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North, South, Eat and Whet

May 6, 2010

We Explodys don’t muck around. While the Explody parental unit continues to eat its way through Spain and France, the junior Explodys have been covering all culinary bases back in the motherland. Over the past weekend, Brother Explody (aka Chris Watson, currently sous chef at Melbourne’s Cutler & Co) was in Queensland as Andrew McConnell’s right hand man at the Noosa Food and Wine Festival, while I represented the Explodys at the Tasting Australia Festival in Adelaide.

Tasting Australia by the River Torrens

Before I proceed, I need to get a food fangirl moment out of my system. No sooner had I arrived at the festival, than I walked past Ian Parmenter, my first ever TV chef hero! Back in the 1990s, before cooking and gastroporn dominated the media landscape, watching Ian Parmenter’s Consuming Passions was a weekly family event in the Explody household. Back in those days, Papa Explody bore more than a passing resemblance to Mr Parmenter and, being the head cook of the household, we constantly goaded him to grow his hair and don a beret to complement his moustache. While he refused to acquiesce, Mr Parmenter was an important culinary influence in a household which has ultimately produced a few good cooks and even a real life chef! So, of course I did not hesitate to wrangle him into a photo opp. He even complimented me on my outfit (ZOMG!)

Serendipitous sartorial splendour with Ian Parmenter

Moving on. I only had a tiny nibble at the broad programme on offer, heading to the second day of the Feast for the Senses event at Elder Park. After a short browse of the food and wine stalls, I met with fellow food bloggers Grab Your Fork and A Table for Two for ‘There’s a critic in my soup’, a discussion focusing on the current state of the restaurant industry from the perspectives of chefs (represented by England’s Antony Worrall Thompson and Ireland’s Paul Rankin) and critics (represented by Australia’s John Lethlean and Rob Broadfield).

Moderator Joanna Savill warned us (or perhaps the critics?) that Antony had brought his knives to the table, literally. Fortunately for all, the knives remained unsheathed as both chefs and critics agreed that, in general, the restaurant industries both in the UK and in Australia are in pretty good form despite recent global economic setbacks.

Critics to the right...

Chefs to the left...

While I enjoyed the exchanges between the cooks and the critics regarding the role of the critic to represent and inform the consumer, the highlight for me was a discussion regarding the three schools of cooking which currently dominate the global restaurant scene; their roles, their audiences and their influences. Initially outlined by Worrall Thompson, they can be briefly be summarised as follows:

1. Molecular gastronomy, a la Ferran Adria’s El Bulli and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, which continue to be ranked among the world’s finest restaurants.

2. Produce-driven restaurants which champion local and organic ingredients, such as Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, Skye Gyngell’s Petersham Nurseries in London and Australia’s own Stefano Manfredi’s Bells at Killcare.

3. The school of cooking epitomised by Denmark’s Noma, which recently trumped El Bulli and The Fat Duck to be named the world’s best restaurant, which to my mind, bridges the gap between the two aforementioned schools of cooking. While employing the scientific techniques used in ‘molecular gastronomy’, this school also champions the use of local, native and wild ingredients, with chefs foraging for ingredients in the most unexpected places. Here we see innovative interpretations of place, nature, history and personal experience. In the same way an artist paints a landscape, these chefs interpret the landscape on the plate and for the palate.

Worrall Thompson raised the point that the chef’s expectations and experiences of these temples of molecular gastronomy, rated as the world’s best restaurants, are quite different to those of the average ‘punter’, arguably represented by the critic. The Adrias and Blumenthals of the world push the boundaries of what we think of as ‘food’ and ‘eating’ to their absolute limits, but such dining experiences could perhaps be better categorised as ‘performance art’ than ‘having a feed’.

This led me to reflect on the Australian experience. Without a doubt, my culinary highlight of 2009 (aside from the, quite possibly kilos of, anchovy pastries I consumed at Cutler & Co) was a dinner hosted at Sydney’s Marque, showcasing the innovative cuisine of Marque’s Mark Best and Attica’s Ben Shewry to celebrate their invitation to attend the 2010 Madrid Fusion gastronomic festival alongside Adria and Blumenthal among other heavyweights of culinary innovation.

In the humble opinion of this eater, rambler, and occasional producer of cogent thoughts, Shewry and Best are currently at the forefront of culinary innovation and excellence in Australia (as well as being top blokes to boot). I’ve eaten at enough places to know what I like in top-end dining, and they deliver it: food which is a heady combination of culinary intellect, science, theatre, the highest respect for produce, generosity and most importantly the soul and personality of the chefs themselves. Not only this, a feed from these guys will leave you satiated but not overwhelm your appetite or palate. Flourishes of ethereal brilliance are comfortingly accompanied by recognisable and familiar ingredients on the plate, so often missing from food inspired by molecular gastronomy.

For me, the highlight of Shewry’s delicate dishes were the unfamiliar foraged ingredients: flowers, wild purslane and seaweed to name a few, now a trademark of his cuisine along with restaurants such as Noma. As an aside, I doubt that I am the only Twitterer in attendance who will never walk past a rosemary plant in flower without being reminded of that night. Indeed, I often pick a couple of tiny purple flowers and pop them in my mouth to savour the flavour and the memory, or rub a handful of them between my fingers to enjoy the fragrance.

The pinnacle of my gustatory delight came with Shewry’s famed dish ‘Terroir’, a textural sensation straddling savoury and sweet, featuring (to the best of my knowledge and recollection), beetroot, berries, sorrel granita and wild sorrel among other mysterious ingredients. Earthy, sweet, chewy, cold, melting on the tongue; each mouthful was a surprise, the dish changing moment by moment.

Ben Shewry's Terroir, Attica (courtesy of the charming Ed Charles of Tomato)

What can be concluded from this brief (albeit circuitous) glimpse of the state of all things culinary through the eyes of the critic, the chef and the consumer? All things considered, the industry is in a healthy state. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in the prosperous West are blessed with a culture of culinary excellence which appears to be entering a new phase of innovation.

Ultimately, food is fuel for the body, and yet, for those who wish to experience food on another level, like any fine art form, there are chefs who will challenge us and critics who will guide us. As I have discovered through my dining adventures at everywhere from Marque to Danks Street Depot (showcasing chef Jared Ingersoll’s superior understanding of seasonal, local produce) Australia’s restaurant scene is a microcosm of global dining in which we are literally able to experience the best of all worlds. How lucky we are!

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2010 14:49

    Felix, a beautiful meditation on taste, and so brilliantly expressed yet again.

    • felixexplody permalink*
      May 6, 2010 19:03

      Thanks gorgeous! I have such fond memories of that night at Marque. Happy days!!!

  2. May 6, 2010 15:21

    Hi Felix

    I just came across your blog for the first time. Just wanted to say I really enjoyed it. Fantastic writing, evocative, expressive and focused. Keep up the great work and I’ll drop by often πŸ™‚

    Fouad

    • felixexplody permalink*
      May 6, 2010 19:37

      Thanks Fouad, I only just discovered your site too, I don’t know how I could have missed it! Look forward to reading more of your work too!

  3. May 6, 2010 16:25

    Was fabulous to meet you finally πŸ™‚ I was hoping a few more knives would be out actually. And you didn’t mention yourself getting on the mike at the end! Antony raised a few interesting points and I love the way you tied them together here.

    • felixexplody permalink*
      May 6, 2010 19:39

      Fantastic to meet you too Helen! I do believe that yours was the first food blog I ever came across! Hehe, the issues I touched on regarding food blogging are for another day, and probably someone more qualified to discuss πŸ™‚

  4. May 7, 2010 14:22

    Great piece, Felix, and really interesting point about who the audience is for that super high concept food. I’ve been watching old Marco Pierre White vids on youtube, and he was saying in the late 1980s that people just didn’t get what he was doing; the audience he needed to pay him did not have the depth of understanding to get what was going on and the quality he was producing.

    The other benefits of these videos are (1) he really was quite the handsome young cranky chef and (2) you get to see Gordon Ramsay, but he doesn’t get to say anything πŸ˜‰

  5. East Londoner permalink
    May 8, 2010 02:52

    Tres appropriate that Guru Parmenter complemented you on your outfit, I was thinking the same thing when I saw the pic! Love it xx

  6. May 8, 2010 08:33

    Loving your work Felx, a joy to read!

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