Food News

Talking Australian cuisine with Pastuso's Alejandro Saravia

He's headlining the Flemington Grazing Trail & Cellar Door at next month's Super Saturday (10 March) so we caught up with Peruvian-cum-Aussie chef Alejandro Saravia to chat favourite ingredients, food philosophies and what guests can expect from his trackside cooking class.

Alejandro Saravia; Photography: David Hagger

Name three ingredients you couldn't live without:

Herbs: In Peruvian cuisine we learn how to work with herbs as we don't use many spices. For me, herbs can bring so many levels of flavours depending on how they are used; cooked, raw, whole, chopped, dry, fresh.

Chilies: I love the kick of spiciness that a well-utilised chili can provide to a dish. When chilies are present, they shouldn't be there to burn your palate, but to open your tastebuds to the rest of the ingredients.

Salt: I hate a bland meal. Food is supposed to be tasty and delicious, and a well-seasoned meal can bring back childhood memories in one bite.

Why did you decide to come and live in Australia?

After many years working in fine dining restaurants in Europe, a friend told me about beautiful Australia and the amazing quality of life this country offers. So in 2006 I decided to pack my bags and venture for a year-long working holiday to experience the 'No worries, mate' Australian way of living, and then make my way back to Europe through South-East Asia. I guess it's every backpacker's dream, right?

How has Peru influenced your food philosophy?

I guess not including my heritage in my cooking philosophy would be impossible for me, especially when I am so grateful of what it has given me. 

My Peruvian heritage has given me an understanding of the sensibility of being aware of the traditions and the people that work the land. [It's given me] an appreciation of what Mother Nature provides and the hard work farmers and producers do each day to supply all those ingredients.

Coming from a country that follows very ancient traditions - of which food is one - I feel privileged in being able to share that with my customers every day while cooking.

Photo: @pastusorestaurant

What is your favourite meal to cook at home?

At home, I enjoy cooking roasts, braises and stews. Slow cooking gives me the opportunity to relax and learn more from how a piece of meat reacts to being exposed to different marinades or seasonings and temperatures. I like to play around with temperatures while slow cooking, starting from medium then going to slow and finishing with a very high temperature (this technique is called reverse searing).

How has the Australian dining scene evolved since your arrival?

After a few months working in a café on the beachfront in Manly, I saw there was way more to discover, so I decided to go back to fine dining and start learning from chefs that were key to Australia's culinary scene.

During that process there was one chef, Frank Camorra, who was introducing his interpretation of Spanish cuisine to Australia by opening a restaurant called Movida in Melbourne. I had the opportunity to live in Spain for a short period of time and knowing the influence that Spanish cuisine had on Peruvian cuisine, and also having witnessed the great impact that Peruvian cuisine was having in Europe, I decided to begin planning a way to introduce my interpretation of my homeland's cuisine to a new market.

My plan was to showcase the cuisine through cooking demonstrations at festivals and pop-up dinners, cooking classes, and by opening a restaurant.

At the time, the food scene in Australia was looking for an identity. There was a misconception that modern Australian cuisine could be anything from an Asian or European approach on techniques, to using one or two local ingredients.

I understand this process as a logical search of an identity, considering there has been a great amount of Asian and European immigrants and because Australia is a country which has embraced different cultures throughout the years.

Thanks to the work of many chefs, Australian cuisine now has a clear path and guidance, not only utilising native ingredients, but also understanding how indigenous Australians utilise these ingredients, the land and the seasons.

As a chef, it has been a privilege to have witnessed this transition and I think it's the most important evolution I have seen in the food scene.     

Tell us about your involvement with this year's Super Saturday at Flemington. What dishes will you be preparing with guests in your on-course cooking classes?

I like to keep my cooking classes very simple and casual. We are not there to listen to a lecture about how to cook; instead I like to show my guests that cooking can be very simple and fun. 

I might start by working on a delicious dressing for an everyday salad using fresh ingredients. I love to experiment with dressings - they should always complement the vegetables and never mask their freshness or flavour.

I'm passionate about the art of working with fish and seafood as I find a lot of people are too scared to buy them as they think a culinary diploma is required to create a delicious and tasty dish using these ingredients. I will disprove that myth and show my guests how to select fish when venturing to the market. 

Grilling like a pro is not rocket science - it's all about understanding the heat and having the right technique on how you burn your coals or wood. Knowing which cut of meat works better in the grill, and how long to expose it to a higher temperature or a lower temperature, are key points when grilling.   

What food and wine will be on offer at the pop-up dining experience on the Flemington Front Lawn?

This year I will be bringing the best of one of our richest regions, Gippsland, for a celebration of Victorian produce, its people and the land that facilitates such high-quality ingredients.

I will ask all our guests to relax and explore our vegie patch, discover the greatness of Gippsland grass-fed meats, the freshness of the fish and seafood of Lake Entrance and ultimately a new appreciation of the most important dairy region in Australia. 

All this will be paired with a selection of personally curated wine list that is primarily sourced from the Gippsland region. 

What have been your biggest achievements as a chef?     

Since I arrived in this country, my mission has been to introduce Peruvian cuisine to Australians. I'm so proud of my country's gastronomy and I truly believe everyone should know about it!

Starting with cooking demos, classes and pop-up dinners, followed by Morena - the first Peruvian Restaurant to be recognised in all the most important food guides in Australia - and now Pastuso Cevicheria, Grill and Pisco Bar, I think I have achieved my goal.

I'm also very proud of the work we are doing at Pastuso to train and inspire new chefs. I like to make my kitchen team part of the menu development and take on their ideas and suggestions. I also enjoy spending part of my week discussing their goals and objectives with them to make sure we are working towards them. Every time I see any of my chefs achieving their dreams, it makes me so proud and makes it all worth it.  

The work that I started a few years ago with farmers and producers in Gippsland has helped me to rediscover why I decided to drop everything to become a chef and how excited I am when discovering new ingredients and chatting with producers. Since then, it has become a personal mission for me to communicate what these amazing farmers and producers do in Gippsland.

Talk us through the concept of Farmer's Daughters

Farmer's Daughters is the result of several years of working with farmers and producers, as well as the connection I found between Gippsland and my native Peru.

I was lucky enough to meet Paul Crock from Gippsland Natural Beef who insisted I take some time out for a farm trip. This was an eye-opener as a chef and a turning point for me, personally.

I got to meet with producers and discover the vast rural area of Gippsland. I listened to their needs and learned from their experiences, taking from them four very important lessons that are now the pillars of Farmer's Daughters:

  1. Research, passion and patience in understanding the climate and land - from Phillip Jones of Bass Phillips Wines.
  2. Dedication with one focus - specialisation - rather than compromising quality for been trendy - from Kirsten and David Jones of Mirboo Garlic Farm.
  3. Working under a philosophy of sustainable farming, including land care with a focus in the future, which follows the whole process from paddock to plate - from Paul Crock of Gippsland Natural Beef.
  4. Working with in a community that support each other and grows as a family - from Amelia, Dan and Hazel Bright of Amber Creek Farm.

Finally I found a connection between Gippsland and Peru's highlands: two beautiful and rich parts of the world blessed with perfect conditions and surrounded by passionate and generous people. 

The inspiration behind Farmer's Daughters is Gippsland's stunning landscape, fertile land, livestock, beautiful produce and even the smell of wet grass. This inspired me to change the way I thought about ingredients and sourcing food. It took me back to why I love to cook: the connection between land and people. At a time when we are running and chasing this all the time, it's more important than ever to stop and focus on what is really important in life.

Focusing on a 'farm to plate' approach, it's essential to strip back modern food culture to understand where our food comes from and celebrate its connection to farmers and the land. I want to share all the amazing stories that Gippsland producers share with me every time I visit.

This article is presented by Victoria Racing Club. Main image photography: David Hagger.