Breakfast, lunch and tea? Chefs in Australia have played with Vegemite on and off over the years, but right now everyone's favourite yeasty spread is really having a moment in the kitchens of our leading restaurants and cafés.
Followers of Ben Shewry's Instagram feed will notice that he has just doubled down on Attica's commitment to Vegemite (first made three years ago with Gazza's Vegemite pie), experimenting with that mum-lunch classic Salada crackers with tomato and Vegemite. This being a restaurant that charges a cool $275 a head for dinner, of course, the tomatoes are grown by the team, the heavily buttered Salada ain't Arnott's and the "Vegemite" is made from scratch using black garlic and other bespoke ingredients that aren't known to be part of Cyril Percy Callister's original 1923 formulation.
Melbourne is Vegemite's hometown and Shewry's fellow chefs over at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal made headlines in 2017 when they débuted a Vegemite-driven dessert. It was months in the making, and the kitchen team felt the pressure. "It's Vegemite in Australia – we have to get this right," said chef Ashley Palmer-Watts at the time. "If it's not great, we'll be nailed for it."
The dish remains on the menu today, listed at $30 as "ice-cream with Vegemite", incorporating toasted barley cream, yeast caramel, macadamia, puffed spelt and, to really drive the toast connection home, sourdough crumble.
At Anchovy in Richmond, meanwhile, Thi Li dips into the school lunches of yore for inspiration and comes up with "tempura Vegemite, Laughing Cow": a deep-fried cube of cheese custard infused with Vegemite and served with whipped cheese. At Kensington Street Social in Sydney, the Vegemite is on the drinks list, appearing in the Vegemitini. In Canberra it's whipped through ricotta for breakfast at High Road, and a similar approach is taken at Smoke, atop Barangaroo House, where Vegemite ricotta joins padrón peppers and crispbread on the bar menu. At the brand-new d'Arenberg Cube in McLaren Vale, Vegemite mayonnaise accompanies "bush coals" of hot-smoked barramundi blackened with onion ash, wattleseed and mountain pepper.
Why so much Vegemite right now? Its very ubiquity makes it an easy go-to – the miso of Australia, ready to add a dash of dark-brown complexity to anything it touches.
Yu-ching Lee, a chef who makes pastries for Paper Bird in Sydney, recently started putting cheese and Vegemite twists in the cabinet, and says that she started using it simply "because it's there". "I'd been making delicious XO cheese sticks, but the Paper Bird kitchen changed the menu and stopped making XO sauce, so I switched to Vegemite. It's also vegetarian-friendly, which is a plus."
But Vegemite has been a staple in an awful lot of kitchens for an awfully long time without ever really jumping onto restaurant menus in a big way. You could point to an intersection between locavorism, nostalgia for Australiana and a fascination with all things fermented. Where else (apart, perhaps, from a can of Fosters) are you going to find all those things in one handy jar?
Chase Kojima, the American-born chef of Sokyo in Sydney and Kiyomi on the Gold Coast, says Vegemite had him stumped when he first arrived in Australia seven years ago, but thinking of it as Australian miso (a "harsh" miso, admittedly) has unlocked its possibilities in the kitchen for him. It appears everywhere in his cuisine, from the Vegemite and shichimi roasted almonds at the bar to the lamb chops grilled on the robata and served with charred eggplant purée in the restaurants. He's even used it at the sushi counter, making tiny Vegemite-toast croûtons as a complement to poached Moreton Bay bugs. It's the perfect intersection, he says, between the Australian flavour profile and the Japanese. "You can't get this taste just from normal red or white miso."
Back at Attica, Ben Shewry says it's the kitsch, playful aspect of serving Vegemite in a fine-dining restaurant, and the passion Australians have for it that appeals to him. "To be honest, I don't even like Vegemite much myself."