Melbourne diners hadn't seen anything like it. When a gang of brash, fresh-faced, classically trained British chefs arrived on the restaurant scene in the mid-1990s they changed the city's culinary landscape forever. Thanks to the Brit-pack, as they became known, Melbourne's kitchens were suddenly awash with truffles, foie gras and black pudding, and meticulous, labour-intensive sauces were the order of the day. Fine French technique in the kitchen met minimalist décor in the dining room in a package that scorned the frilly old-school formality that had been the hallmark of Melbourne's fine-dining scene.
We're talking about Donovan Cooke at Est Est Est, Jeremy Strode at Pomme, Michael Lambie at Circa, and the threesome of Martin Webb, Paul Wilson and Paul Raynor at the Terence Conran-led revamp of The Brasserie at Georges, along with Raymond Capaldi, Steve Szabo and Ian Curley, who preceded their arrival.
They arrived at a time when the legitimacy of Melbourne's claim as Australia's dining capital was looking decidedly shaky. Fierce recession combined with newly liberated licensing laws meant cafés and casual brasseries were flourishing, while many of Melbourne's renowned restaurants - Fanny's, Stephanie's, Paul Bocuse, Mietta's - had bitten the dust. The city's fine dining, it was said, was in its death throes. But apparently nobody told the British, who proceeded to turn out raviolo of veal sweetbreads and yabbies in roasted chicken consommé (Pomme), fricassée of marron tails with marron mousse ravioli and ginger-infused nage (Circa) and smoked steamed barramundi with celeriac, snow peas, Champagne and caviar (Est Est Est).
The Brit-pack label seems to have first appeared in a 1994 Sunday Age article by Jill Dupleix. She brought together Strode, Lambie, Szabo and Curley along with Dean Cambray (now a renowned food photographer) for the piece, describing them as a "pack of young, male, British-trained chefs… [who] brought with them a level of training that we may never achieve in this country." They also brought with them the glamour of having trained with the best in the business - the Roux brothers, Roger Vergé, Pierre Koffman and Marco Pierre White. Writer Cherry Ripe said later that "their culinary pedigrees intersect like a London Tube map".
But the Brit-pack were as influenced by Melbourne as the city was by them. Restaurant names such as Radii, The Botanical, Taxi Dining Room, Ondine, The Atlantic, The European, Langtons and Hare & Grace give some indication of just how important they've been to the local scene, and even though the Brit-pack label has faded from sight, most have stayed in Australia and continue to ply their trade.
It was a heady time, and an important one for Australian cooking, with the coming of new skills, techniques and attitudes. In The Australian in 1998, Jeremy Strode referred to it as the beginning of "accessible fine dining" and Michael Lambie said it was all about "serving the same kind of food as a fine-dining restaurant, but with less intimidating service." Some of those who were there spoke with GT about the Brit-pack era.
Why Melbourne? "They bring to Melbourne years of tough experience that belie their tender years, but they are not here to put on airs and graces. They are work horses, trained to carry heavy loads, work under pressure and give until there is not much left." Jill Dupleix, "The Brit Pack", The Sunday Age, 7 August 1994
Jeremy Strode "I moved here for family reasons because Virginia [Melbourne-born Virginia Dowzer, Strode's first wife] wanted to raise our children in Australia. It was a bit of a shock culturally. I'd had all this experience working for Michel Roux and I was coming from my first head-chef job at the Belvedere in Holland Park, but when I started applying for jobs here I was being offered chef de partie."
Michael Lambie "I'd been working for Marco [Pierre White] for three years and it was full-on - from seven o'clock in the morning to midnight. I was at a turning point. It was time to get away from Marco, because he wasn't that good and he was a bully. So I decided to leave him and I came here with nothing."
Ian Curley "It was hard in England. Marco was in the ascendancy and you could only work in those restaurants. If you were smart you realised it wasn't the sort of life you wanted - long hours and no money. We were looking at Australia and thinking, there's somewhere you can have a life and do it for yourself."
Raymond Capaldi "I came to visit a friend in Melbourne in the late '80s and I loved it so much I stayed for six months. I got the job at the Regent and came here at the time that the whole Brit-pack thing was happening, and so in a way, I just fell into it. I felt like there was a capacity to be reborn here - you could feel a little bit like a pop star because there was this really strong food culture and people were interested in what you were doing. It was exciting to be a part of that."
Donovan Cooke "I was looking for a change and I knew Lambie, Curley and Jeremy from home, so I decided to have a look and see what it was all about. Neighbours and Home and Away were all the rage on TV in London, so the biggest disappointment when I got here was that it wasn't sunny all the time."
First impressions "All their background and training had been in French cooking but they weren't doing replica French, the expressions were much freer. There was a real sense of excitement about what they were doing." Rita Erlich, co-editor, The Age Good Food Guide, 1983-1998
Michael Lambie "I was a bit immature when I first arrived in Melbourne. I thought I knew everything and that anything in restaurants that I didn't recognise was shit. I was a bit disillusioned when I arrived. When I first started working at the Stokehouse they were buying in frozen this and frozen that and I was like, that's not going to happen, I'm going to have to train these people. I was a bit shocked at what they didn't know."
Paul Raynor "There was a little bit of resentment from a lot of Australian chefs - who are these guys who think they're coming here to teach us things? But to be honest there was a bit of arrogance on our side as well. There can be a fine line between confidence and arrogance."
Raymond Capaldi "It was hard for us to come from London and to see the kind of skill levels and work ethics here compared to what we were used to in London. When I first started working at the Regent I watched oysters being taken out of their shell, washed in salted water and then put back in the shell and when I asked them what they were doing they told me they didn't want any shell in the oysters. My answer to that was that they were just going to have to be more careful and to learn how to shuck oysters properly."
Martin Webb "The Brasserie at Georges was based on Quaglino's [in London], which was all about democratic dining - no chasing stars or anything like that. And I think people here got a bit offended when we got rid of side plates for bread and served wine in tumblers. A lot of people couldn't get the concept at first. It was like they'd got too refined to go backwards."
Something given "The Brit-pack is the most exciting thing to have happened to Melbourne food for years." Cherry Ripe, "Invasion of the Brit-Pack", The Australian, 7 April 1998
Donovan Cooke "All these guys came from arse-kicking kitchens where it was all about discipline, regiment. You were taught that you turn up on time, you're clean-shaven, you prepare things how they're supposed to be prepared and you learn to follow a recipe exactly. You bring in whole poultry, fish and carcasses and you learn how to deal with them - it gives you a respect for the ingredient. That's what we brought to Australia, that and black pudding - black pudding wouldn't have been on the menu without us being here."
Jeremy Strode "I know it sounds arrogant but we were bringing in skills that just weren't here. The kids that were working with us didn't know how much they were learning until after they had left and gone to other kitchens."
Raymond Capaldi "There was good produce here, but it wasn't being handled properly. We would get all these excuses from the suppliers, but we would just say, 'no, we're not going to accept that', and we would send things back. We wanted a better standard, and slowly we're getting it."
Donovan Cooke "We used different ingredients, the small offcuts that the butchers could never sell. The menus we did at Est Est Est never had an eye fillet on there. If I did beef it would be cheek or tail. If I had Scotch it was for the staff. You can buy Scotch from a supermarket, so why would you want to eat it in a restaurant?"
Paul Wilson "Previously the food style in Australia was very freestyle and fresh, there wasn't a lot of technical work, and that was the beauty of it. And then all these British chefs came along and wanted to show off all their training, so suddenly you were seeing complicated terrines and lots of different sauces, game and truffles, and cooking techniques from different regions of France. This is what they brought to the table and it suited Melbourne. It was cool and edgy and new, and customers loved it. It was like a new form of art, it was sophisticated - or deemed more sophisticated because of all that work and the way it looked - and it was something that fitted in with the artistic nature of Melbourne."
Something gained "I think what they all had was a newcomer's energy. All immigrant groups land in a new place and they've got to make a go of it. And these guys had staked a great deal. They were coming to Melbourne with their reputations, their ideas and their training and they had to make a go of it. It was that kind of energy that made them so entrepreneurial." - Rita Erlich
Michael Lambie "The six years I did at Circa gave me the biggest education I've ever had. I was doing one style of food, that Marco style, and then realised that people here don't like that so much - they're not so into pig's head and foie gras and pigeon. I learned to adapt, to listen, to understand different eating habits. And I also realised if people didn't like my food they wouldn't come to my restaurant. So I changed and adapted. I didn't use chilli back then and now I have it in everything."
Raymond Capaldi "Being in Australia has changed the way I cook dramatically. There's so much competition here, you have to keep changing to keep up. I'm still on the path to find my style, and being here keeps me interested in that."
Jeremy Strode "If I hadn't come to Australia I may never have had my own restaurant. The rules are looser, you feel there's more room to take some risks. In London, the competition and the egos are out of control."
Paul Wilson "We've all had our little tilt at being a rock-star chef and we've all come out of it in different ways. Melbourne has been kind to us, but it has put us through our paces. And finally, after all these years, I'm not being referred to as a British chef anymore, which pleases me."