Eighty-six restaurant owners Gus Armstrong and Sean Royle with Brian Tunks of Bison homewares. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
With all due respect, it might be something of a stretch to call Brian Tunks, Gus Armstrong and Sean Royle the three wise men. They come bearing not gold, frankincense and myrrh but homewares, hand-rolled gnocchi and an innate sense of simplicity.
Whether it be beautiful bowls or ox-heart tomatoes served with nothing more than anchovies and mozzarella, simplicity is what drew these three men together in the first place and what keeps the friendship strong.
It's something of an unlikely friendship. Tunks, who turned 49 this week, started Bison, the ceramics line with international standing, 14 years ago. Armstrong, now 34, was barely out of school, and Royle, 28, was years from finishing. Even now, there's still something of the schoolboy about them both, confident, full of enthusiasm, ready to take on the world. Their restaurant Eighty-six "is one of the most exciting new places in town", according to reviewer Bryan Martin in The Canberra Times Food & Wine Annual. Food editor Kirsten Lawson put it at No. 3 in the 2013 top 20, saying "it's as though places like this can't take a step wrong and it's instructive that its success relies equally on food and feeling".
Bison homewares photographed at Eighty-six restaurant in Braddon, Canberra. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
It's this feeling that took the restaurateurs out to Pialligo. They were looking for serving plates and bowls - crockery is such a harsh word - that would reflect their food philosophy.
"We looked for months," says Royle. "But we'd always end up back out at Pialligo. There was nothing that compared to what Brian was doing. It was like we were stalking him without him knowing because he was never there when we went."
They eventually caught up and the deal evolved naturally, all parties could see how bringing the two businesses together just seemed to fit.
Bison homewares with food from Eighty-six restaurant in Braddon, Canberra. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
All agree that it's more than a business relationship now. On the morning of our shoot there's an easy vibe among the three. Tunks seems to calm Armstrong and Royle, if that's possible, while in return the culinary pair energise Tunks. He loves to see food on his plates, hear the chefs discussing which of his line is their favourite colour - storm cloud, limestone, indigo, leaf? - and which dishes look best served on what. When we sit the three of them down, and we manage to eventually, Royle and Armstrong force Tunks into the middle and they prod and poke him like two annoying little brothers.
But what really ties this trio together is a shared sense of simplicity. At Eighty-six, the food's not fussy, it's all about quality produce served as bare as they can. One of the dishes for today's shoot is simply titled "Ox-heart and ortiz" on the menu. Big fleshy ox-heart tomatoes served with anchovies and fresh buffalo mozzarella, a couple of walnuts … not a lot else. Just pick it all up and put it in your mouth, says Armstrong. I do and it's divine.
What prompted this article was a Bison jug. Occasionally, I sneak out to Pialligo to recharge my inner calm in Tunks' studio. There's something about the colours and the light. It works every time, even if I don't buy anything. But this one time I bought this jug. I've used it for flowers, for water, for milk. Even when it's just sitting on the table it brings me joy. In a year that had spiralled out of control in many respects this jug made me realise life is about simple pleasures.
Lemon ricotta gnocchi. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
I told Tunks this and we got talking about how, particularly at this time of year, we tend to forget that. We get caught up in the event that is Christmas, caught up in the tinsel, in the commercialism and sometimes forget what is really important.
"Christmas should be a time for reflection, a time for drawing a breath," says Tunks.
His father died at Christmas time nine years ago and, while this still makes him sad, it also makes him strive harder to connect with family and friends.
Ox heart tomatoes and ortiz anchovies. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
"At this time of year we should all give friends and family the attention they deserve, attention we may not have given them throughout the year.
"We should all just stop and be thankful for who we have in our lives."
Family plays a big part in the Christmas celebrations of Armstrong and Royle as well. Armstrong wants more time to spend with his wife, Olivia, and his nine-month-old son, Jack. Royle talks about the Christmas dinners he shared with his family growing up, joking that what he eats now is 10 times better; how he'll catch up with them all to remind them of that.
The pair will head down the coast over summer, cooking, eating, drinking wine. They'll scour the region for produce, fish, oysters and gather friends and feast and have fun. It won't be complicated.
And that's the message we're all trying to get across here. That if a jug, or a tomato or the company of friends and family can bring you such joy, there really is no need to complicate it.
Gus Armstrong doesn't hesitate when I ask him for a couple of recipes.
''We want people to be cooking our food,'' he says.
''We want people to come to Eighty-six and feel like they're at home and then go home and cook.
''When we give recipes, we want them to be brief so people use their brains, feel the food and listen to their palates.''
He shares the recipe for lemon ricotta gnocchi with green beans and asparagus. He'll only give restaurant-size quantities because he wants you to think about it - ''adapt if necessary, or invite that many people over''. And then he says (and you don't doubt him for a minute): ''And if readers need help, they can ring me at Eighty-six, 6161 8686, ring me.''
Lemon ricotta gnocchi
Use light hands and soft touch for the best mouth feel.
zest of 8 lemons
8 egg yolks
salt to taste
flour to bind
Mix together and rest for two hours. Then roll into desired shape and size, practice makes perfect. Boil in salted water and chill in an ice bath.
To serve, heat some butter and olive oil in a pan. Add gnocchi, lemon juice, chilli and garlic. When the gnocchi has the desired colour and crust, add green beans and asparagus and serve. Top with fresh flat-leaf parsley, lemon zest and loads of parmesan.
Ox-hearts and ortiz
This salad is a staple in our house over summer. It relies on quality ingredients.
Get the best tomatoes you can find. Ox-hearts and Beefsteak tomatoes work best.
Garnish with the best anchovies money can buy, fresh buffalo mozzarella, walnuts that you crack yourself, loads of basil and a good lug of olive oil.
Season to taste.