Perhaps not seen as much these days, but that simple phrase chalked outside a restaurant was a sure sign to invite confidence when travelling in France. That was of course before Tripadvisor recommendations or a passionate tweet from friends.
The boss eats here.
No not Bruce Springsteen. But if his appetite matches his menu of songs we’d guess he’d love to sit where the food was honest, inspiring, imaginative, expressive and bold.
In Sydney’s slowly evolving but rapidly churning restaurant strips there are very few establishments with the longevity or following of a thousand cafes beside the routes of France, where father often passes the pans to daughter or son.
There is however one force majeure in the person of Justin Hemmes.
Here comes the Patron
From a stylish family who dressed the fashionable young things of Sydney in the sixties and seventies, this man has become very much his own man in designing the hospitality on offer in this city.
His late father John (of Mr John’s menswear) and his mother Merivale, (of the eponymous fashion label) were early supporters of his instincts and skills at spotting a city venue in need of a spruce-up.
Hotel CBD, the Slip Inn, the $50m Establishment, with one of its floors devoted to 3hat chef Peter Doyle’s restaurant est, and the $150m multi-level, multi-venue Ivy. The last two were perilous balancing acts indeed with banks and city officials very wary of a young upstart challenging the Old Guard.
The list goes on. Mr Wong’s, Papi Chulo, sushi e. They succeeded mightily. He moved on to the suburbs. The hot ones. Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Coogee , Paddington, Newport, Alexandria.
Vastly different structures and formulas. But all of them bright, attractive, expansively decorated and above all professionally run. His pursuit of top chefs, sommeliers, managers and staff is the talk of town.
Twenty years on, one of his smallest startups is a shining example of his art, selecting and polishing like a jeweller.
Fre d’s in Paddington.
Yes, there is meant to be a space in there. Fill it in yourself with memories.
First, take one room …
You’ve been in houses with bigger dining rooms. It seats just 60 and you all sit around the kitchen watching your meals come to life. Some diners actually sit up at the preparation tables. A huge cooking space with flaming grills and braziers and a pizza oven is the glowing focus of the room.
Head Chef Danielle Alvarez and her brigade of women coax the fires like magicians to bring to life their mission statement, “honouring and elevating seasonal produce by using both old-world and innovative techniques.”
That sounds like a glib mantra. Many restaurants would claim that as their own. But many dedicated restaurant reviewers have found that to be fully delivered only rarely.
At Fre d’s, Danielle is the whole truth.
Danielle started her professional life at the famous French Laundry (three Michelin stars) in California. Even working in a lowly position you are brushing with greatness every day. More recently she spent four years at Chez Panisse with Alice Walker passionate advocate for sustainable local produce. Charmed by some of the dishes he’d tasted from Danielle in the USA, Justin Hemmes brought her to Australia a couple of years ago, offering her her own restaurant. The frantic Merivale schedule meant this took a little time to fulfill so she eased herself into Sydney, designing menus and cooking for the The Coogee Pavilion and The Paddington. With sketches, she gave Justin her ideas for her dream, based on a provincial French dining room. The Patron has truly delivered.
In her own words
When the heat of the kitchen had cooled a little we were able to ask Danielle a few questions.
When did ingredient quality become your obsession?
Probably when I was first working in California and got to see first hand the farms that all of our produce came from. When you see how the food we eat has such a huge impact on our communities and the environment–then it all started to click for me. The choices we make around food affect so many people and places; which proves to me that food is so much more than just nourishment.
How was you first day at work in a real restaurant?
Intense! It was at the French Laundry in Napa. I was very scared but I just kept my head down and remember trying to work as quickly and efficiently as possible and not get yelled at.
Tell us about one of your most memorable meals.
Most memorable meal in Australia was very recent. Justin surprised a few of us staff members with a last minute trip as a thank you for good work over the last year. He made lasagna and there was cheese, salad, aperol spritz. Very simple but it’s a stunning house overlooking a beautiful beach and because of the secrecy and “last minute” nature of it all we all felt like pinching ourselves…like “is this real?” It was flawless, effortless and extraordinary.
What gives you most pleasure during a day at work?
I love making pasta. Unfortunately because I’m usually running around checking up on a million different things I don’t often get to do it start to finish but I do love it.
Anything that cheeses you off?
It really bothers me when chefs don’t taste the food they are cooking. I feel it is the single most important step in the kitchen but for some reason it gets forgotten. That goes hand in hand with not seasoning every step of the way. I am always telling my chefs this. Season everything!
Do you have any favourite ingredients? Wines?
Meyer lemons and anchovies. That variety of lemon is a bit harder to come by here but there is a grower in the Hawkesbury that has them and I take her entire crop if she lets me! They are so versatile and can be used so many more ways than the regular Eureka lemons we’re used to because they’re a lot sweeter. And anchovies because when used properly they add this beautiful umami, salty note to things without being fishy. I have to be careful not to add anchovies to everything!
As for wine … Domaine Tempier Bandol Rose is the best in summer.
How do you relax?
I take myself to the beach for a swim and some sun. People in Sydney and greater Australia are so lucky to have these magnificent beaches all around. I love that I can be at a beautiful beach within 15 minutes from my apartment in Paddington. The ocean really is the cure for everything and it doesn’t cost a thing! In the winter, I like to cozy up at home or tuck into a restaurant with some friends for a good long lunch.
Any thoughts for the future?
Just to continue what we are doing but try to do it better every day.
I feel very blessed to work in a place like Fre d’s and I think we have only scratched the surface of what is achievable.
True to her creed, Chef changes her menu to reflect the produce available so if we praise a particular dish today it may not be there next week. But you can be assured it will be as beautiful as all her produce caressed by the flames.
The lamb à la ficelle, a leg hung by a string in front of the coals, carved and served in juicy slices with a grilled lamb chop on spring vegetables. The wood-oven fired fougasse is served with soft butter and oil that are as remarkable as the crisp bread itself.
The hand-rolled pasta tinted green with peas served with rabbit; the shaved zucchini salad with burrata, pine nuts and cherry tomatoes; hasselback potatoes with pecorino and rosemary on the side. You may finish with the chocolate pot of crème with poached cherries. Or a selection of cheeses with wonderful honey, sourdough and lavosh.
Mostly ingredients you’ve had before but rarely have they sung their freshness and flavor so purely.
Le Patron est charmant ici
When we lunched there recently, Mrs TML had need of the bathroom (as they say in California. Should we say toilet? Loo?) A tall gentleman was already waiting outside the unisex facility. With a smile he said: “You know there is another toilet just up the stairs?
Why don’t I use that one?” And with a soft bound, he was gone.
Who was that mystery man who minutes later without fanfare rejoined his companions at the quiet table just up from us?
Oh yes,. There is another Merivale jewel downstairs. The fabulous Charlie Parker’s Bar. That’s a whole nother story.
Step up to the bar at www.merivale.com.au/charlieparkers