Automata is one of Sydney’s most innovative eateries, effortlessly blending cuisines and exemplifying “contemporary Australian”. But today, the kitchen is filled with the scents and accoutrements of a traditional northern-Thai kitchen.
Head chef Sarah Knights, executive chef Clayton Wells and a host of other staff members from Automata and its sister diner, A1 Canteen across the street, are gathered around the pass, picking coriander leaves, boiling egg noodles and stirring a giant pot of simmering curry for tonight’s staff meal (known around these parts as “family dinner”).
At the centre of this flurry of activity is Patty Antico, Thai expat and mother of Automata’s communications strategist (and Wells’s long-time partner) Tania Fergusson. She removes the pith from a wedge of lime with a single deft motion, then asks Knights to stir the curry for her.
“She ends up with the whole kitchen running around after her, helping her out,” Fergusson says of her mother as Wells searches for another bunch of coriander. “They call her ‘Little Tornado’.”
Once a week Antico, who studied political science in Bangkok before immigrating to Australia 35 years ago to start her family, dons an Automata apron and takes over the kitchen, preparing dinner for the sizeable Automata and A1 Canteen squads – 18 people all up.
“She offered to do it one week,” Wells says as he places his bowl of dutifully picked coriander leaves down beside the rest of the waiting self-serve meal. “At the end of the meal she said, ‘Okay, see you next Thursday!’ and walked out.”
Today’s offering is one of the family’s favourites: khao soi. The northern-Thai dish is a thin red chicken curry ladled over fresh egg noodles, sprinkled with crispy egg noodles and topped with chilli oil, diced red onion, those carefully prepared coriander leaves and lime wedges.
Each component is laid out along the pass as the queue of chefs and kitchen staff, more of whom are emerging from Automata’s downstairs prep kitchen, ladle curry into each other’s bowls.
“Oh shit yeah,” one young chef shouts when he sees Automata’s matriarchal mascot lowering strings of noodles into bowls. “Patty!”
Once all bowls are filled and every seat around Automata’s long communal table is claimed, Patty leans down at the pass and watches happily as the room is filled with the sound of slurping noodles and airborne curry spatters.
“They are a family,” she says with a broad, satisfied grin. “So they are my family too.”
Khao Soi (red chicken curry with fresh egg noodles)
Recipe by Patty Antico
150g fresh or pickled mustard greens, chopped (see method below)
100g red curry paste
1 small handful of grachai (or galangal or ginger), chopped
20g Thai curry powder
1 whole size-16 chicken, cut into pieces
2 400ml tins coconut milk
3 tbsp vegetable oil, plus extra for deep-frying
2 tbsp fish sauce
500g fresh egg noodles
1 red onion, chopped
1 bunch coriander, picked
1 lime, cut into wedges
Pickled mustard greens
Wash the leaves under running water to remove any dirt, and air-dry for 12 hours to remove excess moisture. Transfer the leaves to a bowl and rub with ½ tbsp salt until the leaves begin to wither. Transfer to a sterilised jar with a tight-fitting lid, and top up with boiling water until the leaves are just covered. Add a weight on top if necessary, to keep the leaves submerged. Stand at room temperature for 7 to 14 days until the water begins to turn a bright, yellowish green.
In a small mixing bowl combine red curry paste, chopped grachai and curry powder. Transfer half of the mixture to a separate bowl, coat the chicken pieces thoroughly and transfer to the fridge, covered, to marinate for 1 hour.
Place the chicken in a pot with the two tins of coconut milk. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat and cook slowly until chicken is tender. Remove the cooked chicken and set aside, reserving the coconut milk. In another pot, heat the vegetable oil on medium and add the other half of the curry mixture. Fry lightly until fragrant. Add in the reserved coconut milk and simmer until sauce is thick. Once the sauce has thickened slightly, add the chicken and season with fish sauce.
Deep-fry 80g noodles until crisp, and set aside for garnish. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Place the remaining noodles onto a tray and loosen by hand, to prevent sticking during cooking. Cook in boiling salted water for 1–2 minutes until tender. Drain and toss with a little vegetable oil to prevent sticking.
Divide the cooked noodles between 4 large bowls. Top with chicken curry and garnish with mustard greens, red onion, coriander, a lime wedge and fried egg noodles.
5 Kensington St, Chippendale
(02) 8277 8555
Tue to Thu 6pm–12am
Fri to Sat 12pm–3pm and 6pm–12am
This story originally appeared in print issue 18.