Life is riddled with inconsistencies, Simon Bryant says, by way of explaining his ardent vegetarianism in a career spent cooking meat. But when he fleshes this out, it seems Bryant's attitude to meat is not so much inconsistent as what you might call nuanced.
You'll recognise Bryant as the unlikely offsider to Maggie Beer on The Cook and the Chef, the latter larger than life, wide open with laughter and as familiar a name as any in Australian food; the other with an appeal less obvious and more edgy, a chef with a scrubby bit of beard, an earring and metal and what might be leather around his wrist.
You can imagine him more easily in the job for which he first trained, as a mechanic with a motorbike habit, or behind the scenes in the kitchen, where he spent much of his career. Bryant, 47, spent more than a decade at the Adelaide Hilton (of Cheong Liew fame), rising to executive chef. He ran the meat section for three years and was relief butcher two days a week, as close as you can get to the reality of meat outside the farm or the slaughterhouse. The ethical vegetarian in charge of the meat section. That brought much hilarity from other chefs, he says.
''I love that,'' Bryant, 47, says now. ''All of these sort of weird inconsistencies in your life.'' Bryant has been largely vegetarian since his teens, after growing up on a hobby farm near Adelaide, where the killing of animals for food (albeit little ones like chickens) ''just bothered me''. Bryant is now ambassador for the Animal Welfare League and the Animals Asia Foundation - having just returned from Sichuan, where he continued his campaign against the meat trade in cats and dogs, and attended the opening of a kitchen for feeding moon bears saved from bile farms. This work brings him great satisfaction, he says, but ''satisfaction is a weird word because it's very distressing at the same time''.
But committed as he is to animal welfare, Bryant believes there are times when his personal feelings must take a back seat. ''If I go to someone's house and they've cooked for me, you shut up and you bloody well eat it,'' he says. ''I think it's beautiful that they've cooked for me.'' A visitor to his house would get a vegetarian meal - he doesn't feel the need to provide a special meat option, and by the same token, Bryant says, why should someone be required to provide a special vegetarian option for him?
Yes, he finds it hard to eat meat, especially where he knows the ''back story might not be perfect'', but he says Australians are in the privileged position of being able to choose what they eat. Put more bluntly, ''If I'm marooned on a desert island, jeez I'd rip the head off a pig and suck the eyeballs out. But that's survival.''
This absolute straight talking persona seemingly free of gloss is one you'll recognise from The Cook and the Chef, and in a different way, ordinariness and openness also explain the appeal of Maggie Beer. The partnership worked on screen, so much so that the show was the highest rating 6.30pm show in 30 years, Bryant says. They made 155 episodes across four years, the final series in 2009, with repeats still being played on ABC television. The success just doesn't make any sense, Bryant says, and it gives him great faith in public television - where you can make shows that are interesting rather than obviously commercially viable. Born in Britain, Bryant came to Australia in 1972, but as the son of ''pingpong Poms'', they were back and forth. After training as a mechanic, he began an economics degree, then diverted into the kitchen. He worked in Thai and Indian restaurants in Melbourne, gravitating towards Asian food because it involved less meat.
The posterboy for high-end Asian food fused with European techniques was Cheong Liew and when Liew opened a restaurant at the Adelaide Hilton in 1995, Bryant knew he wanted to work for a man he regards as ''limitless in his imagination'' and a creative genius.
At the Hilton, he surprised the management by deciding to source local food, a philosophy well in tune with Maggie Beer, whom he held in awe and with whom he came to share the screen. ''I love her; she's just a force of nature, there's no stopping that woman. She was banging on about seasonal food and local food years before it was even on the radar. I love people who don't follow trends and just do what they believe in, and she's been doing that since day one.'' Her simple food is the bravest kind of cooking, Bryant says, because you've got nowhere to hide, no sauces to disguise substandard technique or produce.
Bryant says at the time he met Beer his cooking style could have gone in any direction, but she reaffirmed the important values - simplicity and flavour. ''I could have ended up getting a bit fancy again, but she definitely pulled me back to reality I think.''
While Bryant cooks meat, he won't use factory-farmed meat, and he visits his suppliers to check what they're up to. We need to take responsibility, he says, for how our food is produced. ''We've marginalised agriculture. We don't want to know … And what really concerns me is that we're prepared to put an animal in an incredibly compromised position because we want a cheap chicken. I think that's fundamentally wrong.'' He has plenty to say on these topics on his website simonbryant.com.au.
With a 25-year career in food and a high profile, it's surprising to discover that Simon Bryant's Vegies is his first cookbook (other than books from the series), and only written after Beer came to his house, opened his computer and declared, you talk, I'll type. It's made up of ''everything I've cooked for the last 20 years'' - vegetarian dishes from menus, and ''just the stuff I would cook at home that I wasn't brave enough to put on menus''. There's a limit to what customers can take, he says. He never labels dishes ''vegetarian'', insisting people should go to a dish without preconceived ideas. When he served ''parmigiana'', diners would order it and get halfway through before realising it was eggplant and not the expected chicken ''parmi''. In Adelaide, he has served many a miner on his way into the mines. ''And a lot of guys would say, hey mate that was great. I didn't realise it was vegetarian, and I think that's great feedback.''
His recipes show the strong Asian influence. Dishes such as pancakes made of rice fermented overnight with dal; and spiced potato dumplings served with chilli peanut sauce. There's also an interest in health - a seaweed and lettuce salad; or muffins made of goji berries, pearl barley and pinenuts. And plenty of appealing home meals.
Eating vegetables, Bryant says, is ''kind of entry-level ethical eating'', because they're affordable, plus they taste good. ''You eat a piece of unsalted seared chicken, compare that with a fresh peach picked off a tree, how can you say vegies are boring? And to me, meat's not that exotic at the end of the day.''
CAULIFLOWER ROASTED WITH PANCH PHORAN AND FRESH TURMERIC
I was never a kid who hated vegies, but I did think boiled cauliflower smelt a bit like old socks(and overcooking it pushed that smell to somewhere nearer rotten eggs). I've since learnt that the trick is to leave the cauliflower a little undercooked or to roast it. Panch phoran is essentially a blend of fennel, fenugreek and cumin seeds and sometimes wild celery or mustard seeds, but always nigella seeds.
1 cauliflower, trimmed
1 tbsp freshly grated turmeric or 1 tsp ground turmeric
4 tbsp panch phoran
1 tbsp salt flakes
1 long green chilli, sliced, seeds and all
1 small bunch coriander, leaves picked
juice of 1 lemon
Preheat the oven to 200C fan-forced (220C conventional). Cut the cauliflower into quarters. Working from the stem end up, cut each quarter into florets about 4cm wide at the top.
Heat the ghee in a small frying pan over medium heat. Add the turmeric and panch phoran and fry until a few seeds crackle ever so slightly. Do not allow the panch phoran to get too hot as the fenugreek will become very bitter. Add the salt to the pan and stir to combine. Transfer the spice mix to a large bowl. Add the cauliflower to the bowl and toss to coat, adding a little more ghee if the cauliflower is not properly coated, and pressing the seeds on to the florets.
Transfer to a roasting tin and roast the cauliflower for about 25 minutes or until it's tender; a few burnt tips are nothing to worry about. When you are ready to serve, toss the roast cauliflower with the chilli, coriander and lemon juice.
ONION BHAJIS WITH APPLE, HONEY AND MINT RAITA
1 cup besan flour
300g natural yoghurt
2 tsp garam masala
2 tsp ground cumin, roasted
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ajwain seeds
big pinch chilli powder
1 tsp salt flakes
4 onions, sliced into 1 cm rings, centres pushed out
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 long green chillies, chopped, seeds and all
1 bunch coriander, leaves picked and chopped
1 litre flavour-neutral oil (canola, grapeseed, rice bran, soybean)mint sprigs, to garnish
Place the flour in a large bowl. Add 160ml of room-temperature water and the yoghurt, and stir to form a smooth batter. Add the spices and salt. Cover with plastic film and leave the batter in a warm spot for two hours.
Add the onion rings to the batter along with the lemon juice, green chilli and chopped coriander. Stir gently to mix through and coat the onion. Heat the oil in a wok or heavy-based saucepan over medium heat until just shimmering (about 180C). Working in batches (about five at a time), pull the coated onion rings out of the batter, shaking them gently to remove excess batter. Carefully slip the onion rings into the hot oil and fry, turning occasionally with a slotted spoon or tongs, until the batter is deep brown and the onion has cooked through, about five minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Serve immediately with raita, garnished with mint sprigs.
To make the raita, mix 400g of yoghurt with two teaspoons of besan flour (whisking), two tablespoons of honey, half a green apple, grated, a tablespoon of coriander, two teaspoons of salt flakes and the juice of half a lemon. Heat a tablespoon of ghee and fry a tablespoon of mustard seeds till they crackle. Pour over the yoghurt, then fold in a finely diced long green chilli, seeded, and a handful each of finely chopped mint and coriander.
CORN TAMALES WITH SALSA
Serves 4 (makes 12 parcels)
When corn is plentiful, I set aside a few husks to dry every time I use a cob, then chuck them in a 50°C fan-forced (70°C conventional) oven for a few hours and store the dried husks in an airtight container until I get a tamale craving. This way I can still make tamales when corn is long gone and just season the masa with different vegies. You can buy pre-dried husks from Mexican grocers, where you'll also find masa lista.
3 corn cobs, husks stripped and reserved
100g grated cheddar or crumbled feta
1 cup (180g) masa lista salt flakes and cracked
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 red onion, diced
500g cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 bunch coriander, leaves and stems chopped
juice of 2 limes
finely grated zest of 1 lime
1 long green chilli, seeded and finely chopped
small pinch of sweet paprika
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Strip the corn kernels from two of the cobs by snapping them in half and running your knife down the cob. Lightly crush the kernels with a rolling pin or potato masher, then mix with the cheese, masa lista and three cups (750ml) of water; the mixture should be like stiff mashed potato. Season with a big pinch of salt and pepper. Cook in a small heavy saucepan over very low heat for 10 minutes, stirring constantly, to create a soft dough. It should be fairly dry but not crumbly.
Lightly oil a fresh corn husk with the vegetable oil. (If you're using dried husks, rehydrate them first in warm water and pat dry before oiling.) Spread a heaped tablespoon of the masa mixture over the thick end of the husk, and wrap it up into a matchbox-sized parcel. Place another oiled husk perpendicular to the first one and wrap it up again to seal the sides. Tie the parcel with a fine strip of husk. Repeat to make 12 tamales.
Place a large tiered steamer over a large saucepan of simmering water. Steam the tamales for 20-25 minutes. Remove the steamer from the pan. Allow the tamales to sit for five to 10 minutes in the steamer.
Blacken the remaining corn cob on a dry chargrill plate or pan over high heat. Turn regularly, as it will go from blackened to completely burnt very quickly. You just need to achieve a smoky flavour and create a few black contact spots on the kernels. Leave to cool slightly, then strip the kernels with a knife. Place them in a bowl with the remaining ingredients and a pinch of salt. Combine to make a salsa. Serve the tamales with the salsa.
Recipes from Simon Bryant's Vegies, by Simon Bryant (Penguin, July 2012, $40).
Kirsten Lawson is Canberra Times Food and Wine editor.