Coming Full Circle
Star Anise owner/chef David Coomer with Pata Negra chefs Matt Stone and Kurt Samson were amid the embryonic shambles of their new Nedlands venture when I chatted with them. Upon meeting up with David, he quickly launched into an introduction to his new baby, Pata Negra, while the builders provided a convincing backdrop of clamor behind us. Pata Negra (which opened its doors in July) is Spanish but, it is emphasised, does not only offer tapas. Spain is a country close to the hearts of these chefs, with David relishing the simple, rustic cooking traditions and Matt having recently spent several weeks touring the country.
"I went to Spain and got to taste a lot of different types of food," says Matt.
"It was great. You go into a pintxo (Basque for tapas) and have an anchovy on a bit of bread, then walk up the road and have a totally different tapas experience - it might be croquettes or freshly sliced ham with tomato bread. It was definitely very inspirational and got me totally excited about this cuisine".
"There are very few restaurants around Perth that do a realistic style of Spanish food," adds David.
"So we are looking to introduce something very new. There'll be a real Moorish theme to it. Historically, Spain was heavily influenced by the Arabs, and they introduced cinnamon, cardamom, coriander and all sorts of spices that are found in Middle Eastern and North African food. These have become entrenched in Spanish cuisine. In Spain, a lot of the tapas bars are moving to all sorts of global foods. You might find sashimi-style tapas in Barcelona. But I['d rather start here with real Spanish food".
It's quite a seismic shift from the fine dining and gastronomic wizardry that has made Star Anise what it is today. But things weren't always so rosy for the much-lauded establishment. Opening its doors in 1998, Sydney-born David and his wife Kareen's plan was to create a nice suburban bistro that locals could flock to that served simple, modern food.
"But people, for some ungodly reason, didn't get it". says David.
"They complained about the chairs, or the noise, or the lack of atmosphere. Plus we had no money at all. No equipment and all our ovens were lousy. It was a really difficult time. So it took us a little while to get where we're at - around six years for things to start coming around and for people to say 'this is great'. And whether Perth has caught up to me or something, I don't know. I used to serve a curry with lamb shanks or a wagyu beef pie, pretty straightforward stuff. We'd always had a duck dish on the menu too and a lot of Asian-influenced food as well. I loved the food. It was so much simpler back then".
Nowadays, of course, Star Anise is best known for being uber-creative in the kitchen, with adventurous dishes such as oyster and hiramasa kingfish tartare with horseradish foam and pavlova with fairy floss peppering the menu. Techniques used in molecular gastronomy, such as freezing with liquid nitrogen and poaching in vacuum bags, are among David's bag of tricks. But, he believes, it's all just a part of progress.
"There are a lot of misnomers about the whole molecular thing," he says.
"We had the stove, then convection ovens, and this is just the next progression. I can see everyone will be doing it on ten years' time. The liquid nitrogen thing is just freezing the heck out of something. But it's probably no more of a crazy concept than deep-frying, or microwaving.
"I think if people knew how easy it was to cook in a bain-marie, for example, then everybody would be doing it. Your food is consistent every single time. It retains all the juices and succulence and doesn't tighten the muscles like high heat does. In other words, a steak will be medium rare on the outside as well as the inside and not seared on the outside as people are used to. It doesn't have that graduation".
"Instead of whacking it into a hot oven, we just whack it into the freezing cold," adds Matt.
"Visually it's amazing, steaming and smoking, but it's just another way of cooking something. It's a concrete way to get a food consistently cooked every single time".
But while David is pleased with Star Anise's runaway success, it is his craving for simplicity that has brought him full circle in the restaurant game. The fundamentals of home cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients hold a lingering place in his heart, and it is clearly a methodology to which he is keen to return.
"I think the more I keep cooking, the more I like cooking simply," he says.
"It's the way I cook at home. In a little tapas restaurant you can chuck six prawns on the grill and a blob of garlic and parsley and it's so pure and simple. Whereas I can't do that at Star Anise. People would complain it was just prawns and garlic. While here, I can and it's food I really like to eat".