Symposium of Gastronomy, Wellington

Duncan Galletly
Duncan Galletly

SINCE THE FIRST Symposium of Australian Gastronomy, which I instigated in 1984, the serious interest in growing, cooking and dining has only exploded, fragmenting into talkative clusters of scholars, chefs, social activists, greenie growers, and more.

With only one-fifth of the available population, the gastronomic symposiums we got going in New Zealand in 2001 have arguably had a better prospect of holding together.

The recent gathering in Wellington returned to more eclectic interests, rather than specifically culinary history. The “Diversity” theme attracted an appropriate variety of papers with the nearly two dozen topics including aprons, Sunday school picnics, dining alone in foreign cities, and Wellington’s nearly lost Chinatown, around the corner.

Founder of Peoples Coffee, and keen promoter of fair trade, Matt Lamason has turned his mind to the benefits of training prisoners and ex-offenders in what New Zealanders call “hospo” (hospitality industry). Archeologist Dave Veart provided expert illumination of the ancient Maori farms further threatened with “development” outside Auckland. Exemplary cookery writer Lois Daish explained her adulation of predecessor Patricia Harris (1910-2003), who proved prickly when they actually met.

Phil Cook argued that “craft beer” is not novel, but very, very old; two Iranian postgraduate students Amir Sayadabdi and Saman Hassibi analysed the massive changes in Norwegian cookery books since the 1960s; and a commander in the NZ Navy, Karen Ward, investigated predecessor Captain Scott’s fatal provisioning for the race to the South Pole.

Medical academic Duncan Galletly might even exceed me in gastronomic obsessiveness. The colours of the covers of his journal, The Aristologist, borrow from lollies – the first from Violet Cream, and the latest pale green from “The Snifter – now extinct. Some lament its passing … other do not”.

Galletly’s scientific presentation this meeting was entitled, “Zomato – Zero to connoisseur in 11 easy kilograms”. Zomato is a restaurant review site, based in India and expanding quickly worldwide through the logics of mobile phones, social media and finance – purchased companies include Urbanspoon. As Duncan explained:

For this paper, over a period of six months, I ate and drank at, and reviewed, approximately 200 restaurants and cafes to achieve what Zomato describes as “connoisseur” status, becoming one of the “most respected members of the foodie community”.

Even more gloriously than judging that amateur restaurant rankings are justifiable alternatives to established guidebooks, Duncan Galletly had published so many reports that he had beaten Taylor Finderup as top Wellington foodie.

Taylor Finderup
Taylor Finderup

In the call for conference papers, Duncan had asked for unusually long abstracts of “about 500 words”, which might provide enough reading of my “How big was John Locke’s spice drawer? An inquiry into whether liberalism favours, diversity, equality or both”.

Basic catering was provided in the function room at Prefab, the popular new venue of Jeff Kennedy (formerly of L’Affare). We unavoidably missed the Friday dinner at Giulio Riccati’s Cicio Cacio in Newtown, but did squeeze into the Saturday dinner at Asher Boote’s Hillside Kitchen and Cellar in Thorndon. I’ll explain my enthusiasm, not shared with everyone, in a separate post.

The next NZ symposium is projected for August in Auckland with an “Aesthetics” theme, and the Twentieth Symposium of Australian Gastronomy is tentatively planned for Melbourne from the evening of 2 December until morning of 6 December 2016.

The collapse of dining in U.K., U.S.A., France, Australia and Barbados

The past decade has seen the collapse of British restaurants.

Something to eat at El Celler de Can Roca

They held 10 of the world’s “Best 50” positions in 2005, and now only two. Almost as disastrously, the decline in number of world-beating French restaurants has plummeted from 11 to five. The U.S.A. went from nine to six, Australia from three to one, and Barbados fell from two to none at all.

Where did all that great dining go? Spain has lifted its total from four to seven, Peru and Mexico have come from nowhere to gain three spots each; Brazil, Sweden, Japan, Thailand and China came in with two; and Singapore, Russia, South Africa and Chile snapped up one. The rest of the world stayed roughly where they were.

I’m joking. What has changed is not the quality of the national stars but the scope of the “World’s Best 50 Restaurants”. A British magazine started the annual list in 2002, and still in 2005 found the great places either down the road, or in France, the U.S. and Barbados. Over the years, the judging has expanded further across the globe.

The best in the world, “Says who?” That’s Paul Levy’s comment on the latest list, just announced. “Would any critic dare to try to name the 50 best operas/singers/actors/artists in the world, except as some sort of perverse game?” The original foodie underscores his point with the photograph (above), chosen by the “Best 50” organisers to represent their very “best” restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain.

That Paul was not overly selective with the photograph can be confirmed elsewhere. Here’s another I’ve referenced:

Restaurant magazine had asked Paul to vote in the early years, and he was not surprised that “the initial list in 2002 maintained absurdly that more of the world’s top restaurants were in Britain than in France.”

He admits to have dined at some of latest winners, and that they are “very good indeed”. The problem is that we could both name dozens of equally wonderful meals nowhere near the list. Now shut, Ritual in Nelson Bay, north of Sydney, rightfully gained a devoted following, but regularly lost scores in the local guidebook until it was dropped entirely. I’m looking forward to the emergence of Orana – or is Adelaide going to prove just too far for the globe-trotters?

As a restaurant rating groupie, I can remind Paul that even a half-decent guide is better than no guide. And another consolation is that we are watching the “Best 50’s” self-destruction. I’m not referring to its encouraging of ever-more damaging jet-setting.

Rather, my point is that the near-doubling of the number of countries on the list from 11 in 2005 to 21 is only a beginning. The United Nations has 193 members. The judges don’t appear yet to have brought in Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Morocco … Is Canada yet to make the grade? And those other former British colonies, Hong Kong and Barbados, might yet pop back.

Soon, the near-impossibility of comparing of apples with pears will be compounded by the total incredibility of rating them against okra, lentils, cardamom, pomegranates, couscous and, let’s hope one day, Kiwi fruit.

AFR Top 100 – the view from a restaurant black hole

We live comfortably in a restaurant black hole. Sydney critics and columnists frequently rave about places in inner-city Surry Hills, the CBD, Bondi beach and the Lower North Shore. Although we’re still in the Inner West, they rarely come near us. The hipsters have not reached out this far. More tellingly, we live in a weird gap between maps in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide.

We’re left alone in our guidebook black hole with probably 40 restaurants within an easy walk. Along with a big choice of Chinese styles, we have a sprinkling of every other necessary type, including a fine diner. Okay, it’s actually just within a map, and a long walk so that we usually drive, but I speak of Sixpenny at Stanmore.

The two chefs, Dan Puskas and James Parry, found the restaurant’s name in my One Continuous Picnic. In the second half of the nineteenth century, numerous “sixpenny restaurants” catered to the urban labour force boom in Melbourne and Sydney.

https://i1.wp.com/www.sixpenny.com.au/files/2013/03/home6.png

Sixpenny describe themselves as a “little restaurant”, and there’s nothing grand about it – except for their charm, sommelier Dan Sharp’s selections, and their seriously great cooking, with much from the restaurant’s backyard and even more now from their own farm near Bowral. And their crab and macadamia … take a look (that’s it above). We’re talking quietly world class.

Living in a black hole, we tend to keep recommendations to ourselves, but the secret’s leaking out, and last night they were announced as No. 8 in the Australian Financial Review’s Top 500 – with rankings of the top 100

When challenged the other day to nominate good restaurants in the city of Tallinn, and never having been there, I found online the Flavours of Estonia with that country’s Top 50 selected in a two-stage process – gathering the recommendations from restaurateurs themselves, and then importing critics to make the final pick. The Australian version merely asks the industry, and a computer.

The results reveal the method’s inadequacies. I have only been to something like 20 of the top 100, and sometimes only once to a place, but even my experience shows unevenness.

As I say, I accept Sixpenny deserves to rank at least at No. 8. I must get to Sydney’s Sepia one day, and could well believe it’s No. 1, or close to it. As well as dining twice at Melbourne’s Attica (No. 2), I had a week of Ben Shewry’s cooking when he joined me while writer-in-residenceat Stratford Chefs’ School in Ontario, Canada. So, I can confirm that Attica is correctly placed in the very top rank.

I’ve dined in two manifestations of Vue de Monde (not sure why it’s not spelled Vue du Monde), and can believe No. 6. Still in Melbourne, and not everyone’s favourite, but I used to be almost a regular lunch-goer at Cafe di Stasio at St Kilda – a great restaurant at No. 20. And then there’s Sean’s Panaroma in Bondi. I would put it higher than No. 39. But that’s far from the list’s oddest ranking.

I tend never publicly to bag bad experiences, so won’t cite a couple of over-rated places. But let’s just look at Adelaide’s top two. Both good, and Magill Estate is believable at No. 44. But Orana at No. 47?

https://i0.wp.com/restaurantorana.com/wp-content/uploads/Spencer-Gulf-prawn-and-dill-700x466.jpgAdmittedly only been once, and I had some criticisms (about the need to make the space feel slightly warmer, and not relying on just one glass of champagne to last through all those fabulous introductory snippets), but surely Orana should have been placed much nearer the very top.

At least on our night, I reckon Jock Zonfrillo took Australian cooking in a new direction. Perhaps his fellow chefs have not yet had the chance to get there, or the computer isn’t all that clever, but for finally showing native foods as something supreme …

It’s expensive, so I won’t say to rush, but if you get the chance, let me know if I’m wrong.

Restaurants in Europe as ranked by elite diners (Opinionated About Dining or OAD)

OSV300343 (2)ne of my most valued possessions is a framed, souvenir handkerchief of the best Parisian restaurants in the 1950s. Several are still going, but I’ve only ever got to one, Chez Allard. It was still run by the family, we had the front room by the zinc bar to ourselves, and it was totally memorable. We had proper, Burgundian frog’s legs, as boasted on the cloth, and wondrous duck with turnips. It’s not just because the hanky was a gift from the late Marlis Thiersch, who had brought it back from Paris not long after the war, but also because I cannot hide my secret sin, rating restaurants. A Michelin red guide for 1931 might be useless in a practical sense, but not to me.

When the World’s Best 50 go on-line, I’m in there. With even more alacrity, I follow Opinionated About Dining, put together from diners who are both privileged and obsessive, getting to the latest and greatest, wherever they are. OAD veers towards the more classical and expensive, but I can at least read about them.

Today, I received the  latest OAD ranking of 200 in Europe, and over the years I’ve accumulated meals at, not counting, seven on the list.

L’Arpège is no 3, and Noma no. 9. I would reverse those positions, but caught Noma in possibly more exciting, early days. Also based on one experience, Guy Savoy is right up there. Continuing to talk about Paris, two visits to the original Spring were among the most rewarding experiences of my restaurant life. We’ve also found excuses to go back to Grand Véfour and Septime, and, among those outside Paris, took in Bocuse … All recommended.

What would I add? –  definitely some far-away, one-star places, such as La Petite Maison in Cucuron, Les Chênes Verts at Tourtour, and Le Maximilien in Zellenberg. That’s based on one experience each, one or more years ago.

SV300349 (2)I would like to contribute ratings, but, really, my help would be scattered and mainly for Australia, and OAD so far encompasses only the U.S., Europe and recently Japan.

Several Australian places compare well. We keep returning to Sydney’s Sixpenny, and not only because it’s nearby. I’ve had the chance to appreciate much Ben Shewry cooking – his Attica in Melbourne is ensconced in the world best list. Somewhere newer that hits such heights is Adelaide’s Orana.

At Orana, Jock Zonfrillo and team bring flawless cooking to indigenous foods. Will it appear in the World’s Best 50 for 2015, to be announced on 1 June? I would hope so, despite only one dinner there, and a couple of criticisms, especially their one glass of champagne for an extraordinary procession, half an hour or more, of little tastes – really well done, and then separate wines came with each dish. The sommelier did a memorable job blending fruit juices for our daughter to accompany each of our nine wines, but I prefer my wine early and to taper off.SV300340 (2)

Unusually for such a good restaurant, Tripadvisor immediately ranked it at no. 1 in Adelaide, and it remains on top, out of 1,378 restaurants, such is Orana’s fierce support.

Today’s lesson for fellow guidebook tragics is that these guides, however seemingly erratic or opionated, are inconsistently backed by the Tripadvisor crowd. Take the case of Noma, which returned last year to #1 in the world’s best, now rates #9 in Europe for OAD, but only #20 for just Copenhagen, according to Tripadvisor.

As to Arpège, which is #3 for the whole of Europe on OAD, and #24 in the world’s best, it is ranked #714 by Tripadvisor, and that’s just for Paris. That’s better than somewhere I must get to one day, Ambroisie, coming in at #35 for OAD, and lying down there at #2,992 for the popular vote.

Yet, as unreliable as Tripadvisor might be, any guide is better than no guide, so I haunt that one, too.