“A fresh, light, vibrant and innovative cuisine; featuring the diversity of Australian inland and coastal produce and reflecting our relaxed outdoor lifestyle.”
By the AussieCuisine team
‘Australia, being a big country, has such a varied supply of ingredients, mostly year round but also seasonal, which gives chefs an abundance of good produce, making us happy cooks’, says Lauren Murdoch, Head Chef at Sydney’s Palings Kitchen and Bar.
The global food trends of fermentation, pickling and smoking are commonly found on the menus of our fine-dining restaurants. However, we do not need to rely on the preserving methods the same way as Europe’s traditional winter dishes, as we do not have their seasonal restrictions. With such varied geography, Australia is blessed with a vast range of fresh produce, seafood and meat and has the potential to grow virtually any crop due to our climatic zones ranging from cool to temperate to tropical.
Due to our reliable supply of fresh produce, Australian chefs can count on a diversity of Australian seafood, meat, fruit and vegetables as ingredients to create fresh, produce-driven dishes all-year round. ‘Australian cuisine reflects our unique land where you can grow just about any product’, says Sydney Executive Chef Peter Gilmore from Quay and Bennelong restaurants.
According to Head Chef Russel Blaikie from Must Winebar in Perth: ‘chefs are giving the ingredients the integrity they deserve because they have great ingredients to use. They are treating them more simply but they are really refining their style and technique to ensure they are bringing out the flavour in a great produce.’
Our Indigenous people relied on fresh food and constantly moved from place to place, foraging food wherever available and in season. This is a major influence our indigenous Aboriginal people have contributed to the Aussie Cuisine of today. ‘Foraging, which was always done by our ancestors, seems to have come around again and is becoming very popular amongst chefs. This skill is in no way new, but has lost its way over the generations’, says Head Chef Leigh McDivitt from Sydney’s Banksia Bistro.
We tend to let taste and flavours of our produce shine without too much tampering. We feel there is no need to cover fresh food with substantial sauces or serve it with heavy accompaniments.
Damian Heads, Head Chef of Woodland Kitchen & Bar in Sydney, says ‘when I first started cooking 20 years ago it was all in the five-star hotel scene and it was all about European chefs teaching us apprentices on how to cook classic French and other sorts of European cuisine, whereas now there is a really big push towards street food and fresh flavours. We’ve got away from traditional butter-rich, heavy flavours.’
According to Russel Blaikie, ‘over the last 30 to 20 years, in particular, we have come out of the shadow of our British culinary past. We started taking more interest in lighter foods of Asian influence as we moved from a heavier cuisine to something that is light and fresh and produce-driven. Chefs are using high-skills with minimal intervention in food, but some key components in dishes to make them really exciting. Great food is becoming more deceptively simple, less on the plate, wonderful textures, and a great use of produces with what seems to be a minimalist approach, but it is, in fact, really hard to do.’
We recognise the influence of our neighbouring countries on our cuisine. Not only have we adopted some of their dishes – for instance, salt and pepper squid can be found on most of our pub menus – but also our European-based cuisine has been invigorated with spices and umami flavour from Asia, adding a tangy and vibrant punch to our food. Often our food has ‘wings’ and it ‘sings’ compared to Western cuisines, our flavour profile doesn’t hide behind the subtle nuances of European cuisine.
Executive Chef of Sepia Restaurant in Sydney, Martin Benn, believes that ‘Australian chefs draw inspiration from Asia, and it makes sense as Asia is on our doorstep. I feel we really have found our “Asian-ness” and embraced the fact that it suits our climate and palate. We have found a way to integrate Asian ingredients with a clarity and sophistication that is slowly evolving into our own style of cuisine.’
Chef Damian Heads points out: ‘today, we are more interested in the Asian influence than we are in the French influence. Perhaps because the food that we grow and the seafood we catch better suits to the Asian way and the Mediterranean life. We got away from traditional butter-rich, heavy flavours’.
Some of our current dishes could have been eaten by our indigenous people as long as 40,000 years ago, such as native oysters (often referred as flat oysters or Angasi oysters) or raw fish (sashimi, ceviche) and even baking rudimentary bread, with the Australian Aborigines arguably the first people to grind flour for making bread*.
Recently our chefs have started to include native ingredients in their cooking. As Head Chef James Gallagher from Brisbane’s Allium Restaurant and Bar points out: ‘over the past few years there has been a huge push in regards to celebrating native Australian produce. I believe that chefs are looking closer to home for inspiration for their menus, and have become more experimental in the process. A key example is Chef Ben Shewry at Attica, a chef who has carved out his take on Australian cuisine, championing native Australian ingredients. This, in my opinion, will pave the way for many young chefs in the future to create a definitive Australian culinary landscape.’
A lot of our well-trained and passionate chefs like to challenge set boundaries and often venture to try new combinations of tastes and flavours. Not having to abide by the boundaries of culinary traditions, our Aussie chefs have had greater freedom to create their own distinct flavours and applications, which over time has given rise to our diversified culinary evolution. The sense of freedom that local chefs enjoy is undoubtedly the strength of our cuisine and is instrumental in influencing the culinary direction and diversity of Australian dishes.
Aussie chefs tend to be more open-minded to new culinary influences and have a sense of freedom to experiment with new produce, techniques and cuisines. While in Europe chefs tend to preserve their traditional gastronomy and tend not to share our generally more creative culinary expression. This resonates with the opinion of Head Chef Dan Hunter from Brae Restaurant in Birregurra, Victoria: ‘I think there is a freedom [to cook in Australia]; we loosely play with a wide range of ingredients that no one else really does. In Europe, it’s all about tradition… Australia is cuisine in evolution without the history.’
Head Chef Damien Styles from The Fish House in Burleigh Heads, Queensland, 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 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 continues: ‘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.’
Indeed, often we get exciting culinary highlights and surprises served in our restaurants and our guests like it and they encourage our chefs and restaurant owners. On a recent chat with Gault&Millau, Head Chef Daren Templeman from Sydney’s O Bar and Dining said: ‘not many chefs mention the customers’ contribution to our culinary development, but indeed it is one of the most significant elements. For without our diners’ sense of adventure and their loyal patronage, our eating-out scene would look very different today’. Templeman had his own restaurant in Glebe in Sydney before joining O Bar and Dining some 10 years ago.
*The Director of the Commonwealth Australian Studies project, Bruce Pascoe, has been challenging myths about indigenous foods by rediscovering the Aboriginal culinary heritage. According to Pascoe, ‘the First Australians would extract grain from grasses and grind it into flour with a stone-grinding dish dated at around 37,000 years old by archaeologists and found to contain this specific kind of flour’, explains Pascoe. The author concludes that the Aboriginal people were possibly the first people in the world to make bread. That is a very significant statement and if proved correct it would rewrite and refocus not only the history of our cuisine but also the food evolution of mankind.
Featuring the diversity of Australian inland and coastal produce:
Australia has the world’s third largest fishing zone and is one of the largest red meat exporters, which guarantees a wide availability of fresh local seafood and meats for our chefs. Head Chef of Otto Ristorante Brisbane, William Cowper, says: ‘we have some of the best seafood and meat, most other countries pay a high price to have it available to them.’
According to a study from Nielsen Research, 95 per cent of Australian households purchased seafood in the year ending 25 March 2017. This data, compared to the results of previous years, indicates that seafood consumption is on the rise in Australia.
In Chef James Gallagher’s opinion, seafood quintessentially represents Australia on a plate. ‘When I think of Australian cuisine, my mind is always drawn to the ocean. I think that the seafood in Australia is second to none and offers such a diverse range of produce – from the tropical reef fish of Queensland to the cold-water species of South Australia and Tasmania. Seafood is a celebration of Australian coastal living and to me best represents Australian cuisine.’ No wonder fresh seafood is so popular and contributes a lot to our healthy eating.
But Australians also love their meat and our land produces some of the very best beef and lamb, both of which are popular at home and around the globe. According to the latest OECD data, Australia is considered one of the largest meat consumers in the world (including beef, pork, poultry, and sheep) with a consumption of 92.5 kg per capita. On average, 43.1 kg of chicken, 20.4 kg of pork, 21.9 kg of beef and veal, and 7.3 kg of lamb and mutton are consumed per person annually in Australia.
Due to its geography, Australia is blessed with a vast range of fresh produce from the land and sea and has the potential to grow virtually any crop due to our climatic zones ranging from cool to temperate to tropical. Australian chefs can count on the diversity of Australian fresh seafood, meat, fruit and vegetables as ingredients to create produce-driven dishes all-year round. Our chefs have an advantage in that they can experiment with a wider range of produce than many other traditional cuisines.
Pierre Khodja, Head Chef at Melbourne’s Camus, believes that produce plays an important role in the development of Australian cuisine: ‘produce is paramount to what we know as Australian cuisine. Freshness and quality is a definite priority for customers who are prepared to spend money on dining out, as they want the best. People are becoming more health and environmentally conscious all the time and they want to know where the food on their plate comes from.’
Chef James Gallagher believes that a major influence on the evolution of our food is that ‘[local] produce has been a key factor in the development of modern Australian cuisine. I believe that chefs today are celebrating Australian produce in a way that has never before been seen. The growth of small producers and artisans supplying top quality ingredients has really boomed over the past few years, and restaurants all over Australia are benefiting from this.’
Reflecting our relaxed outdoor lifestyle:
Our love of a relaxed outdoor culture has heavily influenced the evolution of our cuisine. Aussie-style cafes are also becoming ever more popular in Australia and internationally. Cafes are deeply ingrained in Australian society as a ‘meeting place’ to share a coffee, breakfast, brunch or lunch together. Our cafes are without doubt a part of the Aussie laid-back lifestyle. The unique Aussie cafe culture developed from cafes firstly established in Australia by Greek and Italian immigrants who introduced their traditions, such as having casual family meals outdoors, as well as eating Greek salad and pasta dishes.
Pub food also has a great influence on the current dining scene. According to Andrea Hogan from the Australia Food News, ‘Australians are now going to the pub to eat, with menus catering to the modern foodie’. Traditional Aussie pubs were essentially drinking houses and serving refined food wasn’t the priority in these establishments. However, upscale dishes and fine drinks can now be found on menus of the new generation of Aussie hotels. The proliferation of gourmet pubs now in Australia clearly reveals our current obsession with quality food.
Fine-dining restaurants have been moving towards a ‘fine-casual dining’ experience as a reflection of our casual culture. Dining has become one of a more relaxed ambience – the traditional white tablecloth and silverware are being substituted for a much more contemporary take on glassware and crockery on designer tables. Previously formal and often impersonal (yet efficient) service is being replaced by a more laid-back and friendly approach to guests. The food standards, however, are becoming more refined than ever. According to Chef Russell Blaikie: ‘we’ve moved from a heavier cuisine to something that is light and fresh and produce-driven. I think that’s where the change is happening. Chefs are giving the ingredients the integrity they deserve because they have great ingredients to use. They are treating them more simply, but they are really refining their style and technique to ensure they are bringing out the flavour in a great produce.’
Australia has been maturing as a food nation in the past 15 years. Many of our chefs are searching for the identity of Australian cuisine through embracing regional and Indigenous produce. Chef Alex Jackson from Sydney’s O Bar and Dining believes that ‘[regional Australian] restaurants are using minimalistic techniques to present regional dishes, to give them their own light, letting the quality of the produce speak for itself. What they are doing for Australian cuisine and our identity in the culinary world is amazing.’
Our cuisine is not set in stone rather our culinary journey has reached a milestone with our conclusion, which would not have been possible without the contribution and insights of many Australian chefs. It will assist to keep the journey going along a defined path that our chefs can travel together, often using clever detours along the way.
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Hogan, A. (20th March 2017). The evolution of Australia’s eating habits. Australian Food News. Retrieved from http://www.ausfoodnews.com.au/2017/03/20/the-evolution-of-australias-eating-habits-roy-morgan-research.html
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