Australia’s new wave cooking has long been admired in the English-speaking world, and now it seems chefs from the land of haute cuisine are finally waking up to its uninhibited charms.
Drawn by a no-holds-barred culinary culture that has produced creative East-West blends, French Michelin-starred cooks have been travelling to Australia for stints at kitchens Down Under.
“It made me less hung-up,” said Pascal Barbot, chef at Paris’ L’Astrance restaurant, who has three Michelin stars to his hat.
He spent two years working in a Sydney restaurant experimenting with flavours and creating dishes he said would have been unimaginable in the more conservative French tradition.
It “had a big influence on my cooking,” Barbot admitted.
David Toutain, touted as one of France’s best young chefs, also stopped off in Australia during a world tour in 2013.
“I had heard other chefs talking and I wanted to see what was going on down there,” said the chef, whose eponymous restaurant opened in December in Paris.
It was a “great” decision, he said, saying he came upon “extraordinary” ideas in a country where some chefs are even working with native ingredients that have been used in Aboriginal cooking for some 60,000 years.
This week, some of Australia’s top chefs came to Paris to cook at the ninth Omnivore festival, an annual event that brings chefs from around the world to show off their stuff in 35-minute “masterclasses”.
Billed as a the culinary world’s Cannes festival, it aims to celebrate new perspectives in food preparation and those who are creating them.
“Australia is in the middle of a culinary boom and, more and more, that food is being seen on the world stage,” said Luc Dubanchet, the festival’s founder.
“It’s a fusion cuisine and it’s inventive. There are no boundaries and they aren’t inhibited by any pre-existing culinary culture,” he said.
For Colin Fassnidge, a chef of Irish origin who has lived in Sydney for more than a decade, Australia’s advantage lies precisely in its lack of a long culinary tradition.
“France and Britain are different – chefs there don’t necessarily want to mess with traditions,” said Fassnidge, who runs the Sydney-based Four in Hand restaurant.
“In Australia, we are creating that tradition,” said the chef, who prepared a suckling pig cooked with shellfish and garnished with sorrel-laced apple sauce for his Omnivore masterclass.
There is no such thing as Australian cuisine, said Darren Robertson from Sydney’s Three Blue Ducks restaurant, which features items such as duck with chilli jam and smoked potato ice-cream on the menu.
Australian chefs have been influenced by food from all over the world. “Greek, Italian, Japanese,” he said, “and especially Asian influences.”
“There is a new generation. They travel a lot, and they share a lot with other chefs.”
Not shy about experimenting, Australian chefs are revisiting locally sourced food rarely seen these days – including the ingredients traditionally used by Aborigines.
“Bush tucker” fare – local fruits, shoots and creatures that also include wallaby, kangaroo and wombat – are now figuring on Australia’s dining tables.
“We try to play with underutilised, or unpopular fish, species that you might not have seen on a menu in 10 years,” said Shannon Debreceny, another chef at Three Blue Ducks.
For Robertson, a key ingredient in the success of Australian chefs is also attitude: keeping cool in a high-stress setting.
“We have a 44-hour working week and we encourage our staff to have a work-life balance, to go surfing, diving and whatever, but above all, to rest,” he said.
“That means they bring a high level of energy back into the kitchen when they are here because they are not tired.”