As the '90s dawned, darling chefs were pushing the boundaries of cooking in this country. A young Christine Manfield, just starting out at this heady time, soon became part of the generation that redefined modern Australian cuisine. She shares some of her timeless signatures from the era.
The 1990s was when modern Australian food began to come of age. The decade started with all the giddiness of finding a new love. It was a thrilling time to be part of the food revolution that was captivating Australia.Cheong Liew had set the tone at Neddy's in Adelaide more than a decade earlier, bringing the Asian aesthetic and flavours onto the table. Phillip Searle took Sydney by storm in turn with his groundbreaking restaurant, Oasis Seros, combining French flair and Asian spice to legendary effect in Paddington.
After working at Petaluma restaurant in the Adelaide Hills for a year or so, I moved to Sydney in early 1988 to work with Searle. His creative vision, fierce intellect, mentorship and direction had a profound effect on how I cooked, and what I cooked. He taught me to push every boundary, to be daring. We cooked dishes like mud crab and Jerusalem artichoke porridge, steamed prawn crumpets and Chinese-style roast duck with steamed ginger buns. Tamarind, galangal, seaweed and taro became part of our vernacular, and we made our own duck-neck sausages, goose prosciutto and kimchi.
Other defining benchmarks of Sydney in the early '90s included Gay Bilson's Berowra Waters Inn on the Hawkesbury, considered Australia's greatest restaurant for its location, extravagance, understated design and, of course, the eloquent cooking of Janni Kyritsis. Anders Ousback brought good taste and a generous, perfectionist sensibility to casual dining. Neil Perry had just opened Rockpool in Sydney, a benchmark for fine dining that set a pattern for investor involvement and lavish fit-outs. I opened Paramount with my partner, Margie Harris.
Coconut crab and green mango salad.
Other chefs in our tribe making waves and establishing a firm camaraderie included Sean Moran, Stefano Manfredi, Mark Armstrong, the brothers Doyle, Damien Pignolet, Tim Pak Poy and Tony Bilson. Raymond Kersh brought indigenous ingredients to Edna's Table. David Thompson introduced bold, authentic Thai flavours to Darley Street Thai. In Melbourne, Stephanie's championed seasonal produce and elegance in a stately suburban mansion, Greg Malouf's Momo was changing perceptions of Middle Eastern flavours, Philippa Sibley and Donovan Cooke were messing with the definition of fine dining at Est Est Est, and a wave of British chefs - Paul Wilson, Ian Curley, Jeremy Strode, Michael Lambie among them - washed into a pool already containing the likes of Geoff Lindsay, Michael Bacash, Tansy Good, Andrew Blake and Teague Ezard.
We had at our disposal many ingredients previously unavailable; luxuries became staples and Asian food burst onto our plates - in restaurants and at home. Gastropubs were born, where chefs took over pub dining rooms and cut their teeth in the business world of becoming restaurateurs without the initial investment hurdle. The humble pizza went posh and organics became mainstream.
Spiced barramundi with tomato-chilli pickle.
Like many chefs at the time, I introduced different food cultures into my everyday practice, paying respect to cultural origins while using produce sympathetically to find new intriguing flavour combinations and developing a confident and distinguishable identity. The '90s changed the mindset - we moved forward with a more powerful culinary language, reflecting the changing face of Australia. Our food became modern, adventurous and eclectic. We were not bound by age-old traditions; we cooked food without geographical or historical limitations. Restaurant menus became a showcase of this new-found awareness, of our culinary freestyle. We sought new expression through food by incorporating gastronomi traditions from across the world, adopting and adapting.
Recipes by Christine Manfield