Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The West Australian: October 2012

picture: Rob Duncan/The West Australian

Growing Pains for Perth Food Industry

Few could argue that these days, Perth’s food and beverage scene is fast-tracking at a blistering pace.  There’s the recent re-branding of Burswood Entertainment Complex to Crown Perth and its conga line of big names – Rockpool, Nobu, Guillaume – making the pilgrimage West.  Jamie Oliver is set to land in the city early next year.  On the home-front, the CBD’s new Brookfield Plaza has brought with it a level of world-class sophistication previously lacking locally, with The Trustee, Heritage and Print Hall openings derailing any further talk of the city being dismissed as sleepy.  Eclectic small bars are opening on a seemingly weekly basis, and even our fast food is becoming more gentrified.  And that’s not to mention all the bells and whistles that the ten hectares of Elizabeth Quay will bring with it, including pop-up kiosks, restaurants and cafes.  Phew. 

While Perth is unlikely to ever rival larger, more established food-centric cities such as New York, its hospitality industry nevertheless seems to be going gangbusters.  There’s a wider selection of eateries for diners to choose from, an increase in job creation and a shake-up in terms of food, service and venue quality.  So how are our local chefs faring with all this upheaval?

“With all the new places opening up, it’s certainly making staffing tight for the industry at the moment,” says Clint Nolan, the hands-on chef-owner of venues Harvest, La Cholita and Who’s Your Mumma.

“But I think that will subside in time, where there will be a lot more professionally-trained staff available.  Certainly for the short-term things are tighter on the employment front.  It doesn’t affect trade for us though, as we’re pretty isolated in the styles and venues that we have.  They’ve each got their own character and clientele, which is good.”

David Coomer, the owner of Pata Negra and new director of food to Print Hall, tends to agree.

“Staffing has always been a pain,” he says.

“The people have to come from somewhere.  But I think all the new openings will do wonders for staff training.  The more quality operations are around, the better quality our trainees are going to be, if you can find them to start with.”
The high cost of food, both for diners and for restaurateurs, is nothing new to Perth.  Factors such as our geographical isolation, food freight costs, staff penalty rates and high rents have all been cited as reasons to bump up the price of the average meal.  These days, many of not most main meals crack the $40 mark, while similar dishes in the Eastern states continue to languish in the thirties.  But with all this change, can we expect prices to tumble any time soon?

“We will always have the tyranny of distance,” says David.

“At Pata Negra, we’re passionate about buying locally.  But unfortunately a lot of stuff we need has to come from the Eastern states too, so we have those big freight cost issues.”

Although according to Matt Stone, executive chef to Greenhouse Perth, Melbourne’s Silo and an assortment of pop-ups, high food costs can often be due to one-part acquisitiveness, one-part complacency.

 “I’m lucky enough that I’ve been kicking around between Melbourne, Sydney and overseas a fair bit lately,” he says. 

“And when I come back to Perth, I feel some restaurants are taking the piss a little bit with the prices they charge.  Of course some food in Perth is going to cost more, but I don’t think that’s always the case.  Because we’ve been limited with the restaurants we’ve had here for so long, there are mediocre places that are charging a lot more for food than they probably should, and those prices have stayed.  I mean, you can go to an average pub and pay $45 for a steak, chips and salad, and the chips have come from a bag. But Perth people have been paying these prices for a long time, so a lot of restaurants continue to charge high. 

“I really love that in Melbourne there’s a great variety of mid-range restaurants that are serving beautiful food at a really affordable price.  I’d like to think Greenhouse fits into that category, but there aren’t many other mid-range restaurants in Perth.  And with all these big restaurants coming over, I hope that food prices drop due to producers growing everything in larger quantities and getting better yields.  But I don’t know if that will happen.”

But it’s not all bad news.  In fact, according to some, the future for the industry looks positively Day-Glo.

“With Perth growing up and creating its own hospitality culture, sure it might be tight in the short-term.  But in the long-term, it may stop our young final-year apprentices or anyone with any real professionalism moving to either Melbourne, London or New York to obtain that experience,” says Clint.

“They’re going to want to stay in Perth, because Perth will have the diversity and something to offer.  That’s what I’m looking forward to.  I mean, industry professionals are moving over here because of what we have to offer.  We’ve got the weather, we’ve got the beaches.  It won’t be long.  That’s when we’ve made it.  That’s when Perth will have really grown up.”  

Click here for the online article.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The West Australian: September 2012

photo: Marcqui Akins

NY Reviewer Comes to Australia

In the food critiquing world, you don’t get much more illustrious than Ruth Reichl.  Formerly a restaurant critic for The New York Times, she was known for her ability to make or break the restaurants she reviewed.  Such was her dedication to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the average diner, Reichl (pronounced Ry-chel) became famous for her disguises whilst reviewing, carefully tailoring each ensemble to avoid detection and retain her anonymity. 

Next month, she will be visiting the Crave Sydney International Food Festival to talk about her often hilarious experiences as a food critic.  Ah, but does she miss it?

““I have to say, I really miss the expense account,” she says with a chuckle down the line from her home in New York.

“But I was a critic for thirty years, so it’s really great to be able to go into a restaurant and order what I want instead of the weird dish on the menu that no-one else wants to order.  And to be able to go back again and again to favourite restaurants which, as a restaurant critic, is something you never get to do because you’re always having to move on to the next place.  It feels like a great treat.  I have a group of women, mostly chefs and writers, and we travel together and eat and that’s really fun.  Last year we went to Spain; this year we went to London and Paris.  We just eat like crazy people.  So that gives me a little taste of remembering what it was like to do all that.”

Unlike many foodies, Reichl’s interest in food didn’t stem from her mother, whose taste she had diplomatically described in her various memoirs as being ‘extremely limited’, and she began cooking for herself as a matter of self-preservation.  In the 70s, she opened a restaurant called Swallow with a group of like-minded friends.

“None of us were trained cooks,” she says 

“We were just people who loved to cook.  It was a very different time in food back then in the US.  We baked our own bread, and people would come in and they couldn’t believe we made our own vinaigrettes with olive oil.  I would make twenty quiches every morning, and people would come in and go ‘What’s a qwishay?’  They’d never even heard of them.”

Reichl has been to Australia once, a couple of years ago.

“It was wonderful,” she says. 

“I really, really loved it but just wish I’d been there longer.  I spent four days in Melbourne and four days in Sydney.  I easily could have stayed four months in each place. The food was great, the people were wonderful and it was so interesting.  I wasn’t working, just eating and walking, which is my idea of a good time.  I’d really love to come over to Perth at some point, but this trip is just too short.  I’m just coming for the Festival this year, as when I get back we’ll start shooting again for (US television show) Top Chef Masters.”

Ruth Reichl will be giving talks on 6-7 October at the Crave Sydney International Food Festival, which runs throughout October.  For more information, head to .

Friday, August 10, 2012

The West Australian: April 2012

                                                            photo: Richard Birch/Canberra Times

Pete Evans:  Full Of Surprises
Pete Evans has just emerged from the waves in Sydney, and the wind is whistling down the phone line as he sets off for a brisk walk home.  The amicable television chef, author, surfer and fisherman is happy to chat, despite not being aware of the scheduled interview.  At the time of writing, the third series of Channel Seven’s ‘My Kitchen Rules’ is reaching its zenith, and grand final week is well underway.

“I’ve had a ball on the show; so far it’s been fantastic,” says Pete. 

“And it’s great working alongside Manu, he’s a good man.  I’ve learnt a lot from the contestants and, hopefully, they’ve learnt a lot from us as well.  It’s resonated with the Australian audience, which is wonderful after everyone’s hard work and sacrifice to make the program.  They’re casting now for series four, but that’s all I know at the moment.  They’re looking for teams as we speak, which is pretty exciting.”

Pete has been kept on his toes since wrapping series three of MKR at the end of last year, working with Sumo Salad on their salad range and spending time with Martha Stewart.  Yes, that one.

“I’ve been on Martha’s show a couple of times now, and she was in Australia two months ago,” he says.

“We had dinner at my Mum’s house, which she cooked for.  It was a top night.  She’s a great supporter of me, and vice versa.  She has such a passion for food, and she just doesn’t stop”

The biggest revelation, though, is that Pete will be opening a restaurant in Bali at the close of 2012.

“The restaurant is going to be in Canggu and it will open by the end of the year.  The name is a surprise, though.  It’s a fantastic location, near some of the best surf breaks in Bali, and I’m looking forward to the adventure.”

Pete doesn’t have immediate plans to follow his chef comrades on the journey West (“although the surfing in Margaret River is fantastic”), but will be over for a short stint to cook for Kitchen Warehouse.  So, what will you be cooking, Pete?

“Oooh, that’s a surprise as well!” he replies with a chuckle. 

“I don’t like to give too much information away.  I like to add a bit of fun to it all”.

When pressed to at least name a protein, he laughs

“Let’s maybe talk about seafood, then.  Maybe”. 

Pete Evans will be appearing at Kitchen Warehouse’s Osborne Park store on 14 April.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The West Australian: February 2012

Photo: Supplied

A Bridge to Good Health

I have been given a message for Michelle Bridges from the Perth Crew – “Pretty please can we have a finale party in Perth?”. I have no clue what this means, but Michelle laughs when I relay it.
“Oh my God! Those girls are relentless,” she cackles.
“They’re just hilarious. They’ll get to me any which way they can. It’s coming. Not immediately, but it is coming. It’s been tabled, and it’s definitely on its way.”
Such is Bridges’ phenomenal popularity that she is revered by fitness fanatics around the country: fans who are devoted to her online fitness program ‘Twelve Week Body Transformation’, netting her around one thousand devotees and over 30,000 Twitter followers. The Perth Crew is one such group, who would rather not travel to Sydney to celebrate the end of three months of hard work.
So what’s it like, having this kind of adulation?
“I guess I don’t really think of it like that,” she says.
“I more think of it as having a really, really, really big family. And like family, they’re on your back telling you what they want! But it’s fun too.”
These days, the name Michelle Bridges is synonymous with so many healthy words – diet, fitness, exercise, weight-loss. The personal trainer from Newcastle blasted into public prominence in 2006 on series one of Channel Ten’s ‘The Biggest Loser’, and her star’s been on the ascent ever since. But things weren’t always that way for the amicable fitness guru.
“My Mum was a single mum with two kids and a full-time job, so she had her hands full,” says Michelle.
“But she was very organised in the house. Sometimes she’d get up at 6am and start chopping vegetables to prepare, say, a casserole for us after school. We didn’t have a lot of money, so there’s no way we could afford to be getting take-out. People who talk themselves into the belief that eating take-out is cheaper, well, it just isn’t.
“We all have our ups and downs and there have been plenty along the way for me. Exercise is my rock, and whenever the shit has hit the fan or when there’s been drama, I turn to training as my therapy. I walk into a training session with all sorts of issues going on in my head – I’m upset or angry or anxious - and I come out and, while the problem certainly hasn’t gone away, my perspective on it has definitely changed. My philosophy is never to be dwelling on the history and baggage of it but to move forward. Let it go and move on.
And like mother like daughter, being organised and having a plan seems to have stood Michelle in good stead.
“When I was fifteen years old, I used to lay in bed at night dreaming about running workshops and courses on health and fitness and teaching classes. I went down the local squash court and they paid me to teach classes there. I had no idea what I was doing but it was fun. I freely admit I’m a very ambitious person and I challenge myself all the time. When I first saw ‘The Biggest Loser’ show I thought ‘Oh my God, I want that job. And I reckon I can do it even better’”.
Michelle Bridges fifth book ‘The No Excuses Cookbook’ by Viking is out now, RRP $29.95.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The West Australian: December 2011

Photo: Stuart Scott

Making His Marque
From working on the mines of Western Australia to becoming one of the most feted and sought-after chefs in the country, Marque restaurant’s Mark Best has come a long way, baby.
Best was in Perth recently to promote his new cookbook ‘Marque: A Culinary Adventure’, where he took time out from his schedule for a chat about gold, submarines and grief. The book, his first, is a collaborative effort with Marque’s head chef of seven years, Pasi Petanen.
“I like writing,” says Best.
“I’ve written pieces and submitted articles for Gourmet Traveller and I’ve enjoyed the process of being interviewed over the years. So to actually sit down and put it into a cohesive and interesting package was a real process. You understand that chatting like we are now is very different to putting things into words, and writing 6,000-7,000 words is quite difficult. But once I got into it I actually found it a cathartic process. As I mention in the book, my sister was killed when she was seventeen. Long time ago now, but there were memories such as these that came up which made writing a very, very emotional experience. You have to really analyse things, and I loved that part of it.”
Marque has always been a favourite with the critics, and in recent years it has won a slew of accolades, including Gourmet Traveller’s Restaurant of the Year 2012 and listing 70th in S Pellegrino’s World’s 100 Best Restaurants, arguably making Marque one of Australia’s most illustrious and important restaurants. And after twelve years in the game, it was high time to put pen to paper.
“I think it was about building up a body of work that you could write about,” says Best.
“In 2010 I was really gagging to write a book, but it took Hardie Grant (the book’s publisher) to have the balls to say ‘just do whatever you want and we’ll provide the resources’. Before that, everyone wanted to change what we wanted to do, to dumb down the recipes or make them home-style recipes, which I didn’t want to do. To say a keen home cook can make the recipes when it takes seven of us days to produce a recipe is silly. So the recipes are quantified as working recipes from Marque restaurant, and you can take what you want out of that. People will be able to glean lots from it, particularly about the process of cooking at Marque.”
Things weren’t always so rosy for the self-confessed late-bloomer. Back in the 80s Best was not a particularly happy camper. After re-locating West with his family from the lush farming fields of Murray Bridge in South Australia to the somewhat harsher climes of Norseman, he began the hard slog as an electrical apprentice on the North-West gold mines.
“Sparkies are considered the intellectual trade,” says Best with a wry laugh.
“Working on the mines was hard graft back then, and it was a very basic apprentice wage. I remember spending most of my wage at the pub every fortnight because that’s what everybody else did.”
With feet itching, Best moved to Sydney to re-fit submarines on Cockatoo Island for the Australian military. But still something was amiss, and it was during a stint working at a friend’s restaurant at the ripe age of twenty-five that Best finally found his calling.
“It really struck a chord with me,” he says.
“I mean, people see me as some sort of life-change guru, but it was reasonably haphazard with a bit of design. I sort of got pushed towards cooking and found I had an aptitude for it. And I loved the whole French thing.”
By this stage Best had already met his future wife Valerie and a whirlwind romance ensued. The pair decided to make a go of hospitality and opened a modern French eatery. But despite the restaurant enjoying early critical success, Best felt frustrated by his lack of culinary knowledge and went to work in France. He worked at the legendary ‘L’Arp├ęge’ in Paris, followed by a stint at ‘Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisons’ in the UK. On his return he and Valerie opened Marque, and the rest is hospitality folklore.
“We are coming into our thirteenth year at Marque now,” says Best.
“And the difference from when we first opened is like night and day. At first you’re your own boss with immature talent, so you start emulating your heroes and gradually, if you’re lucky, you are able to start to define your own style and create a language with what you do. I think we hit our straps in 2004-05 – that was when things started happening. We started to win accolades and we were able to get more staff and became busier. There was a momentum, and we were able to create something unique.”
‘Marque: A Culinary Adventure’ by Hardie Grant is available bookstores now, RRP$79.95.
Marque Restaurant is at 4/5 355 Crown Street, Surry Hills in Sydney.
Mark Best’s new eatery, Pei Modern, will open in Melbourne in February 2012.