Entertainment

Australia confidential

Chef, writer and culinary adventurer Anthony Bourdain delivers his verdict on Australian dining to Olivia Riordan.

What compels you to visit Australia?

Since I first came, it has always had a really vibrant food, dining and chef culture. It has always been very supportive of chefs and interested in what they're doing.

Anthony Bourdain.
Anthony Bourdain. Photo: Barry J Holmes/The Observer

What is the perception of the Australian dining scene abroad?

The Sydney and Melbourne dining scene is held in very high regard by chefs and knowledgeable diners. The chefs - who've usually been introduced to Australia through invitations to various food and wine festivals - are generally really impressed and are, by now, personally connected to Australia. We like the chefs here. We like how they cook. We consider them friends.

How do we rank in the world?

The cooking - at least in Sydney and Melbourne - is at a very high technical level. Chefs and cooks are motivated, proud and the community tends to support and promote that kind of excellence, which is hugely important. Every time I come to Australia, the food and the restaurants only get better and better.

What lets Australian dining down?

Advertisement

The biggest weaknesses are restrictive, at times, laws concerning health and safety of ingredients, and Australia's great distance from the rest of the fine-dining universe. [The] fact is - and I'll paraphrase an Australian chef - influence comes from elsewhere, and in most cases, somebody, somewhere else thought of it first. This is surely no crime and is entirely due to Australia's general isolation. What happens in Sydney and Melbourne tends to have happened a little earlier in Paris or Brooklyn. I'm not being a dick about this. Any chef will tell you the same. You can certainly eat as well in Sydney or Melbourne as New York or San Francisco. But, with a few exceptions, you are less likely to get the next big thing. If that even matters - and I don't see that it should.

What are the strengths of cooking in Australia? What do we do right?

One of the things I noticed about Sydney, in particular, these days is how busy the restaurants are. Busier than New York and Tokyo, generally speaking. People are less jaded, more excited than in New York, and that level of interest is a good thing for chefs, for restaurants and for dining in general. The ingredients seem to be getting better and better and chefs like Matt Moran, Dan Hunter and many others are really concerning themselves with sourcing.

Throughout your travels, has the Australian dining scene changed?

Brett Graham (right) with fellow chefs Heston Blumenthal and Rene Redzepi.
Brett Graham (right) with fellow chefs Heston Blumenthal and Rene Redzepi. Photo: Getty Images

A few years ago, there was a stark difference [between Sydney and Melbourne]. Sydney seemed to be a little flashier, a little more slick. And Melbourne, by comparison, seemed to have a more casual laid-back attitude, Brooklyn-style. But the Sydney dining scene has changed a lot in the last few years - the trend towards more casual, rustic dining is fantastic. Personally, I think it has changed for the better. Or at least it has moved in the direction that I, as a jaded diner, respond much more positively to.

What attracts you to Melbourne?

I have good friends in Melbourne: Paul Wilson, Donovan Cooke. I look forward to reconnecting with friends and there are a couple restaurants that are just sentimental favourites. [Bourdain was seen recently at Dainty Sichuan and Circa.]

Massimo Bottura.
Massimo Bottura. 

Best meal in Melbourne?

The best meal I have had in Melbourne was ridiculous; it's not reproducible. I was sitting up at Ronnie di Stasio's [winery in the Yarra Valley], above the hills and there were a bunch of other chefs there. We'd eaten a dinner, after which Tetsuya Wakuda took the leftovers and made a polpette and threw together a pasta meal.

We asked some of the world's top chefs how they perceive Australia's food scene.

Brett Graham, chef-owner of the Ledbury, London, and expat Australian

Atul Kochhar.
Atul Kochhar. 

The perception [in the UK] is that food in Australia is fresh and seasonal. Australian restaurants have made massive improvements in the past 10 years and, in my experience, the top restaurants are not only the best in Australia, but some of the best in the world. What's great about the Australian food scene is the quality in the produce and cooking, all the way from small cafes to top restaurants - something I think sometimes is lacking in Britain. Two chefs who really stand out are [Quay's] Peter Gilmore and [Attica's] Ben Shewry. They set the standard for fine-dining food in Australia and it's a very exciting time there.

Massimo Bottura, Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italy

Trinh Diem Vy.
Trinh Diem Vy. Photo: Daniel Mahon

Australia is a land of wonders, in its raw materials, and its products, it reveals itself as an exotic country whose influences range widely from China to Japan, from Latin America to Italy. Fine dining is just fine, with a handful of old and new classics created by people like my friends Tetsuya Wakuda, Mark Best, Peter Gilmore. The outsiders are really interesting too, like New York's Dave Chang, who opened Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney in October. His is an incredible cuisine that rocks with Asian-Aussie-oriented flavours and a precision worthy of a double Michelin star. Also, the ''All Black'', Ben Shewry, at Attica, whose heartfelt vegetable-oriented cuisine is full of delicacy and intimacy. The fun - not the faint-hearted - should not miss Dainty Sichuan, a strong, radical, spicy canteen (in South Yarra) making the hottest Sichuan food in the world.

Atul Kochhar, chef-owner, Benares Restaurant, London

Stevie Parle.
Stevie Parle. Photo: Daniel Mahon

Australia's food scene is rich, vibrant, exciting and inspiring purely due to its borderless cuisine attitude. We ought to learn so much from its chefs and food producers.

Corey Lee, Benu, San Francisco

I think the perception falls into two distinct categories: chefs who have visited Australia and chefs who haven't. Unfortunately, we don't hear too much about the Australian food scene outside of a few restaurants. But those who have visited, like myself, all rave about and are excited by Australia's chefs and restaurants, dining audience and quality of products.

Stevie Parle, Dock Kitchen, London

My recent trip to Australia confirmed my views that the quality of hospitality there is excellent. I love the relaxed but professional service and the simple, sunny food that you find everywhere. When I asked the food writer and chef Christine Manfield what she thought Australian food was, she talked about cooking like a magpie, picking up dishes from different cultures and being inspired by ingredients. Christine has recently written a great book on Indian cooking, but the mixing of cultures to make up Australian cuisine is her real expertise. I tried to do the same with my fish plate (inspired by my Melbourne visit). It had elements of India, south-east Asia and China but tasted, I hoped, truly Australian.

Thierry Marx, Mandarin Oriental, Paris

The Australian food scene is very dynamic and open-minded. I think the quality of food is exceptional and the country has extraordinary produce. Australians aren't ego-driven and I find this uncomplicated attitude allows them to do things we wouldn't imagine possible overseas.

Trinh Diem Vy, Morning Glory, Hoi An, Vietnam

I love the diversity and vast selection of cuisines available in both Melbourne and Sydney. The taste and standard are great. The one thing I found surprising was the lack of greens served with the dishes, even though the markets have a great selection of the freshest greens from almost anywhere in the world. Australia is a culinary nation that keeps inspiring me.

Jennifer McLagan, food writer and author, Toronto, and expat Australian

Most Canadians have no idea about Australian food. They see Australia as a country of the great outdoors - sun, surf and weird animals - and many still have the view that Australian cuisine is anything cooked on the barbecue. But those who have visited are impressed. I love eating out when I return to Australia. I left in the mid-'70s and every time I come back I'm more amazed. I have the most fabulous food in restaurants and the coffee culture in Melbourne is like no other city. You can recognise Australian cuisine, or an Australian cooking - the food is open-minded, skilful, not weighed down by traditions or rules. I don't like the term fusion food (usually it is confusion food) but Australian cooks, often from other traditions, understand how to take the bounty of Australian produce and create a distinctive cuisine. All those Asian vegetables, spices, herbs and flavours are combined into your cooking - you seem to put those things together better than anybody else.

Margaret Xu Yuan, Yin Yang, Hong Kong

I love Australian food. Australian chefs really know how to use Asian ingredients. Australian chefs are very spoilt. If I lived there, I wouldn't be bothered having a farm - you have such an abundance of good produce. Your food has progressed into what I'd call ''world food'', like world music, which I think is the direction the world is heading in. But I think that Australians do it best. It all means a very cosmopolitan, contemporary cuisine on the plate.