“Middle Eastern food is in a space we’ve never experienced before,” top chef and restaurateur Shane Delia tells Broadsheet. “We’ve got some amazing young talent who are really owning the journey that our cuisine can take over the next few years.”
Those chefs are working all over the country, but over the next few weeks Delia is bringing them to Melbourne for the Maha Bar Chef Series – a celebration of the evolution of Middle Eastern cuisine in Australia.
Over four Tuesdays from May 18, he’s putting the spotlight on young chefs who are pushing the boundaries within some of the many cuisines found throughout the Middle East.
It starts with Ben Williamson, who’s cooked at seminal Brisbane Middle Eastern restaurant Gerard’s Bistro and Sydney Levantine eatery Nour (he’s now also a restaurateur, behind new Brisbane gems Agnes and Bianca). Next up is Paul Farag, who worked at Monopole and Fish Butchery before moving to Nour last year. He’ll be followed by Adam Wolfers of Gerard’s Bistro, Gerard’s Bar and Jewish-Hungarian pop-up series Etelek. And finally, more familiar to Melburnians, is Tom Sarafian of the now-closed Bar Saracen, whose residency at Little Andorra is ending soon.
“I follow the work of new people all the time, whether they’re chefs or artists or musicians,” Delia says. “These are chefs I’ve been watching for a little while and they inspire me. I thought, ‘Melbourne really needs to see the new face of Middle Eastern food in Australia.’”
Each chef gets to take charge of the Maha Bar kitchen on their designated night, cooking set menus that reflect their individual tastes, culinary signatures and personal stories.
Delia will be on the pans throughout, but insists the menus aren’t collaborations – each chef has been given free reign over what they want to cook during their one-night stint.
The variety of Middle Eastern food available in Australia has come a long way since Delia first entered the hospo game. Back then, he says, there were two distinct options: venues specialising in very traditional home-style fare, such as the iconic Abla’s; or the “new-world” approach by chefs such as the pioneering Greg Malouf, who Delia describes as Australia’s “godfather of Middle Eastern cuisine”. But at that time, there weren’t a whole lot of options in between.
That gap is the space Delia has been working in since 2008 with the launch of Maha, followed by Maha East and Maha Bar. Thirteen years later he sees more and more chefs putting their own spin on classic Middle Eastern cuisines.
“The Arabic communities here are steeped in tradition and have a deep-seated respect for themselves and for their culture – but they’re also liberated by living in Australia, where there are no restrictions,” he says.
“These guys are in the perfect environment – we’ve got beautiful products and customers who are adventurous – and they’re really talented chefs. I know that the future of Middle Eastern cuisine can be found right here in Australia.”
The Maha Bar Chef Series features Ben Williamson on May 18, Paul Farag on May 25, Adam Wolfers on June 1 and Tom Sarafian on June 8. Keep an eye on Broadsheet for more details in the coming week. Tickets are $85 and available online.