Note: The chef was a friend of my lunch mate. Some of the dishes were sent to us by him. The rest paid for. The reactions described, genuine.
Cookery or recipe books, blogs, magazines or TV shows bore the hell out of me.
I love talking to chefs and cooks though.
I listen with wide eyed wonder as they share the tricks of their trade. It’s not the recipes that interest me as much as getting to know about the techniques of food and, in the case of those well travelled, their experiences of different places and cultures and cuisines. Finding out how folks from around the world transform produce into food fascinates me.
There’s a lot to learn from trained professional chefs. They are the experts after all. Well experienced. They can tell you about the science behind what ingredients go together, at what temperature, with what vessels.
Don’t discount the ‘non-trained’ cooks though. Not trained in academies that is. There is a lot you can learn by talking to your grand moms. Or street food cooks. They’ve been consistently churning out dishes year after years with loads of experience. Folks in such stalls just love it when you ask them anything and they would willingly answer. Even in faraway lands where you can ask someone to translate for you.
Like love, the language of food is universal.
Chefs and cooks love to talk. And are some of the nicest people around.
Which is why I got excited when young Dadar Catering College and Cordon Bleu Australia trained chef Vishal Kadam (@vishalkod on twitter) suggested taking me to Fratelli Fresh, the Italian restaurant at the Rocks at Sydney. He used to work here and said that the sous chef he worked with would be there too.
Fratelli fresh is up the slopes at the Rocks after you cross Guylian and Argyle. It used to be a provisions store earlier now converted into a chain of Italian restaurants. The interesting thing about the Fratelli Fresh at the Rocks is that it doesn’t have a signboard. It is just opposite the Sydney Arts and Drama Centre and, according to Vishal, post play nights are frenetic.
Vishal took me in and introduced me to Angus, the Australian sous chefs. The other chefs from Mumbai and Vietnam and the handyman from Thailand. They all beamed broadly when they saw their old colleague walk in.
So here you were. A popular Italian restaurant in Sydney owned by a Kiwi, with an Aussie sous chef leading a team of Asians and Indians. That’s Australia for you.
Angus, who I was told, is a playful character, begun to fire up his pan and did a show for me when he saw my camera.
Vishal later explained the private joke. Apparently setting your saucepan on fire is good showbiz but bad cooking technique. The head chef at Fratelli Fresh bans it in the kitchen.
Angus later put the photo I took of him and the flambé on his facebook page. Some good natured ribbing from his friends followed.
“Who let you in the kitchen”?
Fratelli Fresh has a small open kitchen where you can see the chefs working in quite a lively and energetic manner.
Vishal and I took our seat. We placed our orders. Chef Angus sent us a stream of samplers to add to that. And Vishal talked me through the dishes.
Zucchini flower fritters reminiscent of the kumror phool bhaja (fried pumpkin flowers) that my grand mom used to make. Here they were stuffed with five cheeses. A fantasy coming to life for a cheese lover like me. The bursts of cheese dancing like courtesans for a nawab with each bite as I crunched through the thin fritters.
Vishal explained that the cheese mix was stuffed into the zucchini and these were chilled in the fridge to set. When an order were placed these were flash fried in searing oil. The secret behind the cheese not spilling out.
Next were risotto balls. An equivalent of a khichdi pakora. Not that the latter exists.
There was a familiar taste which I wasn’t able to put my fingers on till Vishal told me that it was parsley. The risottos were flavoured with mint and parsley. Apparently a favourite snack of the chefs here as they cooked. Light bursts of carbs and energy to keep you going I guess.
The third sampler that Angus sent us was liver pate with sourdough bread. This was the most heady pate that I have ever come across. Made your senses twirl in delight. Sinful, sensuous … a very adult pleasure. A dish which conjured visions of Nigella smiling as she ladled out the pate onto your plate. And why not? For as Vishal explained the pate had an equal measure, of, if not more, of butter. Yes, Nigella would have approved. This was sheer indulgence. Kept drawing you back. Bite by bite.
For our mains Vishal ordered polenta cakes. Dhokla shaped cubes which were fried. Slight crunch outside and soft inside. Topped with an excruciatingly pleasure giving gorgonzola and button mushroom sauce. If sharp cheeses are your thing then this will tantalise you like never before.
Mushrooms should never be washed before cooked explained Vishal. You lose the flavours if you do apparently.
Don’t know if I’d have the guts to not wash them in India though.
We ordered a steak. Extremely juicy. Almost jiggled on your plate. Topped with butter. The inherent excellent meat made you smile. We were full. There was no way I could have even looked at the steak. Yet it was so good that we finished it. So much for the fact that I am not a big steak fan and can take it in moderation. This is I loved. Rarely have i come across which was so in peace with itself. In a happy place in life.
Vishal explained that the steaks here are medium rare by default. What we had were Angus Scotch eye ribs. A good cut I was told. I was amazed to know that steaks were just grilled for two minutes on each side and that’s it. Apparently even pork chops are not stir fried for more than 5 minutes. Can’t imagine this in India but I guess at Australia meat is reared for eating.
Learnt another important thing from Vishal. Apparently you have to let a steak rest for as long as it was cooked. So four minutes of grilling means leaving it for four minutes after that on a plate. This ensures that the flavours are sealed in and spread evenly. The meat settled down and you don’t have blood squirting out of your steak.
Some day I am going to try grilling a streak for four minutes at India an see what happens.
Then Chef Angus sent us a pan seared John Dory plated with fried beans, mussels and the tomatoes which the Kiwi owner is apparently very passionate about. Vishal and I, stuffed to the gills, picked on the flavourful and juicy pieces of fish as we spoke about the importance of not over cooking fish or prawns. The fish here was cooked just right.
Vishal suggested ordering a tiramisu for dessert. I am not much of a tiramisu person and was quite full too. He insisted saying that the tiramisu at Fratelli Fresh was different. Mascarpone, loads of alcohol and coffee folded into fresh sponge cake.
And it was. Each bite was akin to an intoxicating toast raised to end one of my most memorable meals at Sydney.
On the way back I stumbled upon the huge Kinokuniya book shop at the Town Hall Station premises. And a book by Anthony Bourdain I had not heard of before.
It was as if the meal with Chefs Vishal and Angus opened the gate to the book to me.
I broke into a big smile.
Suddenly 1500 Rs (25 AUD) didn’t seem that much for a paperback.
he book is all about how Bourdain loves to talk to chefs, to eat at their favourite places, about Australia’s obsession for food and of his love for Singapore…yes it all sounded so familiar…sample some of these lines from the book
'Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things things slightly, leaves marks behind. And in return life, and travel, leaves marks on you. Most of the time those marks - on your body or on your heart - are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.' Anthony Bourdain. The Nasty Bits. preface
'It's an irritating reality that many places and events defy description.Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about". Anthony Bourdain, Preface to The Nasty Bits
"Of all the food loving countries of the English speaking world, Australia is perhaps the most rabidly enthusiastic" Anthony Bourdain, The Nasty Bits