There was a time in Sydney when the most ambitious chefs in the city were pouring their energy into producing French cuisine – not necessarily provincial or traditional, but precise, formal and, at the time, groundbreaking. If you wanted to eat well in Sydney, you were usually eating French food.
“The status quo was basically French,” says Regatta’s executive chef, Damien Pignolet. When Pignolet first came to Sydney (to head Pavilion in the Park) in the late ’70s, French food was the cuisine of the city’s new wave of exciting young chefs, people such as Tony and Gay Bilson (Berowra Waters); Philip Searle (Café Nouveau); Peter Doyle (Reflections, now Est.) and Dany Chouet (Upstairs, Au Chabrol). “French was a large part of what was cutting edge,” says Pignolet (ex-Bistro Moncur), “much more than today.”
In the past two decades, a flood of new cuisines and influential international chefs have emerged, particularly Ferran Adria (El Bulli) and Rene Redzepi (Noma), influencing restaurant styles, and the food served at them. But in Sydney, at the moment, something of a renaissance is happening. On the menu at Hubert, there’s a whole chicken in a butter, cream, white wine, garlic and mushrooms. Upstairs at the Continental Deli Bar Bistro, you can order steak tartare with gaufrette potatoes (thinly sliced, fried mini-waffle-like potatoes). In Potts Point you’ll find bouillabaisse (Provençal fish stew), niçoise salad with bonito, Byron Bay pork pithivier (pig in a blanket) with mushy peas and jus and a whole flounder meunière at Missy French. Three new restaurants, three young, talented teams and three rather old-fashioned menus.
“I think French food really took a turn, where it wasn't on-trend, or wasn't cool for a little while,” says Josephine Perry, owner of bistro-style restaurant Missy French. “We're not trying to do something different or out-there. We just want to do something simple and approachable,” she says. Missy French's new winter menu is full of lighter, more relaxed dishes from France, designed to share.
Missy French is joined by Swillhouse’s interpretation of Western European post-war hospitality, Hubert, as well as Elvis Abrahanowicz and Joe Valore’s pan-European Continental Deli Bar Bistro. Dan Pepperell, head chef at Hubert, admits the entire idea of the venue is off-trend and daggy, but that’s the glory of it. “It’s hilarious. Now it's all charcoal, robust flavours, grilling over wood, fermenting and pared-back minimalism. This is the total opposite. We've just gone back 20 years,” he says.
Not exactly. Although Pepperell’s menu may look like a list of La Repertoire de la Cuisine (a 1914 cookbook that’s informed a lot of Pepperell’s dishes) recipes, it’s far more imaginative. Much like Pepperell’s sort-of-Italian food at 10 William Street, the food at Hubert is French in appearance and flavour, but a mix of different cuisines and styles in technique. The classic chicken fricassee (a creamy chicken and mushroom dish) is prepped Chinese style, with shiitake mushrooms. The oeufs en gelée (gelatin-encased poached eggs) ditch the egg whites for dashi.
While Pepperell takes his inspiration from toying with cuisines (he says one of his favourite meals of all time was at Montreal’s playfully old-school French restaurant Joe Beef), Jesse Warkentin, chef at Continental Deli Bar Bistro, has had a completely different motivation. “We didn't want to try and reinvent anything, or invent anything. We just wanted to go back to how we learned to cook.” Like most professional chefs in Sydney, Warkentin learned his trade at a cooking school, based on classical French technique.
Post-graduation, it was very different. “I was surprised how many cooks and chefs I was working with didn't know basic stuff. Everyone was keen to learn how to ferment and how to do these new ways of pickling, but no one knew how to make hollandaise.” Warkentin says the influence of molecular gastronomy and Rene Redzepi’s Nordic cuisine took the focus away from protein as the centrepiece of the meal, and made any particularly sauce-heavy dish as rare as the tablecloths that used to be under them. “Getting a 200-gram piece of meat with sauce poured all over it is not something you see on a menu anymore these days,” he says. “We missed it, we missed eating that way and cooking that way.”
Classical French cooking never left Sydney, of course. Chefs such as Damien Pignolet and Guillaume Brahimi, as well as restaurants such as Vincent and Felix, are a testament to that. What’s surprising about this new wave of romantic European restaurants is that it’s not coming from Sydney’s old guard, but from relatively young, ambitious teams we might expect to be more conceptual or contemporary. Pepperell says that’s exactly why it’s interesting. It’s the retrieval of something great, something that was once widely loved, simply because it tasted great. “Just because we use flour and sauce doesn't mean it's any less exciting than fresh berry juice emulsion, or whatever.”