Contemporary Australian Cuisine, Food Worth Flying For
Contemporary Australian cuisine is best exemplified in the inventive dishes served in its best restaurants, where in recent decades a unique form of fusion cuisine has emerged, rooted in Australia’s multicultural heritage, global flavours and techniques, and beautiful home-grown produce.
Contemporary Australia Cuisine, Food Worthy Flying For
It all starts with a sublime sashimi of Corner Inlet rock flathead, Tasmanian trumpeter, salt cured wild oyster cream, black lipped abalone, raw sea cabbage, nasturtiums, warrigal greens, and periwinkles, presented prettily on an elegant white ceramic plate. It only takes one mouthful.
I close my eyes and see a montage of scratched Super 8-style home movie images of building sandcastles by the sea on a scorching summer’s day, collecting oysters from the sandy floor of a shallow lake, fishing for flathead from the beach, picking flowers in my grandmother’s garden.
Yet this dish that tastes so distinctly Australian that it evokes such strong childhood memories, is all-at-once Asian and European – as are the next enchanting dishes on the ten-course tasting menu at Chef Peter Gilmore’s Quay, one of Australia’s most celebrated restaurants, overlooking Sydney’s sparkling harbour and iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
There’s a congee – the ubiquitous Asian rice porridge – of Northern Australian mud crab, fresh palm heart and egg yolk emulsion; a roasted partridge breast with steamed truffle brioche, confit egg yolk, new season white walnuts, and fumet of Vin Jaune; and there’s a luscious black-lipped abalone and rare breed pig belly, served with shitake mushrooms, warrigal greens, ginger milk curd, earth and sea consommé, and wasabi flowers.
Focused on fresh, seasonal, local produce that highlights nature’s diversity, Peter Gilmore’s food epitomizes the newer style of contemporary Australian cuisine that has developed over the last three decades in the country’s finest restaurant kitchens.
A Natural Fusion of Culinary Influences
Contemporary Australian cuisine’s roots are in European technique, especially French, Spanish and Italian. Yet it’s increasingly commonplace to see an array of exotic ingredients from Australia’s Asian neighbours on the same plate – ingredients often grown on Australian soil – and the cuisines of the Middle East and Latin America have also had an influence.
Australian cuisine has incorporated (and discarded) the fashionable tricks and flourishes that have travelled the globe over the last thirty years, food trends that have come into and gone out of fashion in the same way that shifting hemlines or drum beats have.
You’ll see the foreign influences that have swept the world, from the foams and emulsions of the modernist Catalan and Basque cuisines to the earthy ingredients of Scandinavia, but the aromas you inhale, the flavours you taste, and the textures you feel in your mouth are far more local than they are global.
Contemporary Australian cuisine is a unique form of fusion cuisine that has evolved in recent decades, but you’ll rarely hear it called that. The word ‘fusion’ became a dirty word following the much-maligned cuisine’s spread around the world in the late 1980s, going out of favour in the mid 1990s.
But contemporary Australian cuisine couldn’t be further removed from the often-crass, asinine food of the period that involved ill thought-out juxtapositions of flavours and ingredients.
And yet it was the modern fusion cuisines of the 1980s that gave way to the wonders and playfulness of modernist cuisine and molecular gastronomy, and the more nuanced, creative cuisines that have emerged around the world in recent years – none of which would have come about without those early, clumsy experiments.
In Australia, in multicultural Sydney and Melbourne especially, ‘fusion’ best describes some of the most exciting, inventive, adventurous, and audacious food being served anywhere on the planet.
The most outstanding examples are at restaurants such as Attica, Quay, Brae, Marque, Sepia, Rockpool, Tetsuya’s, The Bridge Room, and Cutler & Co, Australia’s most awarded restaurants, frequently at the pinnacle of top 100 restaurant lists such as those released annually by Australian Gourmet Traveller, and the newer Australian Financial Review list, voted by chefs and restaurateurs.
These restaurants also make appearances on the influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants lists. This year, Attica ranked at #32; Quay, which has been on the list for almost a decade, came in at #58; Sepia at #84; and Brae at #87. It should also be noted that Australian chefs are at the helm (and in the kitchens) of many other restaurants on the list, most notably: Brett Graham, whose restaurant The Ledbury in London was #20 on the list; David Thompson, whose restaurant Nahm in Bangkok ranked at #22; while Tetsuya Wakuda‘s Singapore restaurant Waku Ghin was #70 this year.
For us, the restaurants that started it all, both of which opened in 1989, are Tets’ legendary Tetsuya’s, fusing Japanese, French and Australian, and Neil Perry’s fantastic seafood focused Rockpool, which went through several incarnations.
The culinary stars of contemporary Australian cuisine today are undeniably Ben Shewry of Attica, Peter Gilmore of Quay, Dan Hunter of Brae, Martin Benn at Sepia, Mark Best of Marque, Phil Wood at Rockpool, and Ross Lusted at The Bridge Room, just to name a few.
Daring, original and progressive, these chefs are fusing traditional anglo-Australian dishes with diverse ‘ethnic’ and indigenous flavours and ingredients with finesse, in ways that are subtle, sophisticated, complex, and balanced. It is fusion not for fusion’s sake that has been forced, simply to be novel. Rather, it is a fusion cuisine that has evolved organically and naturally over time; a fusion that makes sense.
And we have Australia’s wonderfully-wide array of local produce, rich cultural diversity, culinary risk-takers, and open-minded and imaginative chefs to thank for that.
A Country with a Rich Cultural Diversity
Australia’s Aboriginal history is thought to be between 40-60,000 years old, however, it’s only in recent years that chefs such as Ben Shewry have began to experiment with indigenous ingredients in dishes like the Native Fruits of Australia, above, and Aboriginal chefs like Mark Olive have really developed a following, releasing cookbooks on indigenous-based recipes and making public appearances.
Australia’s immigration history is long and complex, marked after British colonization by successive waves of immigrants from China, the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and Asia.
After a number of failed attempts by the Portuguese and Dutch to settle Australia, the British succeeded in occupying Australia in 1788 when colonization began. The First Fleet of ships to arrive included an Italian convict and a French winemaker and merchant.
The first major wave of immigrants were Chinese, some 50,000 Cantonese in 1851 for the Gold Rush. Many served as cooks at the mines and after the boom resettled all over Australia. These days nearly every country town will have a Chinese restaurant.
Lebanese and Syrians escaping the Ottoman Empire settled in Australia in the 1880-90s. Russians started arriving after the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, and then again after World War II.
The Lebanese continued to come to Australia until the 1950s, then there were second and third waves of Lebanese arriving after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and 1975 Lebanese civil war. Egyptians started arriving in the 1940s and 1950s after the Suez Crisis, while Turkish settled from 1967 under a new assisted passage scheme.
Greeks, Italians, French, and Eastern Europeans settled in large numbers after World War II. Maltese arrived under the first assisted passage scheme in 1948 while Turkish settled from 1967 onwards under another assisted passage scheme. More French landed in the 1960s and 1970s following independence of French colonies in Asia and Africa.
Latin Americans, from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and El Salvador fled military rule for Australia in the 1960s and 1970s; Asians, including Vietnamese and Cambodians did the same throughout the 1970s; and beginning in the 1980s, Iranians, Afghans and Iraqis fled war and poverty for Australia.
In recent years, refugees from the Middle East and Asia have continued to arrive by sea, however, they have (shamefully) been turned away.
As a society, Australia hasn’t expected ‘new Australians’ to assimilate to the extent that some nations have. Many older immigrants speak little English, communicating in the language of their birthplace. As a result, their culture and cuisine has retained its authenticity and ‘ethnic’ food became Australian food.
A Cuisine Rooted In Its Multicultural Heritage
The influence that our multicultural society and heritage has had on the chefs above – and others, such as Martin Boetz, who started modern Thai restaurant Longrain, Richard Ptacnik at elegant Italian bistro Otto Ristorante, and Jonathan Barthelmess at the contemporary Greek spot, The Apollo – is profound.
Many of Australia’s finest chefs have their roots in other countries, from France to Greece, Turkey to Lebanon, Vietnam to Japan. But even those chefs whose early settler-ancestors arrived from Britain from the late 1700s on grew up eating everything from pho to borscht, hommus to kung pao.
Australians are brought up eating dishes from an array of cuisines, depending on our ancestry and the multicultural make-up of our neighbourhoods. As a child, the Lebanese-baker father of my school friend would often give me bags of flat Arabic bread to take home while our Cuban neighbours would stews pots of black beans and pork.
My mother’s kitchen shelves were crammed with the French, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and Chinese cookbooks that were so fashionable in the 1970s in Australia. On Friday nights we’d religiously go out for Chinese food, which I now know was Cantonese, while French restaurants were reserved for special occasions.
Occasionally, we’d have a meat pie or sausage roll, generally as a treat at school, at a weekend sports match or on country drives. Eating fish and chips was a summer ritual after a day at the beach. They were the remnants of our Anglo culinary culture, along with the traditional counter meals that we’d tuck into at a pub on outback road trips. Although of course the great Aussie counter meal has had a gastronomic revival in recent years.
Sunday lunches were reserved for the grandparents. My Aussie grandparents, former dairy farmers of British heritage, always served a succulent roast, ‘three veg’ and gravy, followed by my nanna’s homemade apple pie and ice-cream. The Russian grandparents on my mother’s side, who had been small-producing market gardeners, would spread out a feast of rollmops and dark rye bread, boiled eggs and caviar, borscht, pilimeni and varyniki dumplings, cabbage rolls, meatballs, and pink beetroot potato salad.
Chef Peter Gilmore of Quay restaurant had a similar sort of culinary childhood.
“I ate quite multi-culturally as a child,” he told us as we chatted while sampling a new dessert experiment. “My parents had friends from all different parts of the world. We ate a lot of Italian, French, Chinese, and traditional English-Australian food at home.”
“Now, at home I’ll often do an Indian or Thai curry, as they have quite different flavour profiles from the food I cook at work. If I’m going out with my family we tend to eat dim sum or sushi,” he added.
“Our multicultural society had a big impact on my development as a chef – from the flavour combinations to the cooking techniques,” the chef admitted.
When you understand that over a quarter of Australians were born overseas, with a further one-fifth having at least one overseas-born parent, then it’s not hard to understand why ‘foreign’ food is no longer very foreign in Australia and why it’s perfectly natural for an Aussie to reach for pomegranates as for kohlrabi, couscous and quinoa, scallops or chorizo – and then combine them together in new and unexpected ways that work.
Many Australians throw a tube of Japanese wasabi or Thai fish sauce in our shopping carts, as easily as others might salt or pepper. We think nothing of rolling our own sushi or making a pho stock.
Shop at markets in Chinatown and you’ll be inhaling fresh fragrant herbs and vegetables typically found in South East Asia. Stroll down the main streets of suburbs like Campsie and you’ll find halal butchers holding prayer breeds, with signs written in Arabic, squeezed between Chinese dumpling shops and Korean grocery stores.
A short taxi ride away from Quay on the other side of the city centre in a dark, dramatic dining room in the hip inner-city suburb of Surry Hills, Chef Mark Best’s menu at Marque features artfully presented plates of his adventurous cuisine.
There are local specialties such as Western Australian marron (a black-coloured freshwater crayfish) with paprika, wakame, avocado and lemon; blue swimmer crab with almond jelly, almond gazpacho, sweet corn and Avruga caviar; and spring onion with jamon, tuna, and Madeira.
While French-trained Best’s dishes boast more European flavours than Gilmore’s, they still feature ingredients such as wasabi and white soy, Asian flavours familiar to many food-loving Australians.
“My first love was classical French and regional French cuisine – that is the base from which I work,” Mark Best told us over lunch at his other restaurant Pei Moderne. “But my other love is regional Chinese and street food.”
“I like to bring these influences to each ingredient without it being obvious or overt. I look at ingredients like you would wine – taste, texture, flavour, colour. In that way I can make unusual choices and associations,” the chef explained.
“A focus on texture, which is one of the most important aspects for me, is a direct influence from travelling and eating in Asia,” Best said.
Melbourne-based, New Zealand-born chef Ben Shewry, who we chatted to in the dimly lit dining room of his Ripponlea restaurant, Attica, said his Asian experience had also had a major hold on him, despite the more apparent influences of the indigenous cultures of Australia and New Zealand. (The image above is Shewry’s Native Fruits of Australia dish.)
“We ate interesting things as kids,” Shewry said. “In the eighties my mother was into Chinese cookery and she had Chinese cookbooks and that made me take an interest in Asian cuisine.”
“My main influence after my French training – which I mainly ignore now – has been Thailand and David Thompson and cooking that food for six years,” Shewry revealed. “While it’s not apparent, there are still things underlying, like the attention to detail and time we spend on the seasoning. We can take 10 minutes seasoning one dish with three guys working on it. That’s very Thai.”
“For the Thais, seasoning is ingrained in their culture – that sense of balance and harmony – it’s one of the most under-appreciated cuisines in the world and one of the most complicated,” Shewry elaborated. “That’s why it’s hardly ever good outside of Thailand. Staging with David Thompson, one of my two mentors, for the first time was such an eye-opener.”
A Nation With An Abundance of Beautiful Produce
Australia is a nation of foodies and it’s not hard to appreciate why. A colossal island surrounded by oceans, with Asia to our north, we are spoiled by an abundance of seafood. A warm land – half the country has a tropical climate, the monumental ‘red centre’ is an often-sweltering desert – Australians have access to countless kinds of produce, from exotic Asian fruits in the monsoonal north to European vegetables in the more temperate south.
There is beautiful beef reared on vast cattle stations in the rugged outback and wonderful pork and lamb raised by passionate small producers who really care, such as Richard Gunner with his wonderful Suffolk lamb and Greenvale Farm’s fabulous Berkshire pork.
The fantastic homegrown produce in Australia – as well as neighbouring New Zealand – has proved to be a tremendous inspiration for Australian chefs.
“For me, it’s really about the produce, its diversity and variety,” said Gilmore, whose first cookbook was called Food Inspired by Nature. “It’s about extracting and intensifying the natural flavours and balancing the textural elements of the ingredients.”
“The garden has always been an inspiration, foraging has been part of my life since birth,” Shewry said. “We were brought up in the backcountry. My father was a farmer – sheep and cattle – and my mother grew the vegetables to sustain us. We’d pick wild berries, we’d go to the beach and harvest the shellfish. That was everyday life.”
“We were always on the coast. I remember mussels on the beach. Dad would gather firewood, we had a grill plate in the back of the Holden Kingswood, and Dad would put the grill over the fire and we’d cook what we had over the grill,” Shewry recollected with a smile.
“One day I was creating a dish and it was called ‘Sea Taste’ and it was about the sea. The only seaweed we could get was dried seaweed from Japan. I’m a surfer, I know that there’s plenty of seaweed around, so I went to the beach and I started looking for seaweed,” Shewry recalled.
“I remember a wave came in and washed a piece of bright green seaweed on to the beach and I remember picking it up and thinking ‘that’s incredible’. Then I started to think about these plants that live here, and through time I found out what they were. And I began to eat them myself in my spare time, and then my staff began to eat them, and then the customers began to eat them,” Shewry said with a grin.
“It brought back a lot of memories of my childhood – time spent with my mother and my father,” the chef confided. “So then I began looking around the restaurant and foraging along the train lines, and our list started to grow to the point where through the seasons we were picking over 100 things just in this area which is super amazing.”
Fresh local produce has long been the main source of inspiration for Chef Dan Hunter of Brae, which leapt onto the World’s 50 Best Restaurants this year. Hunter has his own kitchen garden at the Birregurra restaurant on the southern coast of Victoria, and also had a garden at his former restaurant, The Royal Mail at Dunkeld in the northwest of the southern Australian state.
“I’ve always been interested in sustainability and the bush in Australia and the outdoors. I’ve always felt a connection and responsibility for the land,” Hunter revealed. “So when I first moved to Dunkeld one of the key things was the idea of having my own garden.”
“I’d been working at Mugaritz in Spain and we had small suppliers providing beautiful produce,” Hunter recalled. “So (back in Australia) I bought the seeds, I bought the plants, I determined what we needed for each season, and we got a full-time gardener.”
“The gardener became part of the kitchen team essentially. So instead of an extra chef, we had a gardener on the team,” Hunter laughed. “The vegetables that we’ve grown, the vegetables that I’ve eaten, are the best vegetables I’ve eaten anywhere.”
“My food is reflective of the land of the place I’m cooking in, because the background of the dishes come from this region. We grow as much as we can and for me that is regionality – we only grow stuff that can only grow in this region,” Hunter said.
A Country of Culinary Risk-Taking Foodies
While chefs like Hunter and Shewry can pick ingredients from their own gardens and forage in their backyards for produce, Australian foodies look to farmers markets and specialty shops like Simon Johnston and Hudson Meats, although most Aussies can find quality cuts of meat and fresh produce in good old-fashioned suburban butchers, grocery stores and independent supermarkets.
For the average Australian cook, ‘foreign’ ingredients are easily bought – if not in supermarkets, in Asian markets and shops in Chinatown, and ‘ethnic’ grocery stores in suburbs like Sydney’s Vietnamese centre, Cabramatta, and Melbourne’s Dandenong or ‘Little India’.
What this means is that generally Australians are people who can eat anything – or at the very least are willing to try anything (even if they don’t necessarily turn out to like it) – from seriously spicy food to every part of the animal. We even eat our national symbols, the kangaroo and the emu, that appear on our coat of arms.
Once again, we have our immigrant ancestors to thank for our culinary risk-taking. During the 1980s and 1990s, following an influx of Asian immigrants, refugees, business people, and foreign students, our suburban streets became dotted with Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, Korean, and Japanese restaurants, and eating Asian cuisines became popular.
It became natural to pick up some take-away sushi or slurp laksa for lunch and going out for Thai or Vietnamese for dinner with friends became the norm for many. As a result, Australians became frequent travellers to Asia – to Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, and later, to India, Japan, China, and Vietnam. For many, our destinations were often decided by our taste buds.
“It is precisely Australia’s ethnic diversity and our geographical location that makes our cuisine so unique,” Best said. “I travel a lot in Asia so I can’t help but take on those influences and inject them into what I do. The produce is also very different, as growers produce for different ethnic markets within Australia. We get the benefit of all of this.”
Gilmore agreed. “From an ingredient point of view the wide variety of what we have available here in Australia is an incredible resource,” he said. “And I think it’s important to be aware and educated in how certain ingredients are used within their traditional cuisine.”
“You certainly can’t throw diverse ingredients together and hope for the best,” the chef explained. “Using a traditional Chinese technique for example with a non-traditional ingredient can bring about a spectacular new taste, but it needs to be done with restraint, respect and considered thinking.”
Shewry revealed, however, that the abundance and accessibility to foreign ingredients was frustrating for him at first.
“It was super frustrating for me in the beginning, when I started cooking over here,” Shewry said. “Everywhere you looked there were influences on our culture from other lands and that was frustrating, because if I wanted to use a sausage it was always going to be something like chorizo.”
“But over time I saw that could be one of our strengths – that we’re not self-conscious about history as far as food is concerned, we have immense freedom, and that we don’t have preconceived ideas about, say, how a lasagna should be. As long as it tastes good there are no cultural prejudices,” the chef explained.
Open-Minded Chefs With A Singular Vision
When we met two of the world’s greatest chefs, Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana (currently #2 restaurant in the world) and René Redzepi of NOMA (#3), at the Melbourne International Food Festival a few years ago, they had fine things to say about contemporary Australian cuisine and the country’s chefs.
René Redzepi said Gilmore, Best, Shewry, and Hunter “all have a very strong understanding of putting ingredients on a plate. Ben’s cuisine is rooted in local place, Mark’s is European-inspired, and Peter’s is rooted in Asian immigration and culture,” Redzepi said. “But in essence, we’re all the same… searching for a special moment on a plate.”
“These chefs are doing a beautiful job of using techniques to fully express the cuisine. It’s not about ego,” Bottura said. “It’s much more about the produce and the ingredients, the way they express themselves and their land, and their sense of place.”
But what do the Aussie chefs think of the contemporary Australian cuisine that they have helped to forge.
“Australia’s best chefs are very intelligent people and very open people, but with strong views,” Hunter said. “There is a definite Australian openness when it comes to food – to both cooking it and eating it – and it’s a healthy sign of the times.”
“Personally I’ve always tried to walk my own path when it comes to creating my cuisine. But no one lives in a bubble and the world is a much smaller place these days. We all influence each other,” Gilmore admitted. “But Australia has some unique ingredients, diverse influences and open-minded chefs. I think we are creating something quite special here.”
“I think that we have a unique voice in the world of cuisine,” said Best. “I think any one professing an interest in food and travel should put Australia at the top of their list.”
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This is the 2015 update of a story commissioned by Sabor magazine, first researched from September 2011 to March 2012. Another story on the subject was published by Four Seasons Magazine. Mouthwatering Melbourne, a story for Lifestyle+Travel focused on that city’s gastronomic scene and was researched and photographed the same trip. Many thanks to Peter Gilmore, Mark Best, Ben Shewry, Dan Hunter, and many other chefs for their generous hospitality.
If you enjoyed this you might like: State of Dining Out in Australia; Australian Food Trends We Love; Appetising Australia; Best Food Experiences in Australia; Eating Out in Sydney, the Best Restaurants; Eating Out in Melbourne, Contemporary Australian Cuisine; Eating Out in Melbourne, from European to Asian and Back Again; Eating Out in Melbourne, ‘Ethnic’ Cuisine; Eating Out in Melbourne, Contemporary Asian Cuisine; Australia’s best food and wine road trips; and these mouthwatering time-lapses featuring Melbourne and Sydney’s restaurant scenes.
Pictured above: Ben Shewry’s Native Fruits of Australia dish.