The Best for Last – Jackie M

It was a bit of a mad dash for the final week of the Malaysia Food Kitchen’s blogger summit. I’d just landed at Sydney International yesterday after 10 days travelling and eating through China, so I did as any good explorer does: I beelined for home, staggered into my apartment, and passed out on the couch.

I finally woke up bleary-eyed in the late afternoon, and through the jet-lag fog, suddenly realised that I needed to reconfirm dinner plans at Concord’s Jackie M restaurant. Luckily, some of my friends had already emailed me, including Leila from underground dining scene Tablenosh, and a mutual friend, Nikki. I also rounded up my Malaysian food expert Eunice, a long-term Sydney resident who’s a Malay native from the northern city of Ipoh.

I’d been hearing lots of good buzz about Jackie M’s midwest Sydney restaurant, and event Jackie herself had been quite active on Twitter when I was asking people for their top Malaysian eateries (even better that she talked about other people’s restaurants, rather than simply plugging her own).

So the four of us did something we never do – we went to Concord for dinner. That’s no mean feat when you’re pairing a couple of Surry Hillsbillies with two entrenched Inner Westies. There’s always a bit of inertia to overcome when escaping the comforts of central Sydney living.

Most of the drive down Lyons Road, as it eventually changes into Majors Bay Road, is residential, so the lights of Concord’s downtown strip appear like a nighttime oasis. As we enter Jackie M, the first thing that hits me is how small it is – there are just a handful of tables in a moody space with dark tables and splashes of red.

We wait for menus, then realise that they’re already splayed at the far end of the table. Even so, the service is fairly sluggish. When our server does arrive, though, she’s friendly, relaxed and helpful with suggestions. And we definitely need some advice to narrow down our all-too-greedy selection of shared plates.

We start with the ‘deluxe’ laksa nonya and the Hainanese chicken rice – the latter always being a good benchmark for a good Malaysian restaurant, and additionally listed as one of Jackie M’s signatures. The chicken arrives first, and it is beauty. The chicken slices are tenderly poached with a subtle fragrance, the chicken broth gives all the right notes for adding moisture and flavour to the rice, and the chilli-ginger sauce gives just enough kick. It’s the best example I’ve seen in Sydney to date.

Next comes the laksa. It’s a solid version, a comforting bowl of thick broth with large tofu cubes, half a boiled egg, fried shallots, bean sprouts and a mix of vermicelli and Hokkien noodles. The stock is a bit thicker than I’d like, and doesn’t have the same vibrant complexity of the beautiful laksa I discovered at Kensington’s Kaki Lima the other week, but it’s still enjoyable.

A mere minute later, the beef rendang and roti canai arrive. The beef is exactly what we want it to be: rich and fall-apart tender. In fact, the sauce is so thick and the beef so pliant, it’s often hard to figure out where one starts and the other begins. It hardly matters: the beef is delicious. And it’s perfectly paired with the roti. I’ve had few good versions aside from the wafer-light renditions at Mamak, but this is an exception. Jackie’s version is buttery and flaky – not as waif-like as Mamak’s, but with a richer flavour that keeps everyone at the table coming back to pull off more pieces to dip into the rendang sauce.

Eunice’s choice is the har meen: a noodle soup with a prawn stock with large prawns, chicken, egg, assorted greens and a generous sprinkling of fried shallots. The reviews at the table are mixed, but it’s likely a cultural thing. Eunice thoroughly enjoys the soup, while myself and the two other Westerners find the prawn stock’s fishy flavour too strong.

The top highlight of the meal arrives next: the chai tow kway, aka fried radish. The stir-fry features squares of shredded radish cake that are as tender as a fried square of silken tofu, and they come in a sweet-salty sauce clinging to preserved radish, garlic, beansprouts, Chinese chives and a scattering of egg. Groans of joy ensue, and we need to negotiate who eats the remaining pieces on the plate. It’s worth coming to Jackie M merely for this.

We polish off the night with dessert, sharing the ais chendol and a dessert roti with coconut. The chendol arrives with a sweet milky ‘soup’ swimming with teardrop strands of pandan, with a couple of icebergs of the still-frozen liquid floating in the centre. It also comes with a customary bowl of palm syrup, which we ladel into our bowls to take the dessert to even sweeter heights. The roti is nearly as uplifting, with a sweet coconut paste giving a stealth sweetness to the blankets of bread.

After a month of traversing the city’s Malaysian restaurants, this is the best meal I’ve had. I sneak into the kitchen to express thanks to Jackie, who’s rolling out dough for curry puffs. She’s a striking woman, with a platinum flash of short-cropped, youthful hair – not the staid nonya mama that I had envisioned in my head.

Then it’s time to call it a night. My fellow diners and I stagger back to our cars, bellies fully expanded, and weave our way back to our inner city confines, but happy in the thought of escaping our respective hoods for one excellent Malaysian feed.

85 Majors Bay Rd, Concord, NSW
(02) 9743 0390

Jackie M Malaysian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Seeking Sydney’s Best Laksa – Kaki Lima

I’m sure that finding the top laksa in this city is about as easy as choosing the best pizza place. And instead of the thin-crust vs pillowy crust debate or traditional vs gourmet smackdown, here we’re talking varying degrees of Malaysian: Chinese-Malay (nyonya) style, sour style, Malacca style, Assam style, Johor laksa and Sarawak laksa, curry laksa, etc.

I’m probably even repeating myself. I can’t yet call myself a laksa expert, but today I’m doing some dedicate research.

A bit of Google fossicking and Twitter soliciting, and I get the nod from a number of food people I respect – the Sydney International Food Festival’s Joanna Savill being one of them – that cite Kaki Lima in Kensington as the best laksa joint in Sydders. So I pack up the laptop, hop onto the Vespa and beeline there for lunch to survey the stock for myself.

And what I discover isn’t what I expect of a place that’s potentially making our best bowl of Malaysian soup – aside from another solo diner, it’s empty. I spend half of my meal wondering if there’s no day trade in this stretch of Kensington, until a chat with my friendly server helps illuminate me. “It’s Ramadan this month; that’s why it’s so quiet,” she explains.

Apparently everyone else, aside from a nice agnostic Jewish boy like me, is fasting for the holy month. Mariam – yes, my server and I have now been formally acquainted, as we’re two out of the only three people in the room – directs me to the evening’s paper-inscribed special: a Ramadan feast with a choice of main, dessert and drink, all for for a whopping $15. It looks like I can afford to come back in the evenings, when the hungry hordes come out after 5.30pm to have their post-fasting fill.

For now, it’s all about the laksa. And what’s curious is that the laksa isn’t even on the main menu, but rather on the specials board. Still, it is the first thing Mariam suggests when I ask her for some favourites, and I’m offered a choice of chicken, seafood or prawn. I go with the chicken, plus another plate of nasi lemak with beef randang for a bit of variety.

The laksa is as good as advertised. It’s rich but not overly creamy, the broth a vibrant orange from sambal paste, with blood-orange droplets from the coconut and vegetable oils. It’s filled with spongy triangles of rehydrated dried tofu, thin rice vermicelli noodles, camouflaged bean sprouts and two diagonal slices of green chilli. There are also cucumber batons that aren’t always cut through, so they’re sometimes joined together and look like fat Freddy Krueger fingers. Hey, it might not pass a TAFE knife skills exam, but with so much flavour in my bowl, I can overlook finesse.

There’s also a complexity in the broth that I can’t quite taste, so owner/chef Aida later informs me that it’s got a subtle layer of lemongrass in there. It’s probably why there’s enough acidity that I ignore the lemon wedge that floats on the far edge. Other ingredients include garlic, dried prawn and tamarind juice. “It’s not like a nyonya laksa,” Aida says, noting that the Chinese often use evaporated milk instead of coconut. “It’s more like Malacca style.”

Yes, the laska is a stunner, and true to its reputation. In fact, the only rival I can think of thus far is an old favourite from Melbourne – Blue Chillies in Fitzroy.

The nasi lemak, however, is simply serviceable. The coconut rice is fine, and a sprinkling of fried red shallots on top are so pungent, I nearly think they’re ginger… in a pleasing way. The paired beef rending is tender yet mild and undistinguished, while the halves of hardboiled egg have plenty of green around the yolk, a sign of overcooking (or, more likely, a lack of quick cooling afterwards). It’s also hard to distinguish the beef from the similar-hued ikan bilis, or dried anchovy sambal – the latter is chunky with whole anchovies, also mild and conjures childhood smells of fish food (for the guppies and angel fish, not me). With the rending and sambal, I’m craving some chilli heat.

As I tuck in, the sound of passing buses on Anazc Parade consistently hums behind me, slightly offset by Pearl Jam politely playing on the speakers. There are old black-and-white photos of Malaysia grouped together on a wall, while tiny faux birds dwell in half cages surrounding lights – switched off while the afternoon sunlight radiates through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The tables are covered in clear plastic, protecting colourful tablecloths endowed with flower patterns. it’s a kaleidoscope of tables that ranges from violet to lime, midnight blue, black and rose.

Two dishes mean that I’ve already overeaten, but I can’t pass up dessert. There are a handful of sweet offerings in a glass display by the counter, so I peruse the pandan- and tapioca-dominated serves. I go for the baked pandan custard, a Kermit-green square of spongy goodness. It’s a delicate taste, an intermingling of coconut milk, sugar and pandan flavour. Just as much taste comes from the sesame seed topping, but my favourite part are the browned edges that have a whisper of custard about them.

The laksa and dessert are enough to make me want to return, so I listen to Aida as she recommends I come back for her satay, her Indian Muslim-style northern fish curry and for her teh tarik (Malaysia sweet tea). Until she tells me she started the restaurant as a Malaysian coffee house, I hadn’t even considered that the drinks were a specialty. Plus there are several other sweets to try, so I’m determined to have enough repeat visits to get through them one-by-one. As you do.

Kaki Lima Restaurant, Shop 3/228-230 Anzac Pde, Kensington, NSW, (02) 9662 6868

Kaki Lima Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Gosstronomy dined at Kaki Lima courtesy of the Malaysian Kitchen, a group blogging initiative that encourages unbiased opinion.

Ayam soooo hungry – Malaysia Kitchen Blogger Summit

I hate it when bloggers talk about how they haven’t posted for a while. It’s not like you’re hanging on every word I say, anxiously waiting for the next update. You’ve probably got heaps of blogs in some RSS feed, so if someone isn’t posting, them you’re just reading other people’s stuff. Readers don’t notice if anyone’s been quiet – only the blogger notices (and if they’re lucky, maybe their sponsors).

So while I’m certain you’ve just been overloaded with Google +, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, BranchOut, email, RSS feeds, blogs, MMS, SMS and those strange people who actually ring you over the phone, I’m going to make a weak statement. I’ve been busy, and the blog hasn’t gotten the usual love.

Enter the Malaysian Kitchen Blogger Summit, an initiative to help spread awareness and know-how about Malaysian food and cooking in Australia. I was recently asked to be part of 13 (my lucky number) of the top food bloggers in the country, and try a different Malaysian restaurant every week and write about it. On their dime. No questions asked. I can write whatever I want: praise, indifference or aggravation.

Easy choice. I love my Malaysian food anyway, and there’s nothing like a good challenge to get a blogger back into the swing of posting regularly. (Of course, if you’d count MasterChef Magazine, the SMH Good Café Guide, OutThere and, among others, I’m basically ‘posting’ constantly – just for other media outlets).

Yesterday way my personal kickoff, so I started with a no-brainer: Mamak in Chinatown. I first came here in 2007, just days after the place opened, heeding a hot tip by a Malaysian-born friend of mine. It’s long been a favourite (as it is with so many others), even if I haven’t been back in a while.

Mind you, back in the early days, Mamak’s food did seem to have a bit more personal attention and spark; the flavours were a little more complex before the restaurant doubled in size, followed by the expansions to Chatswood and Glebe. But you could say that about a lot of great restaurants. I still relish my meal sitting in front of Shannon Bennett’s pass at the original, intimate Vue de Monde in Carlton. Shannon remains a great chef, but that upstart space and experience was special – like seeing your favourite band at a pub before they broke the big time – and it will never happen again.

So my flatmate, Candice, and I hoof it from our geographically desirable Surry Hills loft, and meander down Goulburn Street. And, amazingly, the lines at Mamak still haven’t abated after all these years. It flows back past the restaurant front and that of the adjoining Taiwanese dessert place. Still, I’m a native New Yorker. I’m happy to wait in line if I know I can get in (at Manhattan hotspots, waits can be measured in days or months). And I know the line wil move fast.

In the meantime, we watch the roti makers roll out their dough behind the glass frontage, flipping and smacking it into paper-thin layers. Even after all these years, it’s still a treat to watch the edible theatre and nonchalant prep work.

Candice and I chat, text and Tweet for 25 minutes, then finally get the call: “Michael, table for two”. As we enter, the place is pumping – as it should when there’s such a long queue. The crowd is more Asian than not. We spy one young male entertaining what looks like two female backpackers, and we gossip like schoolkids.

Regardless of the crowds, our waitress rocks up quickly, all service-with-a-smile. It’s a big grin, seemingly genuine. Menus come quickly, as do drinks, and glasses of water.

The usual menu negotiations ensue. I’m partial to the fluffy, angelic roti canai, but Candice prefers the flatter and more buttery roti planta. Candice wins. In any case, it still arrives on its tray with the usual, lovely, dual dipping curries, one spicer than the other, plus a dollop of spicy sambal. Let’s face it – fresh roti is fantastic in any form: stretchy, steamy and flaky.

I’m a bit under the weather, so I’m hankering for some comfort food. I order two pieces of the ayam goreng, or Malaysian fried chicken. Two thighs arrive. They’re moist and hearty, but the skin isn’t all that crispy and the seasoning errs on the bland side. It’s my most anticipated, but ultimately least favoured dish of the night.

I want to vary my old routine, so I order our agreed plate of nasi lemak with an untried side of sambal calamari. My ever-chirpy Malay waitress crinkles her nose. She says that the sambal prawns are much better. I let her talk me out of it. Good thing – the prawns are lovely and on the upwardly side of spicy hot, which is a plus in my book. I eat the prawns first, then my half of boiled egg and cucumber, then use the remaining sauce to mix with the mound of coconut rice, roast peanuts, restrained additions of the crisp-fried baby anchovies for salt. Ahhh, nasi lemak – I love a sure thing.

The rice-sauce mixture is good enough to get my cheeks misty, but the heat-threshold doesn’t rise higher after I’m saved by my spice-slaying mug of teh tarik – that classic Malaysian sweet tea mad of condensed milk and ‘pulled’ by pouring from a highly held pot (or kettle) into a low-dangled cup. Earlier, I’m tempted to try the ginger-laced version or the Milo tarik, the Malaysian ‘hot chocolate’ that pairs that classic ‘energy’ drink with condensed milk, but at the last moment, I change my mind. I’m not inspired enough to deviate. The tea is tasty as usual, but erring further on the sickly side of sweet than I’d like. In fact, I’m not sure what’s sweeter: my tea or Candice’s cup of Coke.

Next is the kari kambing, the spicy lamb curry stew – although ‘next’ is misleading, since all of the dishes are crammed onto our tiny two-seat table like an intimate buffet. Which I don’t mind at all, even if it makes for some creative table shuffling at times. The kari kambing is Malaysia’s counterpart to Indonesia’s beef rendang and Thailand’s beef massamam curry, and it falls apart in similar, ever-pleasing fashion.

We’re playing it safe with the menu tonight – probably because both of us are fighting off winter colds – so for dessert we keep the safety thread consistent and go for the sweet roti pisang. It comes fused with thinly sliced bananas and two scoops of vanilla ice-cream, which are relatively bland but let the caramelised bananas shine. Anything with bananas feels like backpacker food to me, conjuring memories of drunken late nights in Bangkok gorging on banana pancakes near Khao San Road. I joke with the waitress that, considering the astronomical price of bananas right now, this has to be the best-value dish on the menu. She giggles, and agrees, then struts off in her Mamak-uniform Croc clogs to the next table.

We’re stuffed, and happy. Mamak seems to have settled into its size, and the food is more consistent than my last couple of visits. We stagger out the door, and I bid the new round-up of queue bystanders a mental good-luck. We’re off to home, and if my nightcap of Panadol Cold & Flu doesn’t fully put this cold to rest, I’m hoping some of that hot sambal sauce has killed off a good lot of those germ invaders.

Gosstronomy dined at Mamak courtesy of Malaysia Kitchen Australia.

Mamak on Urbanspoon

A Quay restaurant spinoff? Chef Peter Gilmore says – yes! (video)

It was in the middle of Saturday night’s gala dinner at the Great Barrier Feast that the drawcard celebrity chef, Quay’s Peter Gilmore, dropped a bomb – his plans to open a more casual, funkier spin-off of Australia’s top-rated restaurant in Sydney. Sometimes it pays to be a social media geek: thanks to some frenetic iPhone typing from the five-star Qualia resort in Hamilton Island, Gosstronomy was the first to break the news on Twitter.

The next day, I had the extra-special privilege of having some face-to-face time with Gilmore (along with a couple of other select media folks), whose Sydney fine diner now ranks as No 26 on the S. Pellegrino World’s Top 50 list. The conversation kicked off with his firm stance against genetically engineered (GE or GM) food, and then, with video camera in hand, I grabbed the opportunity to ask him about his plans for Quay’s sister restaurant.

It turns out, there’s no site selected yet, but it’s obvious from what Gilmore had to say that he’s given it quite a lot of thought and the wheels are in motion. Check out the above video of our talk to hear about his plans for next year.

Peter Gilmore interview timeline:

    1:34 – Diversity of produce, and what he’d like to see in supermarkets
    2:20 – *Quay’s new sister restaurant*: a casual, funky, young environment
    4:40 – The crucial need to hang onto our Sydney growers, especially in the Hawkesbury
    5:37 – On the Slow Food movement in Sydney
    6:31 – How we have Quay to thank for the fact that we now get purple (and other non-orange) carrots in Australia
    7:19 – What produce we should be expecting or demanding to see in our aisles

There’s more to come about Gilmore’s cooking on the Great Barrier Feast, so make sure to check in later in the week.

Social Dinner Club – From Boca to Efendy

I first met Cenk Baban at a private dinner at Efendy last year, and while I’m pretty hazy on the details of the night – aside from my first taste of sheep’s testicles and a reading by a Turkish fortune teller who told me (correctly) that my then-relationship wouldn’t work – I’m pretty sure we bonded over our mutual loves of food, technology and social media.

Two months ago, Cenk gave me a ring out of the blue, asking me if I would help be the first food blogger to kick off his new series of special food events, the Social Dinner Club. His goal: to bring together people to experience foods from different cultures and regions, and learn much more about what was on their plates, rather than merely scoffing it all down.

For starters, he was holding an authentic South American dinner at Darlinghurst’s Boca Argentinian Grill, a lovely, corner-terrace of a restaurant that I’d had my eye on for quite a while, but had never visited. He wanted me to join with the restaurant’s Argentine co-owner, Marcelo Berezowski, and talk about the food, the wine and the region. Eager to be involved, I said yes.

While I’d never been to Argentina, and readily admitted as such, during my years working in New York City I’d been to quite a few of the Argentinean restaurants that have thrived there over the past couple of decades. Then, on a trip back home two years ago, a PR associate also introduced me to Nicolas Catena of Catena Zapata, the family that established wine-growing in Argentina’s Mendoza region and today is one of the country’s greatest producers. On my way out, Catena’s daughter Laura handed me a copy of chef Francis Mallmann’s Seven Fires cookbook, which has forever changed the way many chefs around the world think about barbecuing. One look at Sydney’s Porteno, and it has Seven Fires written all over it.

So I’d had some Argentinean food 101 experiences – the over-researching journalist in me would fill in the blanks. Besides, Argentine food experts are hard to find in Sydney. Lucky me.

The night was a memorable one. Just the space alone was a revelation: a bold, red room with golden-yellow trim and adorned with pictures of an Argentinean porn star, music and film legends and a grinning fur-coat-wearing Diego Maradona in his soccer-playing prime (pre fat-Elvis Maradona, that is). The event’s guests piled in and we kicked off standing and socialising and enjoying tasty jugs of sangria.

Then everyone was seated. Marcello came out and talked about the cuts of meat, many of which aren’t typically found at Australian butchers. Matambre, for example, is a thin but large sheet of beef found between the ribs and skin of the cow, a type of flank steak, and at Boca it would be rolled as it often is back in Argentina – the name also happens to mean “hunger killer”. Nice.

The three-course Fiesta Patria (‘patriotic festival’) spanned everything from various empanadas, to meat-filled criolla and corn-based humita. It gave me chance to mention that the shapes of the folds of the empanadas signify what kind of contents are contained within – something I first discovered in a trip to Costa Rica, and Google confirmed was the same down south. For mains, we tucked, into the parrillada (barbecue) platters: ribs, chorizo, lamb, chicken, morcilla (blood sausage) and sweetbreads, all coming from the real-deal Argentine grill positioned in full sight of diners on the ground floor. Chimichurri was also ever-present – prepared as a less-common red sauce, as opposed to the more typical salsa verde (green sauce).

We moved off the sangria and onto the Argentinean wines: torrontés for the white wine drinkers and malbec for those going red. For dessert, a sweet zapallo showed pumpkin as a remarkably textured dessert – a limbo between waxy and supple – all while others tucked into the more straightforward dulce de leche flan, and bread pudding.

Yes, it was terrific night. So why am I writing about it two months later after the fact? Well, Cenk is holding another Social Dinner Club tomorrow night (Thurs, the 9th) at Efendy, tapping into his own Turkish heritage. It’s a brilliant deal – a feast for $57 – and I’ve always been a fan of Efendy’s cooking. Making the night even more appealing is that he’s enlisted respected food writer and cookbook author Leanne Kitchen to help spearhead the festivities – a perfect match as Leanne recently launched her newest cookbook, Turkey, in March.

It should be a pretty sweet night and for not much dosh, so I’d encourage anyone to check it out if you’re looking for something exciting to do and haven’t been roped into the Sydney Film Festival, feeding the kids or watching the next MasterChef elimination. As you do.

Social Dinner Club

Merhaba Istanbul! Dinner @ Efendy Restaurant
7-10pm, Thu 9 June
79 Elliott St, Balmain, NSW

Boca Argentinian Grill
308 Liverpool St, Darlinghurst NSW
(02) 9332 3373

Marco Pierre White’s First Australian Landing

Thursday night was the kind of dilemma that a food writer dreams about. Do I go see one of my favourite food writers, Anthony Bourdain, duke it out with AA Gill and Tony Bilson at Sydney’s Town Hall, or do I meet a full-blown culinary legend, Marco Pierre White, in an intimate gathering?

It was a gruelling choice, really, but intimacy won out, so I agreed to be whisked away in a luxury car and taken to a private waterside villa to meet up with the great British chef. Later, I’d discover that it was the first time the great man had ever set food in Australia.

For those who don’t know who Marco is – and I’ve been amazed at how many people I’ve talked to in Sydney who don’t – he became the world’s youngest three-Michelin-star chef at age 33, and his kitchens have been proving grounds for such high-profilers as Gordon Ramsay, Mario Batali and Heston Blumental. He’s also famous for being a kitchen terror, way before Gordon Ramsay popularised the formula.

I would’ve liked to have said that I enjoyed a 12-course degustation by God himself, but the night was far more humble. Marco was in town as the guest of Continental, demonstrating the best ways to use their new jelly stocks. For a guy like me who makes and freezes all of his own stocks from scratch, it wasn’t exactly how I would have wanted to see Mr White in action. But I get it – people are time-poor, so stock jellies and cubes make those big family meals happen with far less hassle. And, well, KFC or Bonanza could have brought Marco to Sydney, and I’d still show up.

Said ‘villa’ looked more like small mansion, and as I entered the grounds and into its chandelier-dangled hallway, I was handed a cold flute of Piper-Heidsieck bubbly. Yes, it’s days like this that I love my job.

Soon there was a gathering of some nine other food writers and bloggers – including Grab Your Fork’s Helen Yee, the Sydney Int’l Food Festival’s Barbara Sweeney, The Internet Chef’s Bridgette Davis and Inside Cuisine’s Rebecca Varidel. As we waited for the main event, we talked shop in the white-on-white living room, which looked so posh, I couldn’t help myself from calling it “the salon”.

As we progressed to the kitchen, we took our seats, perched less than a metre from the benchtop. Then Marco appeared, his trademark long hair wrapped inside a well-loved headscarf. He warmly greeted us. MPW informed us that he was going to cook us something that he had never made before but that he understood was popular in Australia – pumpkin soup. An asparagus risotto would follow.

That, understandably, may not sound incredibly exciting. In fact, it didn’t sound exciting, but the master found ways. First came the unique use of carrot juice to make the soup look more orange. “If I was making it for my daughter, she’d want it be bright orange,” Marco explained. “That’s what she thinks pumpkin looks like.” Then there was the zorro-like way MPW sliced into the lids of the stock packets, a circular cut and lift as effortlessly instant as a magician’s card trick. Next came the largest Japanese pumpkin any of us had ever seen: freshly picked from a private garden, and as voluptuous as a large watermelon.

But the main entertainment was Marco himself. He grumbled about the awfulness of having to use an induction stovetop, not seeming to be fussed that its maker, Electrolux, was a co-sponsor of the night. “You get excited when it finally beeps,” he grimaced as an assistant stepped in after he struggled to get a response from his finger pressings. Meanwhile, Marco made the case for gas cookers, “A kitchen should be hot; that’s what keeps the food warm.” The honesty was refreshing, although I was momentarily embarrassed for Electrolux – then I remembered that they also make gas cooktops. Travesty averted.

Marco acknowledged that it was hard to beat a homemade stock, but for the time-constrained, he was intent on making a stock with from the manufactured jelly that didn’t taste like one. So he changed the recommended water-to-packet ratio of 500ml to a less salty 700ml, and used the risotto’s asparagus and chervil trimmings (and some spring onion, too, I think) to lift it. “It’s certainly the shortest recipe in Sydney,” Marco said, as he served the soup in the whole carved-out pumpkin. He noted that there was no need to add salt, and asked us if we could taste if the soup was made from a stock packet. None of us could, although I admittedly wondered how much this good soup would approach great, livelier heights with a fresh stock.

Someone in the audience asked whether serving the soup in the pumpkin was a bit daggy, a tad old-school. Marco didn’t think so. “There’s something about putting something in the middle of the table,” he said before diverting into a talk about the lost art of entertaining. “There’s no theatre in restaurants these days.” He compared today’s modern restaurants and the penchant for small plates as to “going to a canapé party where you get small bites that are lukewarm.” A dig at molecular restaurants, perhaps?

Marco served up the pumpkin soup with a good sprinkle of parmesan, and we gleaned other tips as he moved on to the risotto. He demonstrated what he said was the only way to finely chop an onion, which was to quarter it, remove a single petal and then finely julienne it and finely chop it crosswise. He told us that stock is more forgiving than salt, so he sometimes takes a stock cube, turns it into a paste with olive oil and finely chopped rosemary, then coats the paste onto lamb chops or steaks. He also shared his love of ketchup vinaigrette, making an emulsion with tomato sauce, olive oil, chervil and white wine vinegar. When I ogled his Japanese knife, he shared that it was a Mac knife: “It’s the best knife on the market.” I’m not sure if Marco is sponsored by Mac, but a quick Google searched showed Thomas Keller and Gordon Ramsay as additional proponents, so it’s either a killer knife, or there’s an all-star sponsorship program going on.

Marco became most animated when talking about Sydney, pointing to the harbour view behind him and gushing about how beautiful the city is. He also spoke highly of Australia’s statesman food writer, Leo Schofield, who impressed him with his insights into the restaurants of Marco’s era. “He was a very lovely man. Very knowledgeable,” he said, and then commended Schofield for being “a critic, but someone who look at things for what they are, not simply to criticise.”

In the end, MPW thanked me for my patience, and encouraged me to try using the store-bought stocks to lift my homemade versions. “Used correctly, they really enhance.” I’d normally be skeptical, but he said it with so much sincerity and conviction that I think I’ll have to give it a go, just to verify that I’m not being a food snob. On one hand, using a manufactured stock give me pangs of guilt – a sell-out of all things handmade and fresh. On the other hand, I need to stay open-minded. There’s certainly the justification that it’s better for people to make home meals with stock cubes and jellies than turn to pre-packaged or fast foods. Or maybe I’m just star-struck and bending over backwards. But there’s only so far you can bend a cynical expat New Yorker.

I don’t know who first called MPW an ‘enfant terrible’, but the guy I met was gracious and humble. It could have been the jet lag, or politeness in front of food media, but somehow I don’t think so. Maybe Marco has gone soft in his older age, but whatever it is, it was a pleasure to meet the English legend, and while shaking his hand, he made it seem as if the feeling was mutual. That’s something I would have never experienced at Town Hall.

MasterChefs & Gosstronomy – The Movie

It’s been a few months, but just wanted to share this excellent short film about the Louis Prima 100th Birthday dinner by video producer Darryl Thoms at Xorigin, who has been generous to lend his pro skills. We have a solid chat with MasterChef’s Aaron Harvie behind the scenes to talk about the dinner, and we also catch up with fellow MasterChef contestants Matt Caldicott and Jonathan Daddia. And, yes, there’s plenty of me blabbering away. And while we couldn’t fully capture the energy of the night, enjoy a listen of the music of our fantastic ensemble that night, including Sarah J Hyland, Simon Bartlett and his Cocktail Cabinet swing bang, Frank Bennett and Pia Andersen. Despite what looks like a lot of folks sitting around, ask anyone who was there, and they’ll tell you that the music on the night was absolutely electric.