaurant has since received seven consecutive three Chefs Hat awards and Restaurant of the Year (2003 and 2005) from the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide. His first cookbook, Quay, was published in September by Murdoch Books.
Sydney’s restaurant scene
Terry Durack, editor of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide, on the city’s restaurant scene:
The big difference between the Sydney restaurant scene today and 10 years ago is its democratisation. Where once the impetus was mainly coming from the top tier – the established, well-heeled, French cuisine-driven fine diners, now all the action is coming from the middle ground. The licensing laws changed two years ago to allow for small bars to open without punishing licence fees, and we are slowly seeing a lot of chefs take advantage and open small bars with great food.
There is a new groundswell of emerging young, talented, energetic chefs working at all levels – in pub dining rooms, in these small, groovy bars with a food focus and in laid-back, low-key dining rooms. I haven’t actually seen Sydney so buzzing since the early 1990s, when Neil Perry opened Bluewater Grill doing fresh fish and great wine in a casual setting overlooking Bondi Beach. The other major influence is the world-wide trend to natural, produce-driven cooking, the so-called (by me) “supernatural” cuisine. The emergence of a Scandinavian ethos (led by Copenhagen’s Noma) has made provenance, seasonality and low food miles the new kitchen gods here, too. Personally, I think it will only happen for Sydney when we do our own thing regardless of current fads and fashions – so that sitting down to a meal in Sydney is totally different from sitting down to an equivalent table in Hong Kong, Dubai, Soho or Brooklyn. It should have the flavour of our produce, our land, our climate, our wine, our people – and it should also have a bit of that Aussie, larrikin, up-you element that would make it unique. I would give it another couple of years, for the next generation chefs to really start expressing themselves and for the restaurant culture here to change and realise that the rewards (Good Food Guide hats, for instance) are there not for people who copy overseas style or who are absentee chefs, but who do their own thing and do it superbly.
John Dory with summer squash, elderberries and lemon confit
Taken from Quay by Peter Gilmore
100g dried chickpeas
8 x 200g John Dory fillets
1tsp cumin seeds
1/2tsp coriander seeds
50g unsalted butter
2 French shallots, finely diced
1/2 garlic clove, finely diced
12g flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
Fine sea salt
100ml garlic cream
2tsp lemon confit
150ml clarified brown butter
50g red quinoa
40 very young baby leeks
16 baby kabu (white) turnips
8 yellow button squash
2tsp winter melon seeds
1tbs ripe elderberries
1tsp dried fennel pollen
2 elderflower heads, separated
4 coriander flower heads, separated
4 fennel flower heads, separated
32 flowering baby sour Mexican cucumbers
Soak the chickpeas in cold water overnight, then drain. Boil the chickpeas in water for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the skin from the John Dory fillets using a sharp knife. Trim the edges of the fish and remove any sinews. Place the fillets in the refrigerator until required. Put the cumin and coriander seeds in a dry frying pan over medium heat and roast until lightly coloured. Remove from the pan and finely chop.
Heat 30g of butter in a frying pan and lightly sauté the shallots and garlic, without colouring. Add the chopped seeds to the pan, remove from heat and put aside. Drain the cooked chickpeas, place them in a food processor and process until they are finely chopped. Add the shallot, garlic, cumin, coriander and parsley and process until combined. Transfer the chickpea mixture to a bowl, add the egg and mix through, then season to taste with sea salt. Form the mixture into eight small patties and refrigerate until required. These will be pan-fried and crumbled closer to serving.
Boil the red quinoa in water for 4-5 minutes, then drain and put aside. Top, tail and wash the baby leeks. Wash the baby turnips and trim the leaves so there is only 5mm of green stem showing. Using a 3cm round pastry cutter, punch a hole through the middle of each button squash. Trim away any remaining yellow skin and slice the squash into 4mm (1/8in) thick discs; you will need 32 slices. Gently reheat the garlic cream. Pan-fry the chickpea patties until golden brown. Allow to cool slightly and then crumble the patties.
Lightly season the John Dory. In two large non-stick frying pans, pan-roast the fish in 50ml of clarified brown butter. The fish should take no more than 2 minutes to cook, then drain and set aside. While the fish is cooking, gently heat the remaining 100ml of clarified brown butter in a small saucepan. Add the lemon confit, red quinoa, winter melon seeds and elderberries. Blanch the leeks, turnips and squash in a saucepan of boiling water for 1 minute, then drain. Melt the remaining 20g of butter and brush it over the vegetables, then season with sea salt.
Place four slices of squash on each serving plate. Add four dabs of garlic cream near the squash and place the fish on top. Sprinkle over the crumbled chickpea mixture. Place two tablespoons of the brown butter mixture over the top of the fish, sprinkle with fennel pollen and add the elderflowers, coriander flowers, fennel flowers and baby Mexican cucumbers. Finish with the baby leeks and turnips. Serve immediately.