“Grease is good” is the motto spreading amongst Sydney’s hottest young chefs and bar owners.
At Hemingway’s in Manly, bookshelves line the walls, hip-hop is on the stereo and guilty pleasures on the menu. “We wanted stuff that looked fun and tacky and kitsch but, at the same time, evoked a sort of childhood memory,” explains co-owner George McLean. “Like, you feel a bit naughty ordering that.”
And you do feel naughty ordering a chilli dog and a cocktail containing Cottee’s cordial and Aeroplane jelly. But it’s obvious the smoked Frankfurter – nestled beneath jalapenos, mustard, and chilli con carne – is no footy Frank. Chicken nuggets, sliders, Pimpin’ Coladas and Randy Alexanders (coco pops swimming in brandy, milk and chocolate liqueur) pepper a menu with a sense of fun. Upstairs in the dining room, ex-Postales at GPO chef Ben Pichon tops king prawns with prawn crackers and macaroni cheese with parmesan foam.
This is fast food, but made with plenty more care and flair than what you’d find at any fast food chain and served up in a casual atmosphere. As you’d expect, the trend originates in America. Superstar chef David Chang’s LA ramen bar, Momofuku, spawned a chain of world-renowned restaurants (including Momofuku Seiobo, which opened last October in Sydney’s Star Casino). The 15-course tasting menu sets you back $175.
But that’s an extreme example. Mitch Orr, who in 2010 branched out from his classical Italian training and opened Duke Bistro at the The Flinders in Darlinghurst, wanted to counter the pretentiousness of fine dining. “I love going to a fine dining restaurant but, I hate going somewhere and sitting for three hours…it drags out,” he says between mouthfuls of chilli basil chicken at a Thai restaurant in Chinatown. “I’d rather eat some really fucking good food in a mad casual environment and have fun, you know?”
Orr won Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year the year he and Thomas Lim started Duke. Both first-time head chefs, they developed a style that was about “taking the piss out of things, putting stuff where it’s not usually, ‘cause we didn’t have any rules to worry about.” They became poster boys for what was known as ‘dude food’, amongst other young guns including Dan Hong and Andrew Levins.
In black-rimmed glasses, baseball cap and sneakers (and nicknamed Krillin after a ‘90s cartoon character), Orr is a character himself, full of energy and ideas. He left Duke in February to revisit his roots in Italian cooking at Buzo in Woollahra, a return to traditional techniques he finds challenging. Casual cuisine, in contrast, has a virtually limitless scope for inspiration. “Especially for our generation, where we have access to so much, all the time. You can’t help but [be inspired].”
To him, ‘dude food’ is an unnecessary label. “People can call the food I cook whatever the fuck they want,” he says. “As long as they want to eat it and the restaurant’s busy and I’m enjoying cooking it, who cares?”
It’s an ethos Dan Hong shares passionately. Hong, who won the Josephine Pignolet award in 2008 and did a stint at New York’s acclaimed WD-50 is, in Orr’s words, “killing it”. The executive chef for Justin Hemmes’ Merivale group directs the menus at Ms G’s in Potts Point and El Loco at Surry Hills’ Excelsior Hotel – a twist on pub grub so successful that on the weekends, “you can’t move” says Hong, gesturing around the room at walls splashed with a rainbow of colours and stencilled Mexican wrestler masks. Tacos, sandwiches and salads featuring grilled fish and pulled pork dominate the pub-priced menu.
Is this Mexicano-style fast food ‘dude food’? “I don’t want to call it that,” Hong says. “A lot of people regard me as like, one of the ‘dude food’ guys in Sydney, but you know…it’s just tasty food.
“It’s like when Ferran [Adria] did molecular gastronomy. He hates the term, like I hate the term dude food.
“There’s one thing that America does well, and that’s junk food. We all like junk food, we all grew up with junk food, and I just like to do it properly and do it well. That’s sort of my whole philosophy.”
He made a cheeseburger so well at his first Merivale digs, Lotus in Potts Point, that the restaurant taking its place has kept ‘Dan’s Cheeseburger’ on its menu.
The Fish Shop is the latest venture for an acclaimed chef – this time, Jeremy Strode of city fine diner Bistrode – venturing into more casual territory. Staff in nautical outfits serve freshly made fish fingers, potato scallops and coleslaw in paper cups, grilled fish in baking paper on tin plates and wine in water glasses, surrounded by kitsch fishing memorabilia.
As Hong points out, “Everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon. But it’s how people want to eat now. “They want to eat food they can relate to in a casual environment. They want to share everything, they don’t want three courses.”
The question is, while it works in 2012, will it stick? Some of its most popular purveyors are a world away from Potts Point. The Abercrombie – a student institution known for cheap Tex-Mex feeds, deep-fried Gaytimes and ‘rave juice’ glowstick cocktails – is sister to The Carrington, The Forresters and The Flinders pubs, all managed by James Miller and former DJ Jaime Wirth. Andrew Levins, another DJ, has earned a huge following for his hot dogs, nachos, burgers and ice cream sandwiches at The Dip, inside Chinatown hipster haunt Goodgod Small Club, where partygoers and workers alike can feed themselves for less than $15.
Mitch Orr thinks this affordability, coupled with its appeal to the younger crowd, gives it longevity. “Our generation’s becoming more savvy – wanting to go out and eat, wanting to drink and do different shit, so we have to target to ourselves… So the future is good.”
Dan Hong agrees. “This type of food is very identifiable” he says. “It’s comfort food. So I think it’ll be here to stay.”