Thursday, July 17, 2014

Do you know the way to San Marino?

missing in action

When I lived in South Australia I validated my taste for Coopers Sparkling ale, wild harvested olives and San Marino prosciutto, not necessarily combined or in that order but certainly individually.
A few days ago I was researching Tasmanian made prosciutto and wasn’t making much head wind. Yes there are some fine examples of home cured hams of the prosciutto genus and humbly, I include my own in this category however commercially there appears to be none available. If someone can point me in another direction to the contrary I would be greatly appreciative.

As a result the fond memories of the San Marino prosciutto that had lingered in my sub-conscience for years, materialized before me like a ghostly manifestation of the Flying Dutchman through a fog.
The web searches I made for contact details proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated and was, as I later discovered, to be as elusive as the afore mentioned ship of folk lore.
Finally I made a call to the deli in the Adelaide market where the Marino family started it all approximately 40 years ago.

I was stunned to learn that they had not only stopped producing the prosciutto and their small goods, but had gone broke and lost everything including family homes. All that remained was their small shop in the Adelaide Central market.

The reason for their demise?

I was told that when the Australia government relaxed the laws on the importation on Italian prosciutto a few years back, the market was flooded with cheaper imports and San Marino could simply not compete.

The irony of making a product that was unable to be procured in Australia for so long only to be usurped by that very same product years later was not lost on me.
I felt very bad for the Marino family.

Can anyone else shed some light on this situation?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Don't be afraid to tap or get tapped, it's part of the cycle

‘Restaurateur in business number 23, please come in your time is now up’

Down by Studley Park boathouse, before it became a cottaging-industry and round about time the Sullivan’s’ were on the tellie, you could hire boats and paddle about under the wire-suspension bridge.
One could lie back in the Dory and imagine Withnail’s Cambridge, in which Uncle Monty might’ve regaled you from the pages of a crumpet-butter stained book.
If you were a 70’s long haired me though, your Dad and uncle would’ve manned the oars and you were left in the rudderless stern to endure an eternity of enforced-passenger boredom until the spiv with the megaphone called you in as your time was, thankfully, up.

‘Can the two gentlemen and the young lady in skiff number 23 please come in, your time is up!’

In Politics, we often hear the phrase, ‘Time to tap him (its usually a him) on the shoulder’ meaning to let the person in question know in a dignified manner, that it was time to get off the potty, someone else is going to piss from now on.
Poor old Petey Costello never did quite have enough gumption to tap lil’ Johnny on the shoulder did he? Our Julia had no such qualms with little Kev however he was to snatch the ‘double-tap’ and find himself back on the potty after a popularity contest.

The ‘double-tap’ however was not his invention. Keen viewers of contemporary movie culture will know that this term was used to ‘kill a zombie’ in the film ‘Zombieland’. Complicating things though, is the gen-why patois of the singular ‘Tap’ as in ‘I’d tap that’, to mean, ‘I would seriously shag that person’.

Anyways, my point is this: Is it time to tap on the shoulders of our older restaurateurs, café owners and style-meisters and say; ‘sorry old chum, we think your time is up’

Why am I asking this question?

Am I the only one that finds it mildly embarrassing to see a once triumphant business owner struggling along bravely behind the glass of a deserted restaurant or café whilst around them a steady stream of custom weaves its way past and on to the latest Pho, wrap-bar or Izakaya?

To see these leviathans of hospitality, once at the cutting edge of food, design and service, floundering to remain relevant in the jet-wash left by the new and younger push is quite disconcerting? I always knew food was fashion but to see it played out so overtly is sobering.

Of course I count myself as one of the fogeys that I am lamenting, however the distinction must be made that I am not trying to go all skinny jeans, pretend to enjoy ‘Skins’ or listen to a band that I wont even pretend to know or name simply because by the time I’ve heard about them, they’ll no longer be hip.
‘Hip’, is that even used anymore? You getting my drift?
I understand why some operators do go after that most elusive of markets, the young ‘it’ crowd and funnily enough it’s not just about chasing the dollar. It’s more about remaining relevant. It’s like one last role of the dice to remain cool and to have your tastes validated by a younger crowd. It’s about vanity.

All good things though, must come to an end and it is a bitter pill for many of my number who still want to party like its nineteen ninety nine. ‘Why must it end’ they cry from the offices of the ACCC and weeping over their seized goods advertised in the Gowings Auction catalogue. All this ignominy could be avoided if someone just plucked up the courage to tap them on the shoulder and let them exit stage left.

A theory that might be considered is that as these impresarios get older, the demographic they cater to does as well and with them, their currency as a trendsetter diminishes considerably. It might be like the cool kid who impressed his schoolmates for a few years but then he got held back and had to repeat a few years. The young ‘uns coming through don’t think his jokes are funny, he’s out of step and they eventually pity him for being detained? (was that THE clumsiest analogy you’ve ever read?)

The fact is that bygone times are speckled with former café owners, restaurant operators and empire builders who have gone quietly into the nights’ recesses of our memory. It happens. I’ve oft thought that this is the impetus for many of them to have their businesses kept alive in book form as a way not only to keep them from fading away but actually as a head-stone of sorts to prove that they once existed. This plan unfortunately goes sadly south though when said book is remaindered on the $10 table before being dispatched to the tip shop bookshelves or as an ingredient in Yates ‘Mushroom Compost’.

Oh yeah, what about you then, four-eyes?’ I hear you ask. Fair question it is too. Well, I’ll just sit tight here and wait till this ‘Hip’ thing blows over. You never know, what I do might come around again, like fashion and this time, I’ll be prepared!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

the milk crate, the break + laneway cricket

Where did that time go?
Once upon a time, when your mise en place was completed to brimming, your section tidied down and your accoutrements for service were gathered you were able to take a break.
What made this all the more remarkable was the fact that we had a largish brigade and the cost to the business if it were scaffolded onto today’s leaner staffing requirements, would make it positively and prohibitively costly.

Most businesses today could simply not afford the luxury of a large brigade yet alone one lying dormant until the onset of dinner service. But these were different times. These were times when kitchens and front of house staff stopped to break bread together, to share stories, to complain about the staff meal and where industry journeymen could glean nuggets of experience from the veterans in their number.
It’s almost inconceivable in today’s hospitality culture that it was normal to sit together and break for a meal. These days a ‘just in time’ culture pervades where there is no room at all for downtime, be it from staff, produce or even the delivery of hospitality.

In my final years as an apprentice, the Bistrot that I worked in shared its back lane with ten or so restaurants which straddled the border of theatre-land on Exhibition St and the little Burke of Chinatown. At around 5.30-ish every evening, small rings of milk crates were assembled like Pilgrims Wagon circles with each posse of restaurant or café workers cradling a plate, a drink and a ciggie. The last rays of the day would fall through the cracks of the buildings and sometimes land on one of our spots and for a fleeting instance and not unlike a camera flash, fill the hearts of those in the shadows of restaurant life with the sunniness that we imagined the 9 to 5ers might enjoy regularly.

Our waiters replete in Penguin like black and white and for the most part we cooks, in creased and yellowing whites with the accumulation of prep smearing any clear surface, sat around in various states of animation. Remember this was pre-mobile phones or social media so conversation ruled.

Its funny how a uniform, that leit-motif of conformity, can still leave enough room in which to manifest ones uniqueness. For instance, Aldo the reserved and polished senior waiter absolutely owned his ‘look’ and was a study of Marcello Mastroianni’s urbane and debonair presence, in crisp black and white.
Tony however, could make a freshly laundered and pressed shirt, waistcoat and trousers looked like he’d slept in them for a month. So it was with our Head chefs immaculate whites compared to the rag tag mob of us dishevelled apprentices. For example: one of our number turning up to work thinking it was acceptable to wear a still damp Pyjama top as his chefs jacket was still soaking in nappy san? Our head chef’s death-stare wasn’t even enough to convince the dim-witted bloke in question that he had made a grave error in judgement.

Looking down the laneway, the little commune of other restaurant staff huddled over an imagined campfire all looked remarkably similar, as if one was book-ended by two mirrors, stretching the reflection into a mind-numbing infinity. Years ago, when Brunswick Street was at its zenith, I used to joke that all the café kitchens were linked by a labyrinth of tunnels and populated by an inter-changeable garrison of cooks, such was the homogeny of the offering presented at the time. The laneway of 1987 could have been a sketch of that yarn certainly as far as it may have been painted but definitely not as far as the diversity of the menus were concerned.

Of course shovelling-in some sustenance was important during these breaks but played second fiddle to the real reason why we broke and that reason was,
Laneway cricket or Laneway football (soccer)
As a pressure relief valve, these brief sporting interludes were an indispensable tool in the Chefs and Maitre’d’s kitbag for keeping morale high. They wisely avoided any Front of house Vs Kitchen match ups and instead opted for mixed teams. There were no other rules except Tippety-run and one-bounce one-hand catches for cricket and running goalies for football.
The designers of the humble milk crate may never have imagined the versatility of their milk-carrying receptacle being utilized in so many various ways but as a makeshift wicket, a goal post or a stool, they couldn’t be beat.

After a bout of intense exercise we’d re-enter the sanctum of the workplace energized and once again re-calibrate our positions within the hierarchy of the hospitality machine, ready for service.
I loved those brief interludes where the little space between the playfulness of youth and the expectations of adulthood was still just big enough to run around in, even momentarily.

Some of the other relaxation pursuits we engaged in during these breaks:

Wrapping someones car up in cling film
Pelting someones car with eggs
Making cling-film parachutes for eggs before lobbing them into exhibition St.
Sling-shotting eggs into Burke and Exhibition Streets.
Lifting-up someones (small) car and leaving it sideways in the lane
Covering someones car in every box or milkcrate in the lane
Pinching deliveries left outside other restaurants back doors
Leaving explicit graffitti on lane walls and bluestones
Getting a quick haircut at Vince + Doms under Her Majesties Theatre
Parking our cars where the Chinese museum now is
Putting a bet on for the chef at the old Southern Cross Hotel underground Tavern
Getting some Take away from King of Kings
Buying aprons at Sam Bears
Doing laps at the City Baths
Eating pasta al forno at Pellegrinis
Annoying the owner by not buying anything at the Burke St haberdasher
Cashing wage cheque at the ANZ cnr Exhibition + Burke
Catching a flick at the Greater Union
Borrowing stuff from the Florentino + Society restaurants
Watching the staff roll up to work at Tiki + Johns at 6pm

I have written about the disappearance of the staff meal before and of a person who once resided in this lane and remains a rich source of memories for me to trawl. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The critic didn't close the restaurant-the punters did

Restaurants go broke for many reasons but you know what? Getting a bad review is not one of them. Show me a direct correlation between an unfavourable critique and the business shutting their doors and I’ll go ‘Hee’ for Tiggy.
But before you chime ‘That Sydney joint that Matt Evans wrote about’ and the last gasp of compensation paid by Fairfax media to the former owners which was reported in the papers today, let me say that all the people I talked to about that particular establishment said it was crap.
Well at least the ones who weren’t coke addled and can at least remember 2003, heady times eh? But who really wants to remember TaTu, Nickelback, Big Bruva + Delta Goodram yet alone a restaurant whose only claim to fame on the Sydney dining landscape was its eventual demise and subsequent whinging by the former pestaurateurs?
I mean, break down the facts. How many people read that paper in 2003? How many again read the restaurant review? How many people besides anxious chefs, restaurateurs + foodies know who the reviewer is? Now compare that number to the population of Sydney and how many Tourists came into the city in 2003. Seriously, how many of these people would read that review and decide that they would not darken the door of said restaurant?
There’s also this unwarranted assumption that restaurant goers out there are hanging off every word of the restaurant reviewers when the reality is very different. I bet if you did a quick Vox pop on the streets of Sydney or any capital city for that matter and asked passers by who was the chief reviewer of that city’s paper they’d more than likely have no idea.
My point is that out of a relatively large population how did one printed opinion cause the demise of a restaurant?
By comparison, are Margaret and David responsible for a particular film bombing because they didn’t rate it? Ditto for theatres’ Bryce Hallett, Arts Holland Cotter or Michael Kimmelman? No.
The plaintiffs won a settlement because they pursued the angle that their business collapse left them poorer, anxious and scarred. Was the restaurant crap? Probably.

However, was the settlement a bad day for free speech? Give me a break! It’s a restaurant review gone South not an expose of conditions for Asylum seekers incarcerated on Mannus Island.
An indication of how the players in this small news story view their plights could be summed up with this quote from the defending ex-restaurant reviewer who issued a statement after the settlement was awarded: “the tragedy is, I wont be writing reviews anymore’. Err, sorry? What was that? A ‘Tragedy?’
No, a tragedy is when a thousand wage slaves die in a fire making cheap garments for us to by in Big W or K Mart. This is typical of the self aggrandisement many in our industry fall victim to. For many of us deluded hospo people, we see what we do as important a vocation as surgery, air-traffic control or even the high arts and this is the fuel for satire, an expression we are very sensitive to.

It’s never good to learn of a restaurant business going tits up. The knock on effect to suppliers and staff who are owed entitlements have reverberations throughout the industry and economy for years to come, even causing some suppliers to go under themselves. If there could be a lesson in these situations perhaps it is to illustrate how difficult it is to operate a successful hospitality venture and perhaps people really need to be qualified and accredited to take on such ventures?

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Just make my latte Coffee Geek!

'No Soy-Lattes, No Soy- Lattes!"
I read a humorous article today that wryly observed that Hipster Barista attitudes were getting in the way of enjoying ones coffee. By simply ordering a cappuccino you might be putting yourself at risk of being maligned by coffee personnel at you local café. Caveat: Not in my café that’s for sure!
The parallels between the precious attitudes from chefs toward their customers and what they will and will not cook are very similar.
Todays, ‘We will only be serving black coffees as we don’t want anything to get in the way of how the coffee is supposed to taste’ was yesterdays, ‘I will not cook a steak well-done’ for similar reasons.
Guess what mate? I’m paying so I want my coffee hot, milky and strong!
I like my meat well done but hey thanks for making me feel bad about it!
Since when did these bearded zealots infiltrate our cafes and enforce some sort of Coffee Fatwa on us apparent infidels who like a cappuccino, a mocha or a white coffee? What’s next, female baristas in a Burqua?

I tell you what Coffee Geek, just make the coffee and the less attitude, the better.
'Hi, I'm Chet and I only do cold-drip baby-chinos' 

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Post Function de-brief

the candles being lit
Nic with baby food jars
Guests having taken blindfolds off
About to eat baby food
a view of the table
still-life with sushi mobile, Nic + Howard Arkley original
channelling the 1980's-bread in pots
I had to have a go: Edible soil (rolls eyes) + micro vegetables 
cocktail ephemera 
Baby bottle sentinels
So a mate calls me and asks if I’d be interested in catering for a surprise themed birthday party for his wife. Sure, when is it? Three weeks. Oh, um mentally scrutinizing my already choko inner-calendar, OK. The only thing is mate, there’s no running water, hot or cold, no cooking facilities or prep area. It’s up three flights of stairs and you have to cook outside without lights.
Usually messages like this self-destruct after reading however my friend waited on the end of the line for my answer, OK, I’m in, thus beginning a frenzy of exchanged emails and growing anxiousness at the complexity of the gig and the very real possibility of failure that lurked ready to spring.

He wanted the event to be in four distinct themes and after a week of calls and emails we had firmed them up. They were to be Birth and childhood, House and garden. Friends and family and: My wife is hot.

He wanted it to be a n over the top, sensory overload kinda affair. The venue was a lofty open gallery space with high ceilings, exposed conduits, thick wooden pillars and beams and an amazing collection of contemporary art.

The whole experience had to be symbiotic so I couldn’t just advise on the menu or drinks, I had to incorporate as much theatre and props as I did ingredients and cooking techniques. We consulted and collaborated well so it was very easy to action most of our ideas and thankfully navigated any potential differences of opinion. He is a professional creative person and I like to think of myself as one also so it was a relief that we were both so agreeable!

After a few days of ruminating, we went for the following.


Guests arrive knowing they are having dinner but nothing else.
They are taken upstairs in an elevator and alight into a corridor facing a closed roller door where they are handed blindfolds.
We walk them into the room where they assemble in a space where there is loud audio of a beating heart followed by another beating heart. The sound morphs into a woman in labour followed by the wails of a new born baby and then the soft noises of the baby being soothed.

Birth and childhood

We then hand out baby bottles with a alcoholic milky cocktail and the guest suckle whilst listening to mother and baby bonding.
An audio of the hosts daughter inform they are at her mothers’ birthday and may remove their masks and look up.
Above their heads are some suspended mobiles with fishing line and hooks catching individual pieces of sushi.

Guests are now seated on a long hand-made table with zillions of candles and candelabras hang over head.
Each person is given a bib and a warm clean nappy smelling faintly of talcum powder.
In front of them are two small jars of baby food, chicken liver pate, corn + crab veloute and a coloured spoon and they are invited to ‘spoon feed’ their neighbours.
Syringes of blue and pink cocktails are handed out. Beer is available in medicine jars.
Montages of the hosts’ wife as a child are played on flat-screen.

House and garden

Music selection played.
Bread rolls baked in terracotta pots with hand churned truffle butter are bought to the table followed by warmed little terracotta pots filled with tiny cooked carrots, turnips, beetroot and spring onions in an ‘edible-soil’

Vintage cups and saucers arrive with shaved beef, chilli, herbs, soba noodles, soy and shallots accompanied by Tea pots with multicoloured woollen tea cosies containing a rich beef broth to be poured by ‘Mum’ at the table.

2 large buckets are suspended above the table, one with red and one with white wine accessible through a long gravity fed garden hose and gun-nozzle directly into the wine glasses.

Friends and family

Crayons and paper are distributed and guests are invited to complete the sentence: ‘I remember the time when ________ and I first met’ Discussion and speeches.

Three large pans of paella with chicken, chorizo, peppers, clams, mussels + olives are bought to the table with three long skewers of wing-in-wing entwined barbequed quail and three bowls of grilled split prawns dressed simply with lemon, salt + olive oil.

More speeches and anecdotes

My wife is hot

Sambuca cocktails in test tubes are served with a backdrop of sexy video montage and music.

Dark chocolate parfait, brownie cake crumbs, orange treacle and blobs of lemon curd are doused with Larks Gun Island Rum, flambéed by gas gun and bought to the table to end the proceedings

More cocktails etc.

From my point of view, things went exactly as planned and I was really stoked to hear that everyone loved the whole evening. It was such a great function to be a part of and a pleasure to hold and event to an enthusiastic and lively crowd of people. The speeches were heartfelt, the humour earthy and the love in the room, palpable, overall, a close group of friends celebrating a significant birthday and it was a delight to be involved.