FOOD: Mar 05, AU Edition

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Australia’s cable cooking programs give Eli Jameson tummy trouble
Is Foxtel holding Neil Perry’s dog hostage somewhere in the bowels of its Pyrmont broadcasting facility? The question would almost be worth asking, given the amount of time the celebrity chef and Rockpool owner spends schilling for the cable provider and submitting to mock interviews about why he’s so in love with his new digital cable setup.
Of course, that’s a bit over the top. Foxtel doesn’t need to use standover tactics to get Perry to lend a hand any more than Range Rover does to get Perry to drive one of their cars. (As a “Land Rover Ambassador”, that company’s website tells us, “Neil Perry drives a Range Rover which perfectly represents his position as one of the countries leading chefs owning and operating the famous Rockpool and XO restaurants in Sydney.”) Instead, the cable provider simply airs series after series of Perry-themed programming, including his deadly-dull restaurant infomercial known as “Neil Perry’s Rockpool Sessions.”
As a result of all this publicity, Perry has catapulted himself into that upper firmament of brand-name celebrity chefs that includes former Perry employee Kylie Kwong and Sydney café owner Bill Granger – who, in keeping with the small-world nature of the Australian food world, once worked with Kwong as well. (This is in contrast to such great Australian chefs as Tim Pak Poy, who for years ran one of the best restaurants in the country but generally stayed out of the limelight).

Close business histories are not all the three have in common. Perry, Kwong and Granger share an admirable belief that consumers should demand the freshest ingredients possible, a philosophy that has led to better quality and diversity on Australian shelves. And, on their shows at least (when there isn’t an army of prep chefs around to do the scut work), the three also preach a gospel of simplicity which holds that cooking should be easy, not intimidating, and most of all, not time-consuming. Endless chopping, basting, and roasting are out; a quick sear in the grill pan and a drizzle with a just-whisked dressing before rejoining one’s guests for another champers in the backyard is in. One almost never sees a “hero” – the pre-prepared dish that went into the oven ages ago to be pulled out at just the right moment in shooting – on these shows, since everything is quickly tossed together a la minute, as they say in the restaurant business.
This is all very well and good, but those of us who actually like to muck about in the kitchen, get excited when zucchini flowers show up in the shops, and never buy pre-made ravioli because it’s so much more fun to make one’s own, I think. Or rather, back in the heat of the kitchen, while everyone else sits in the lounge room watching Bill Granger’s family scramble over each other to eat breakfast in bed.
At least Ian Hewitson (a pioneer Melbourne restaurateur in his own right), with all his sponsored brand loyalties, spends most of his show, Huey’s Cooking Adventures, actually cooking. Which makes the fact that he once told viewers to make garlic mayonnaise by first glopping a few spoonfuls of store-bought mayo into a bowl almost forgivable.
Sure, that may seem lazy, but it’s nothing compared to Granger, who thinks twenty minutes stirring risotto is a chore and once spent an entire segment of his Lifestyle Channel program explaining that Italian delis are great places to buy ready-to-eat picnic supplies. Now really, in 2005 Australia, do we need to be told that Italian delis are great places to pick up good cheese and olives?
Thus those looking to TV to improve their skills in the kitchen in a serious manner – and not just pick up a new way to combine seared salmon, sesame oil, and Asian greens – have to look abroad, especially to the UK, to do so. (If someone had told me, a decade ago, that today most of my cookbooks would be by British chefs, I would have asked them if they also saw a serious taste bud-injuring accident in my future).
Nigella Lawson, for one, is a great believer in celebrating the techniques of cooking, and is absolutely unapologetic about the fact that time and effort spent in the kitchen is in no way mutually exclusive with having a good time. Fellow Briton Gary Rhodes, meanwhile, manages to combine a passion for fresh ingredients with an instinctual feel for the fine line that separates what is challengingly possible in the home kitchen to that which makes ambitious solo chefs pull their hair out, pour another glass of wine, and order pizza instead. And even Jamie Oliver, behind his luverly-jubberly cockney routine, still manages to cram an awful lot of ideas and “hey-I-didn’t-know-that” tips into his show.
It’s a shame, though, that a country that likes to think of itself as sophisticated about food and where a woman can lose the chance to lead her political party because her kitchen isn’t sleek enough is not producing more chefs who want to share their knowledge and do their part to increase viewers’ skills. Certainly there is a market for it, if the demand for books and programs by the likes of Lawson and Oliver is any indication. Maybe Perry and Co. are worried that if too many secrets get out, Australians will stop going to their restaurants for the really challenging stuff and start doing it themselves.
Gin is generally thought of as a historically British spirit – think District Commissioners touching it with bitters on the verandah at the end of a hard day administering their particular corner of the Empire, or the very English Col. Henderson berating the help for putting ice in the G&Ts in The Year of Living Dangerously – but it actually has a very international history.
Invented by the Dutch (hence the phrase “Dutch courage”) in the 1600s, the British took to it in droves during the reign of William and Mary, and later discovered mixing it with tonic water was an agreeable way to ward off malaria.
But today some of the best gin in the world isn’t being produced in Northern Europe, but much closer to home in New Zealand. Sold in a tall, sleek bullet of a bottle, South’s makers advise that their customers “leave the tonic in the fridge” – and they’re right. This is a gin that exists on an entirely different plane. Martini drinkers who would never think of sullying their cocktail shaker with anything but Bombay Sapphire will suddenly wonder how they had spent so many years in the wilderness.
Because the thing about South is that it is as smooth as a newborn’s skin, the result of a double-distilling process that creates a grain-neutral spirit that works as incredibly clean canvas for the brewer. From there, traditional ingredients such as juniper berries (of course), lemon, orange, and coriander seeds are added – as well as some very new world ingredients, including manuka berries and kawakawa leaves. The end result is a gin that, despite the high alcohol content, lets drinkers play with it almost like a wine, picking out various flavors that come and go as it passes through the mouth. Just a touch of vermouth and a quick shake-and-strain with some very cold ice is all that’s needed to bring it to life.
South’s parent company also sells fantastic premium vodka called 42 Below – a reference to their distillery’s line of latitude – in a variety of flavours. Their manuka honey vodka, chilled to the point where it starts to get a little syrupy, is particularly delicious.