When you sit down to eat at a restaurant one of the first things you do is look for the menu. After all, the contents of that menu are part of what got you there. The creation of these dishes, however, speaks for a world of food exploration, trial and retrial, failure and success, and mixing of flavours and textures prior to menu approval. A restaurant kitchen is an outlet for chefs and their staff to create, explore and develop their dishes. The seed of an idea will often finish up on a plate but where do these dishes start? Like a fashion designer’s seasonal collection or an artist’s decision to use a particular colour, how is the decision of what to put in a particular dish made? Where do food ideas come from? What process is taken before a dish makes it to the menu?
Joseph Abboud, Rumi
Joseph Abboud, chef/owner of Rumi in Brunswick, is of Lebanese heritage and although he’s a qualified and accomplished chef he cannot help but draw on his background and cultural history to influence his choices about what goes on the plate. “First I think about what I would imagine eating at the restaurant and how it would taste. The hardest part, though, is getting it on the plate, imagining how it would look and work,” he says.
Abboud takes many of his dishes from books, history and his mother’s cooking, but one dish that is truly his own is the cos and herb salad on Rumi’s menu. It sounds simple but the reasoning behind it is indicative of the work and time chefs take to develop something as perceptively simple as a salad. “There is a sweet grape syrup that is used in Iran to dip cos lettuce in to give the leaf a sweetness,” he says. “Also, often on Iranian dining tables you will find a plate of fresh whole herbs [such as] chives, coriander, mint and parsley with some radishes as part of the meal. I didn’t imagine my customers would want to put whole herbs in their mouths but to chop the herbs, combine with the cos and dress with lemon, verjuice and the syrup... well, that’s how that salad ended up on the menu.”
Another dish, of seared chicken liver, is a direct influence from his mother. “As a kid, when we had barbecues mum would cook chicken livers on the grill and serve it with Toum [a paste of garlic, salt and vegetable oil]. I do almost the same but dust the livers in sumac to give it a tang; sumac is great with barbecued meats. The hardest part for me is putting it on the plate and making it look good. Sometimes you have to let presentation go a little – Lebanese food has a lot of purees and pulses; it’s not a really pretty cuisine but it tastes good.” Abboud has found that if he gets input from his staff it helps the overall dish. “I’ll say to one of my guys, ‘Have a play around with this and see what you come up with.’ Sometimes I’m so close to a dish or I compare it to my mum’s and I can’t easily put it into a western context.”
Michael Smith, Jorg
Michael Smith, co-owner and co-head chef at Jorg, has taken a leap from three-hat Asian-influenced food – after five years as Jacques Reymond’s head chef – to European-influenced cooking at the casual diner in North Fitzroy. Jorg opened in June and what goes on the menu is a collaboration between Smith and business partner and co-head chef Bryce Bernhardt.
“We often critique ourselves and look at what’s missing from the menu,” Smith notes. “I wanted a whole baby fish on the menu, something boneless with stuffing that was in season. I also wanted an elegance and it had to be boneless, which makes it easier and more enjoyable for the customer to eat.”
Smith took fennel, a classic fish accompaniment and in season in the cooler months, and mixed it with some good basics – garlic, shallots and olive oil – for the stuffing. Another motivator was that it had to be a good dish to share. “It needed a straightforward garnish so I did a fricasée of salad onion and broad beans and we found balance in a remoulade-like salad combination using fennel and celeriac.” The final touch was a crunch with the fish so brik pastry around the body worked a treat, and this dish became and instant hit on the Jorg menu.
Dallas Cuddy, Verge
Dallas Cuddy is head chef and co-owner of city restaurant Verge and is known for his clever combinations of texturally confronting dishes married with thoughtful flavours. His food can seem complex but there is always reason behind each component of his cooking and the focus of his dishes are motivated by ingredients often cooked using modern techniques – think sous vide or calcium-lime liquid baths. It is this playing around with texture that helps Cuddy bring out the best elements of flavour in each ingredient.
“We’ve got a lamb dish on at the moment and I’m doing artichokes with it that have been soaked in calcium lime,” he explains. This calcium lime liquid forms a film around the outside of the vegetable that, after slow roasting, becomes a crisp shell on the outside and a soft, flavourful texture on the inside.
“This method was inspired by Mugaritz,” Cuddy notes, of the restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. ”I wanted to keep the Mediterranean flavours through the dish, so added pistachios [roasted and emulsified with a boiled egg], breakfast radishes [chosen for their subtle bite], salad onions cooked overnight in a salt-crust and then finished the dish with dots of a black olive oil that we make.”
When it comes to presentation, Cuddy is influenced by his time at Nobu in London in the early 2000s. “My aesthetic is influenced very much by Japanese cuisine, and while in the last couple of years I’ve been getting away from Japanese flavours, that cuisine’s presentation... I like it,” he adds. “It’s about bringing different elements together without being too wanky.”
So whether it’s a need to fill a gap on a menu, a seasonal change incorporating ideas from old cookbooks and childhood, or a new textural combination, the process of dish creation is undoubtedly a whole lot more than meets the eye with the description on a menu. The construction of the dish may be made of many trials before it makes it to the menu, or may have been an accidental success, but it’s one that sees the kitchen as a space of exploration, and chefs as artisans.