Shane Osborn, the first Australian chef to be awarded two Michelin stars for his work at Pied a Terre in London, likes talking Silpat mats. They’re the non-stick, reusable baking mats that you’ll find in most commercial kitchens and some domestic ones, but it’s when he spots the ones with holes in them that his eyes light up.
“These are the new ones and they’re great for anything you’re making that’s really thin,” he urges. “If you’re making a sable or a puff pastry, they’re perfect for keeping your pastry nice and flat.”
We’re in Essential Ingredient in Prahran, which Osborn – who has been visiting Australia as the guest of honour at the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence Awards, held in Sydney on August 8 – has chosen to visit, along with the Prahran Market, as part of his role at the awards.
If you’re into food, chances are you’ve heard the name Shane Osborn, and for good reason. Perth-born Osborn achieved his first Michelin star in 2000, followed by a second in 2003. In the process, he’s risen to become one of world’s most respected Australian-raised chefs. Well, after 25 years of cooking, he has decided to take a break, and a serious break at that. He has sold his shares in Pied a Terre, sold his house in London and is setting out on a 10-month world tour with his wife and young family in September.
“I’m taking a year off to spend time with the family,” he says. “I’ve dedicated 25 years to the industry and it’s time for a break. We’ve sold everything and have nothing but a storage unit in Wembley.”
Part of the reason for the world trip is the search for inspiration. “I want to do something different in my career,” he reveals. “I’ve been at the top-end of the industry for a long time doing haute cuisine and it’s time to do something a little bit different, fun and spontaneous. I still want to do really good food – my kind of food but much more relaxed.”
Our morning at the markets is just that. We start the day with a coffee, along Graham Long (Osborn’s sous chef while at Pied a Terre), Electrolux Appetite for Excellence Young Chef of the Year Richard Ousby (from Quay in Sydney), and Young Waiter of the Year James Sexton (from Sepia, also in Sydney). Suffice to say, conversation flows.
“The thing I love about Australia is that good food is much more accessible to people here than it is in the UK and people are a lot more interested in cooking at home and have a great knowledge of food,” says Osborn. “In general terms, people have a broader knowledge of food and varieties of cuisines.”
We move through to the fish outlets in the market and Long, who is on his first trip to Australia, backs Osborn’s assertion. “The quality of the food here is great and the freshness of this fish,” he points to a glass cabinet, “you have to really know where to get good fish in the UK. I think it’s the lack of demand mostly, as the culture of eating fish in the UK is about fish and chips, you don’t see shops like this much in London.”
The market impresses even the Sydneysiders. Ousby, who was raised in Brisbane, enthuses: “The culture here is something special. There are awesome places in Sydney, but the food culture here is so accessible.”
We move through to the butchers and Long is impressed by the ease with which we can buy veal. It’s a controversial meat in Europe and not as readily available as it is for us. As if to exemplify the fact the Prahran Market is key to the industry, we run into Tony Tan, leading chef, food writer and teacher, discussing produce with a butcher.
The beauty of witnessing a conversation between such professionals is that, to them, stories of foraging for produce is akin other blokes talking footy; it’s second nature. Long explains the culture of the dedicated foragers who work for Pied a Terre, collecting sea purslane, chickweed, wood sorrel, before he and Ousby launch into a discussion about combinations of flavour and texture, swapping a few tips along the way.
A few steps into the annex, where the market’s fruit and vegetables are sold, and the boys are talking beetroot, silverbeet and celeriac (they don’t see it with its leaf on often in the UK). Long even tries mangosteen for the first time.
Sexton, the only non-chef, though still a restaurant professional, finds the whole place inspiring. “To be able to surround yourself with places like this is really inspiring,” he smiles. “It’s great for people to cook at home and allow inspiration to just happen while you’re here, and for these chefs it’s amazing to get their hands on the produce.”
It’s time to let the boys go on ahead and have some time to themselves to talk food – restaurant professionals don’t get much of that.
Even as we part ways, one thing becomes remarkably clear. To have a chef the calibre of Shane Osborn choose to visit Melbourne for produce reinforces the collective ethos of our city’s culture. When it comes to food, we’ve got a good thing going.
“The reason I chose Melbourne is that I think it’s the coolest city in Australia,” offers Osborn with a smile. “It’s a great city with a great food culture.”