Stock and Awe


Hey Dan,

While you’re living high on the hog, I’m getting back to basics. After all the travel there’s a serious need to lose some weight, so the exercise has been ramped up, and the calories consumed reduced.

One favourite for the weight-loss diet is soup. It sates an appetite and can be healthy too, depending on the ingredients. Tonight it’s pea soup with mint, so that checks all the boxes.

But first, I need some stock.

A long, long time ago I gave up on store-bought stock or cubes. Convenient they may be, but typically an ingredient list looks like this: Wheat flour, salt, flavour enhancers (monosodium glutamate, disodium 5′-ribonucleotides), yeast extract, glucose syrup solids, chicken fat, potato starch, sugar, chicken extract, flavouring (contains celery), onion extract, colour (ammonia caramel). That’s from Oxo, but may as well be any of them.

So that’s flour, salt, sugar, fat and chemicals. Mmmmm, ammonia caramel: Just like Grandma used to make.

Really, I have no interest in eating something that sounds as though it was scraped off a vessel in a toilet cleaner factory.

So today’s stock day. Easy: A couple of chicken carcasses; some old chook bones saved from other meals and frozen; some celery; an onion; a couple of carrots; a few bay leaves; salt and pepper; water. Simmer for a few hours, skim, strain (remembering you’re reserving the liquid and not the solids – I absent-mindedly tipped the stock down the sink one day. Doh!).

Viola: chicken stock. No artificial ingredients, loads of flavour, and it costs a couple of dollars. I divide it into Ziplock bags in two-cup portions and freeze them, and one pot of stock lasts me for a month or two for soups or risottos or whatever.

There’s only one problem. While it’s simmering, the whole house fills with a superb chicken/bay leaf aroma and it is mouth-watering. It takes some serious self-restraint not to raid the fridge, and that would defeat the purpose somewhat.

Apple a day


G’day Tony,

It certainly looks we do nothing but eat out, doesn’t it?

The truth be told, 3 weeks of eating in the US has caused a malfunction (that’s what I am going with) of our bathroom scales. In much need of shedding some pre-wedding pounds/kgs, we have resorted to eating not a calorie more than is required to sustain the vital organs.

I’ve been relegated from the kitchen, as apparently you can eat lettuce leaves raw. Not entirely so, but the duck fat, pork belly and russet potatoes are nowhere to be seen. Sad, but true.

Speaking of pork belly, what does wild pig belly taste like? Have you been fattening them up on your freshly planted garden? Do they like your coconut cream?

Can you at least get take-away on the island?

I have a vision of you going “Survivor” and living off the land and sea. It’s not a comforting vision.

Ok, in keeping with our holiday schedule, the lovely Julia and I set off for Beechworth (central Victoria) last weekend. A Christmas gift from the parentals was a weekend at a B&B. Must admit, pretty fine present as I do so enjoy a well-run B&B. Barnsley House fit that bill in spades. Great time of year to be up there too, autumnal colours (fall colors for our US readers) a plenty!

I know you’ve been to Beechworth before and had mixed reviews. I’m no different. Some of it was great, some of it ok and some of it just annoyingly touristy. I’ve got a few friends who hail from the area, so got a few pointers on where to eat and what to see and do.

We arrived Beechworth a little later than hoped, so headed out almost immediately after check in to find some food. Curiously we tried the Ox and Hound only to be told “I’m the only one on, so we can’t serve you tonight”, by a clearly distressed waitress. We retreated quickly.

Moving on, we venture almost next door to the Tanswell Commercial Hotel. Yes, a pub. Pub food, beer, Laminex tables and a wine list. I can almost hear you scoffing from here. The food was, well, I didn’t leave hungry, but half a cabbage with some charred “pork belly” (hint: there was no way it was pork belly, rather rolled pork flank) was just too much.

Now to the wine list. Stunned, as I scanned the offerings, I barely noticed the average (at best) food. The usual house wine offerings ignored, I found myself looking at the pricey end of the spectrum, only it wasn’t pricey. It must have been a misprint, surely. An ’01 Savaterre Chardonnay for a mere $85? ’06 Giaconda Cabernet Sauvignon for a pittance more? This is half what I would expect to see these at a bottle shop, but at a “restaurant”?

The next day was all apples and autumn colours before a night dining at Provenance. A couple of “chefs hats” from a large Australian media company? Sure. Degustation? Sure. Matching wines? Sure. Expensive? You bet. Would I go back? The jury is out.

Yeah, the food was interesting. Some stand out dishes. The sake and wine accompaniments were, at times, challenging and I am not sure worked as desired. The stain on the night though was the intoxicated, loud and downright inconsiderate group that arrived shortly after us. Staff spent more time apologising to other diners in the room that should have been necessary. Some less than discreet “shhhh-ing” from staff was heard, multiple times. Finally, and I mean finally, the group was able to be moved to another (empty) room.

A pet hate? You betcha! These are my top 5 things that irk me most in fine dining establishments:

    1. Intoxicated patrons who never learned the difference between their “inside voice” and “outside voice”;
    2. Overly attentive staff (please, please let me enjoy spending some moments with my dining companion(s));
    3. I’m sorry sir, that was the last bottle of that wine. Well, why was it on the list?
    4. So glad we could participate in the conversation of the table 3cm from ours; and
    5. Let’s stop and get a pizza on the way home, I’m famished.

No doubt you’ve got some to add to this?


P.S. Definitely heading back to Beechworth, perhaps during morel season!

Boy’s Menu

Coconut cream

Hey Dan,

Looks as though you do nothing but eat out. Being the poorer sibling, I’m doing more home cooking, and am at the end of a two-week stint of fending for myself.

No big deal I hear you say, except I’m on the island, and that changes things.

For those who don’t know, it’s a remote island in the middle of nowhere, and my nearest food supplies are at least a 30-minute boat ride away. And I don’t own a boat. Needless to say it, but shopping is done once a week.

I know what you’re thinking – why not grow some food yourself? I do try, but between feral pigs and water buffalos (no kidding) it isn’t easy. I do have more coconuts than I know what to do with, so this week when I made a green chicken curry…I used some store-bought coconut cream. Have you ever made coconut cream? I have and I was pretty proud of myself too (I even took a photo, above) but it took forever, and didn’t taste that much better. Half an hour’s work and all that sweat? Really, just buy the stuff.

Anyway, because I’m effectively a bachelor, that means I don’t have the shopping rigour of my better half, who not only makes menu and ingredient lists, but actually consults them while in the shops. I’m the boy who goes to the store thinking I’d like to make a frittata and comes home with onions, potatoes, and capers (because we were out) but no eggs.

Worse. My mind always turns to the most complex things you can imagine: Twice-cooked pork belly (simmered for two hours, then char-grilled)? Yep. Did that. Though in my defence, it is still charred meat – the caveman is alive and well!

Even when I do map out a week’s menus, I’ll get to the day and decide I want something else instead.

In some ways it’s like being on one of those cooking shows: “Here are your ingredients: You have one hour!” Only I’d lose miserably, because I’d be “well the pork belly’s going to need another couple of hours” when they tell me to plate-up. Makes me wonder whether they’re only looking for short-order cooks, but that’s another story.

Anyway. The finite ingredients make me get a bit creative. Sometimes that’s good. I cooked some Asian-style chicken (that I’d never serve to an Asian friend, even though it was delicious), and tonight, getting towards the end of what’s in the fridge, it’s a Spanish-style omelet. Again, something I’d never serve to a Spaniard.

But it’s interesting that as Australians we feel free to experiment with other cuisines. I think that’s why there are so many really good Australian chefs. That said, you really need to master a traditional dish before you can feel free to modify it. Apparently Picasso said you need to “learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

I think there are too many chefs trying to run before they’ve learned to walk. My experimentation is more a matter of necessity, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t successes along the way. Come and visit and I’ll do the pork. It’s pretty sensational, though in retrospect I forgot one of its prime ingredients this time around. Ah well…




Hi Tony,

So, on the topic of annoying things. Went to a ball on the weekend. Yep, a gala, glitzy $165/person gig held in a big shed with some drapery to make it seem flash.

I like these things. A chance to dust off the dinner suit, relearn how to tie that pesky bow tie (ok, I failed that bit. Just lucky I am marrying someone who can figure that stuff out), polish the shoes proper like and drink an unknown quantity of vin ordinaire. Much fun.

This time we were kindly invited as guests of The Grollo Group and enjoyed the company of some old friends.

Ok, rant time…at $165/head, held in a shed, with those jet-engine like things as heaters, average and I mean average wine, why did we have to do the “chicken or beef” shuffle? Honestly, one of my pet hates.

A mysterious white, creamy sauce graced both the dried out chicken and the grey beef. I’m ok with that at a school formal, where “eating is cheating”, or perhaps the wedding of the 20 year old kids of some friends, but at a function jam packed with some of the wealthiest people in Melbourne? (I should note, I am a long way off being one of the wealthiest people in Melbourne).

Not that I got a choice of chicken or beef, it was simply alternately plonked. Circumstance would have that I got chicken. Am I better for it? Well, the bread roll was ok, as was the schnapps.

Rant over.

Did you partake in Eurovision viewing? I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with it. But, it’s like a car-crash. I just can’t look away. Perhaps it was the “traditional” performance by Poland which I can’t look away from? Makes me want to wash my clothes…


Prix fix


Hi Tony,

I am on the same page as you. Super expensive, 18 course degustation menus are fine and all, but does that make the restaurant better from one offering a la carte? Pretty sure I’ve had that seafood fried rice you speak of too, and agree, it is pretty amazing.

One of the most insidious trends to permeate the Melbourne eating scene is the “no bookings” restaurant. Seriously, if I want to go for some food with a/some friends, I like to know I am going to be able to get some food. I get why restaurants complain about bookings not showing. I blame the serious foodie and the media for playing into this hype. I also blame the serious foodie and media for not having the common courtesy of calling to cancel a booking.

Picture this, showing up with 3 friends to a no-booking restaurant at 6pm, expecting that a sitting will be assured within a few minutes, only to be told said restaurant is already full, but we can find a table for you in about 4 hours. Take my number, you ask? “No, we don’t do that”. Find a bar nearby, where you drink (with no food) for a few hours and forget to check back about a table. You arrive late to check back to find your name has been crossed off, because “we found a table for you 2 hours ago and you weren’t to be found”. No, don’t go postal, it’s about creating an artificial demand.

If the restaurant is good, no-shows for bookings will not matter as there are plenty of walk-ins to fill the table.

The newest experiment is prix fix (pay fixed amount for 2 or 3 courses at booking – non-refundable). Must admit, this solves many of the issues. If you are the type to blow off a restaurant booking…well, you’ve already paid, so restaurant is ok on revenue front. They may even be lucky enough to fill your table with some walks ins. It’s a 2 for 1 switch!

We are spoilt for choices in Melbourne, but I refuse to line up for one of these no-bookings restaurants. I can do better and know I’m going to be eating when I chose to, or near enough to it.

Back to the US. We headed to Lake Tahoe. A stunning part of the world. Odd, but stunning. I am still trying to figure out why there are a multi-million dollars houses and only a Safeway to get groceries. Where is the providore? The fishmonger? The artisan baker?

I went back to an old favourite (Rosie’s Café) for a burger, and again for breakfast. Perhaps because it was close. Not sure. What I did recall was that we returned to the “it’s bigger, therefore better” attitude. The café latte was no exception. Pretty sure it was a good solid litre! Was it good? Well…it was big.


South Lake Tahoe was worse. Cal/Nev border means wanna-be glitzy casinos on one side of the street and run down motels on the other. Nothing about it was good. We didn’t stop, just stared.

Mammoth Lakes was next stop. This is where we were pleasantly surprised, but it wasn’t because of some funky place in town, but rather the food at the daylodge at Mammoth Mountain. I don’t think I’ve ever seen snowboarders with plates of salad before….certainly not with pants hanging around thighs and for lunch at a ski resort?!

LA was final stop. I was going to say something about LA, but I still think the best part of LA is leaving…

Back in Melbourne now. Big weekend planned, a ball, a 50th and rounding things off with a Eurovision party with some Danish friends (who had no choice but to host…both the party and Eurovision).


Attack of the Gastro-Gnomes


Hey Dan,

Russian River does sound interesting. Funny you mention The French Laundry though. I’m not sure why you’d bother going, because it only ranks 44th in the World’s Best 50 Restaurants list released this week. I’m betting you’ve remortgaged the house and been on hold to Copenhagen for 48 hours, trying to get a table at Noma some time in 2017 instead.

Or not.

Having never eaten there, I’m happy to give Noma the benefit of the doubt on the food front, but slapping a ‘world’s best’ label on something like a restaurant is as futile as ranking art – ‘and once again for 2014 the Mona Lisa takes the top prize, though that Da Vinci bloke had better get a bit more avant-garde if he wants to retain the title next year.’ Bollocks.

They’re comparing apples with oranges (with mangoes, durians and grapes too – though grapes win hands-down, because at least you can turn them into wine), and despite the claim that more than 900 industry experts are involved in the voting there are obviously biases involved. Plus, 900 experts sounds a lot like a committee to me, and you know what committees produce.

Still, there are some interesting things to note. Such as 36 of the 50 best being in Europe. That’s right, a mere six in Asia – the world’s most populous continent (though I have two within walking distance. Should I count myself lucky?). There are five for all of Central and South America, and a mere one each for Australia and South Africa.

Okay, so the judges have a thing for Europe, and Spain in particular. I get the Spain thing – I did a trip there a few years back organised by the Spanish tourism people, and the food was incredible. But only one in Australia? Then again, the ranked restaurants all tend to do the expensive degustation menu thing, so that narrows the field.

As a marketing tool this works. You’d push to be on the list too if it meant a waiting list to get a reservation at your restaurant. I met one of the chefs on this year’s list a few years back, and he was young, extremely photogenic, and very eager to be nice to the media – it’s amazing how far a compliment to a journalist will get you, believe me.

The problem is that being on the list means your restaurant will be full of media types and serious foodies – they’ll sit quietly and photograph every plate and analyse every bite and discuss in reverential tones suitable for such a religious experience (Chefs are gods, didn’t you know?).

Give me a busy family-run trattoria in the Italian countryside any day. Nothing sucks the joy out of a dining experience more effectively than a serious foodie.

Clearly it was an oversight that I was not consulted when it came to compiling this list. Frankly we should do one of our own – the 41 Best Restaurants in the World (that should stop them suing us!).

My nomination goes to Cafe Negrito on Koh Samui. Khun Play does a killer seafood fried rice (I don’t want to know what the secret ingredient is, for fear that it’s MSG), the beer is so cold that the condensation freezes on the outside of the bottle, and the view across the water is lovely.

Admittedly the wiring is more creative than the menu, there’s no wine list (we can fix this) and the roof leaks when it rains, but I’ve never had anything buy a joyful experience there. That makes it the best in my books.




Au naturel


Hi Tony,

Sounds like a nice time had in France?!

The oysters sound great, but I’ll see your oysters and raise you some Kumamoto’s from Tomales Bay! Tiny little tasty morsels…and when I say tiny, I mean about the size of a ‘quarter’, but oh, so good.

After heading north from San Francisco on Highway 1, we found ourselves driving along the coast of Tomales Bay and oyster lease after oyster lease. Every once and a while some quaint little restaurants built over the water with benches outside serving oyster chowder and raw oysters. We stopped at Nicks Cove and sampled some of the Kumamoto’s. They had 3 or 4 other varieties, but these caught our attention and had that ozone-y freshness. Washed down with a nice local amber ale. Much goodness.


We ventured further north along the coast then turned inland along the Russian River. Wine country. To be more precise, cool growth country. Pinots, pinots and surprisingly more pinot. Ok, I get the pinots, but other people in the world with cool growth areas make other stuff too…not sure I count Sauvignon Blanc from NZ though. That is an anomaly, but what about some Chardonnay or, heaven forbid, some Riesling? Nary a drop to be found. At least in our limited time there.

On a non-wine note, pretty cool place. We stopped at the information centre (chamber of commerce in American) in Guerneville and were happily set up with a free tasting at Moshin. Dean was pretty excited about some Aussies visiting and opened up a bunch of special treats before sending us off with another free tasting to Ridge Vineyards where the same sort of hospitality was offered.

Stunning scenery as the road meanders along the oh so attractive river which is lined with redwoods and the odd house with killer views. This place is on our list to head back to and explore more.

Napa. What a mistake. Tour buses, the same cabernets, merlots and chardonnays. It’s a little like Disneyland for people who know a little about wine (sorry Disney!). I used to like the Napa Valley. Not so much anymore. That said, a stop at the Oakville Grocery is well worth it for a fresh deli sandwich. Their “espresso” coffee is ok, but mine was hotter than the sun…which made tasting anything for the remainder of the day just that much harder.

If I had a little luck, some careful timing and the money, I’ve heard nothing but good things about Thomas Keller’s 3 Michelin starred The French Laundry, though the 100+ page wine list would be sure to stretch a sitting out some. I’ve heard there is a twist at the end?!

Lake Tahoe is the next stop. Snow? Well, there is supposed to be…I wonder if US skiers drink coffee yet? I suspect not.

Chat soon.