Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine
Chef Styles believes that Australian chefs are free to be creative when cooking as ‘we [Australian chefs] have access to almost every ingredient available worldwide, and due to us not being steeped in tradition like say either the French or Italians, we can pretty much do whatever we like, and call it our own.’ The sense of freedom enables our chefs to be in the leading position of the Australian cuisine evolution.
Styles points out that he ‘showcases the best possible fish and seafood available on a daily basis at the Fish House. As a nation, I think we have a handful of great restaurants here in Australia that are definitely championing our diversity of products. For me, when you are surrounded by the ocean, it makes sense to utilise Mother Nature’s gifts. But if I had to pick one product [that represents Australian on a plate]; then it’s Sydney Rock Oysters, our native oyster.’
Commenting on our produce, Styles points out that ‘every [produce] has a postcode, as it all comes from somewhere. As chefs, it’s up to us to find this out and show that we not only know how to cook, but why we cook, and then let our customers know that we know where this food comes from and how it is grown; whether it’s harvested, caught, farmed etc.’ It is a two-way movement, as moreover chefs, as well as customers, are concerned about their food provenance and sustainability.
Many of our chefs are searching for the identity of Australian cuisine. Moreover, chefs are employing local and authentic foods and helping to create distinctive regional cooking styles, which compose Australian cuisine. As Chef Styles states: ‘I certainly feel Australia is on the cusp of something amazing right now food wise, with all the amazing efforts by producers and chefs alike. So yes I believe we are finally creating our own cuisine identity that is fundamentally Australian now.’
Head Chef Damien Styles from the Fish House in Burleigh Heads, Queensland, chats with Dane Richards of Aussie Cuisine.
Dane Richards: What is Australian cuisine?
Chef Damien Styles: For me Australian cuisine is a melting pot of all styles of cuisine trying to find its place. We have access to almost every ingredient available worldwide, and due to us not being steeped in tradition like say either the French or Italians, we can pretty much do whatever we like, and call it our own.
DR: What do you think were the primary influences behind its evolution?
Chef DS: Not being bound by rules within our cuisine helps Australian chefs to use their imagination and try new things, different things. Using a French technique, with say an Asian ingredient, or vice versa, enables Australian chefs to be at the forefront of evolving our cuisine. Also, the quality of the produce in Australia is second to none; and getting better all the time.
DR: How important is the integrity, provenance and sustainability of produce in both inspiring and influencing your dishes?
Chef DS: It’s the single most important thing for me personally. If I need inspiration there is nothing better than going to a farmers’ market and seeing, touching, tasting fresh locally grown ingredients to get the creative juices flowing. As well, having suppliers that generally care about their product, as much as chefs care about the food on the plate, is important. Everything has a postcode, as it all comes from somewhere. As chefs, it’s up to us to find this out, and show that we not only know how to cook, but why we cook, and then let our customers know that we know where this food comes from, and how it is grown; whether it’s harvested, caught, farmed etc. For example, Sydney rock oysters that grow in the same lake on different sides taste different; they are still considered a rock oyster, but the differences are there.
DR: What part has produce played in the overall development of modern Australian cuisine?
Chef DS: When I worked with Matt Golinski, I had over seventy suppliers. Some suppliers sold me one product, their only product, the only thing they made, and their commitment to that product, and the story behind it was amazing. This is what is developing in our industry now, unique growers and producers focussing on making something amazing, and not trying to be everything to everyone.
DR: What particular produce in your opinion quintessentially represents Australia on a plate?
Chef DS: Well I cook fish, and lots of it. For me, when you are surrounded by the ocean, it makes a hell of a lot of sense to utilise Mother Nature’s gifts. But if I had to pick one product; then it’s Sydney Rock Oysters, our native oyster.
DR: Is Australia properly showcasing the diversity of its produce to international visitors?
Chef DS: I try and showcase the best possible fish and seafood available on a daily basis at the fishhouse. As a nation, I think we have a handful of great restaurants here in Australia that are definitely championing our diversity of products.
DR: How important is it for the untapped potential of Indigenous influence on Australian cuisine to be fully realised?
Chef DS: Indigenous produce is very close to my heart having worked with Aboriginal youth as head chef at Charcoal Lane in Melbourne. I learned just how important native ingredients are not only as a food, but as a medicine, and a way of natural sustainability (they took only what they needed). Aboriginals ate oysters when a particular flower was in bloom. In Noosa, where I grew up, the community there would hunt mud crabs when the red blossoms were blooming, as this is when they were at their best. This is the way of the past, and we really need to work at making it the future now.
DR: What native Australian ingredients have you successfully incorporated into your dishes?
Chef DS: I try to use them as much as I can, I have a rainbow trout dish on that’s wrapped in paperbark with riberries, lemon aspen, and lemon myrtle, then grilled, and served in the paperbark.
DR: Are the hospitality industry, and various levels of government, doing enough to encourage young Indigenous chefs?
Chef DS: Not enough to be honest. However, at Charcoal Lane I put eight aboriginal youth through the first year of their apprenticeship, and six of them are now qualified chefs working in the industry. I do believe we can do more, simply by giving them a chance.
DR: What is your understanding of bush tucker?
Chef DS: Another term I hate! We coined that phrase through our ignorance. Native foods and Aboriginal people didn’t, and don’t all come from the “bush”, and “tucker” is the worst possible word for food I can think of.
Indigenous food comes from all over the land and sea, and I think what we need to do to understand it wasn’t done when it should have been, and we are now only scratching the surface of these powerful ingredients a little too late. I do hope that we as both people and the industry embrace our native foods and Aboriginal food culture before it’s gone.
DR: How influential was the Country Women’s Association to Australian cuisine in the post-war years?
Chef DS: My grandmother told me once that she was a cook, both in and post war. I wondered about this for a long time, as most of the meals I remember eating at her home were all the same colour – kind of greyish green (and I mean the carrots too!). Post-war food wasn’t bountiful, so they had to make do with what they had to survive, and for sustenance, not so much for the pleasure of dining out like we do nowadays. I do remember the first cookbook I ever had, was a CWA biscuit book, using only a handful of ingredients, and every recipe worked, so the fundamentals of cooking at home were introduced to many through the CWA.
DR: What is your quintessential memory of an iconic regional Australian dish?
Chef DS: I could say pavlova being from Queensland, but for me its lamingtons and milo!
DR: Did the foundations of regional cuisine influence modern Australian cuisine in anyway?
Chef DS: Everyone wants to know where their food comes from now, and how far it has travelled to get to the plate. So yes I think region and locale influences not only chefs, but the customers too.
DR: Do you think regional cuisine of recent times has developed its own sense of sophistication and identity?
Chef DS: I certainly feel Australia is on the cusp of something amazing right now food wise, with all the amazing efforts by producers and chefs alike. So yes I believe we are finally creating our own cuisine identity that is fundamentally Australian now.