This weekend I spent an Afternoon with the Stars. 3 of the current stars of Australian contemporary cooking: Ben Shewry of Attica, Melbourne, Josh Lopez of GOMA Restaurant Brisbane and James Viles of Bowral’s Biota Dining. They were assembled to discuss the age-old question, “Is there such a thing as Australian cuisine?”
In front of a group of food lovers, chefs and media at the Gallery of Modern Art for the Brisbane Times Good Food Month event, they chatted about their beginnings, their inspirations and where they are now.
Ben Shewry thought when he first started at his now much acclaimed restaurant (number 32 in the Pellegrino World top 50) that he would cook what people wanted, risotto or steak frites. He found quickly the food was emotionless and without identity. Encouraged by his guests and others he developed his own take on contemporary Australian cuisine.
For Ben, there is “only one standard: if you get up in the morning and cook an egg, it should be the same high standard as cooking a piece of fish for a guest at 7pm… only one standard … every time you communicate with somebody, every time you express yourself, you should be trying to give your best”.
For James Viles, (who confessed to once having the attention span of a red-headed step-child), his cooking now reflects his deep connections to the people, produce and landscape of NSW’s Southern Highlands. He once worked in the towers of Dubai, sitting seven hours a day, project managing his suppliers -sourcing meat from New Zealand, fruit from Lebanon and seafood from Australia.
Today, he barters with locals for “amazing clementines, chestnuts, truffles and sheep’s milk”. He forages and fishes and in turn, connects his diners with the origins of their food. Biota means plant and animal life from a region.
Josh Lopez is an ambassador for the Scenic Rim – Brisbane’s food bowl. He believes the connection between producer, selection of ingredients and creativity is priceless. Even his bespoke, hand made plates are from local artisans. He feels it is plain wrong to “source locally and ethically and then place that food onto mass produced plates”.
Josh feels chefs have a massive responsibility to present Australian produce, especially native ingredients to the public. Today, he thinks we are, “… open-minded and willing to accept Australia’s unique and diverse ingredients”.
All three chefs design menus without pretentions, that are sustainable and where possible organic. Unswervingly serious? No, as evidenced by Ben’s Wallaby Blood Pikelets. Not an invention of David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino but a funky, blood-dark snack of pikelet with Davidson Plum jam, cream and some leaves from the garden.
James hopes we might one day have regional cuisines just like the Italians. Ben believes what defines a great cuisine is the integrity and quality of the ingredients. Josh considers Australia’s cuisine should be labelled contemporary, not ‘90’s Mod Australian that was a fusion of Asian ingredients and traditional technique.
Is there such a thing such as Australian cuisine? For these three chefs, maybe not just yet, but they are sure having fun finding out and are more than happy to take us along for the ride.
The Brisbane Times Good Food Month continues until August 9 with a mouth-watering program of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, barhops and events across Brisbane and Queensland’s regions. For the full directory of events: www.brisbanegoodfoodmonth.com