Culinary Masters Winners
We eagerly plate-up nine positives to come from a chaotic year in hospitality – introducing the impressive class of 2021.
What a year. After the most challenging 12 months in hospitality in living memory, Australian hospitality has – somehow – produced a bumper crop of alluring new places to eat.
The class of 2021 would be impressive in a regular year, but in the face of the havoc wrought by the pandemic, their achievements are even more remarkable.
Whether it’s veterans rolling the dice on another round or young guns sharpening their focus, whether paying homage to the Francophile classics (if not with the odd cheeky antipodean twist) or forging new ground with less familiar plays of flavour, the talent is running hot.
In acknowledging this heady collection of talent, we’ve made changes to the distribution of the coveted Culinary Masters crowns. No longer the reserve of just young chefs making inroads the past 12 months, we’ve expanded to include all behind the burners (whether new or established), extending further to the overseers and restaurateurs serving up exciting new ventures and without whom so many wielding the knives wouldn’t have an opportunity to flourish.
And so, introducing the Robb Report Culinary Masters of 2021…
Khanh Nguyen, chef, Aru and Sunda, Melbourne
Rare is the chef who has done a better job than Khanh Nguyen of diagramming the through-line from ingredients native to Australia to the food traditions of our nearest neighbours up in Southeast Asia. Fewer still have made that lesson taste so damn good. To eat his food at Sunda, or at Aru, the new fire-focused spin-off he opened in 2021, is to slap your forehead over and over – of course these flavours work together; this is all the same part of the world! – before diving back in for more. And the flavours we’re talking about are not small. Pepperberry and betel leaf frame grilled wagyu tongue in a nod to the bo la lot of Nguyen’s Vietnamese heritage, while a flurry of sweet spanner-crab meat and white kampot pepper make a luxury of fried rice. Desserts are no less lavish – pandan perfuming a roast-potato cream caramel, say, or coconut and cultured cream conspiring to take passionfruit pavlova in a bold new direction – and cocktails driven by that same more-is-more approach make for a meal that comes out swinging, whatever the occasion.
Luke Burgess, chef/restaurateur, Seven and a Half, Hobart
It wouldn’t be quite right to say Luke Burgess rebooted the Tasmanian restaurant scene on his own. But if you were looking for an individual who you could credit with transforming Hobart from a place of only passing interest to the destination diner into, well, a dining destination, he’d be right at the top of your list. Garagistes, the fine-dining restaurant Burgess ran to international acclaim from 2010 to 2015, raised the stakes for ambitious, locavore cuisine in Tasmania, and his brand-new project, Seven and a Half, has changed the game again. Perched in a jewel-box of a room on top of a tower in downtown Hobart, it offers rarefied omakase-style dining for just 10 diners at a time, once a week. Burgess works without a menu and without a parachute, just he and the guests and some excellent handpicked wine and sake. The intimacy of the setting gives him the freedom to tweak the menu as he goes and to showcase superb niche produce you’re not likely to see anywhere else.
Wild venison might appear as salami in an array of snacks alongside sashimi of banded morwong and a ‘sando’ of salted radish at one sitting, for instance; asparagus teamed with an ajo blanco made of hempseed and goat’s ricotta and with lovage and a sauce of nori and walnut the following week; a pecorino flavoured with native pepper makes the surprising accent for egg noodles with venus clams. There’s nothing quite like it, on or off the island, and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the most sought-after tables in town.
Rosheen Kaul, chef, Etta, Melbourne
Blame it on the pork rib. Sure, when Rosheen Kaul landed at Etta she had plenty of other good things on her menu – the crunchy, spicy little pop-in-the-mouth fried school prawns with curry leaves, for one thing. But the pork rib, a foot-long hunk of a thing served on the bone, its smoky, succulent heft balanced by an oyster cream and pickled baby turnips – well, this was a statement of intent. It said ‘here is a chef who likes to cook with fire, who is clear-eyed enough to take inspiration from a dish like Korea’s bo ssäm, and remix it, riffing on that dish’s traditional accompaniments of kimchi and freshly shucked oysters, while making it completely her own’. It also said, ‘this person can really, really cook – this is ridiculously tasty’.
In landing on her feet at this hip, smartly appointed east Brunswick wine bar, Kaul has given diners the gift of a one-plus-one-equals-three situation. Owner Hannah Green keeps an enviable cellar and sets a lively, welcoming tone on the floor, and together with Kaul’s surfeit of bright, clever ideas in the kitchen, you’ve got a package that’s so much greater than the sum of its (formidable) parts.
Chris Lucas, restaurateur, Society, Melbourne
The road to Society for Chris Lucas has been long, hard and paved with serious investment. But to see the room thronged with the good and the great of Australia, some serious table-hopping and people-watching playing out at the booths under the vast, glinting chandeliers, it must feel like the years of heartache, and the last-minute curveball of a parting of ways with Martin Benn, the former Sepia chef enlisted to open the restaurant, have all been worth it.
Take a look around Society’s elegantly muted Collins Street dining room and you’ll see diners laying down substantial cash for a wine list that goes long on Romanée-Conti and other five-figure bottles, diving deep into a cocktail bar rich in vintage offerings (hello $125 Martini made with 1950s spirits) and of course plunging into the menu with a fervour sharpened like never before by lockdown. And what does all that outlay get the happy guest? Plates that combine a tightly edited, almost Midcentury Modern aesthetic, sharpened with the occasional Japanese accent. Raw tuna has seldom been more melting than here, wrapped in buttery ribbons of jamón Ibérico, while crème fraîche shot through with wasabi, a plate of Japanese-style pickled cucumbers, and a shio koji jus accompany the epic smoked wagyu prime rib. Heady stuff. Culinary Masters might historically have been all about chefs, but in Society today we find the triumph of the vision of the restaurateur.
Nik Hill, chef/restaurateur, Porcine, Sydney
Speaking of Sepia, Nik Hill certainly can’t be said to be following blindly in the footsteps of his alma mater. After he left the Sydney fine diner, he got into smoking eels, then did a turn cooking pub food at Woolloomooloo landmark The Old Fitzroy, then swerved again with Anglo-Italian food at The Milan Cricket Club pop-up before settling at Porcine. You might struggle to find intimations of Sepia or anything Anglo-Italian in Hill’s menu, but his smoked eel appears right at the top – albeit in the form of a smoked-eel vinegar accompanying rock oysters.
A bistro above a bottle-shop, Porcine is as lusty as the name would suggest, channelling the gutsier side of the French culinary canon. Grilled ox tongue will appear one night au poivre-style in a glossy pepper sauce, and on another cooked en croûte, swaddled in pastry and foie gras. As rich as it all sounds, Hill has the palate and the technical finesse to keep it all in balance – and there’s always another dip into the exceptional drinks list if the occasion demands a corrective.
Ben Russell, chef/restaurateur, Rothwell’s, Brisbane
Who better to lead the bistro renaissance for the Brisbane CBD than Ben Russell? Having cut his teeth as a young chef in the 1990s at Est Est Est, the famously tough Melbourne restaurant known for producing some of the greatest kitchen talent of a generation, he did the obligatory stint in Europe before returning to Australia to become one of Matt Moran’s most trusted lieutenants. Russell moved to Queensland to open the Brisbane outpost of Moran’s Aria flagship, and after a stellar run at the top echelon of the city’s finer dining, he’s back with a bang at Rothwell’s.
Opened with Dan Clark, of the celebrated Addley Clark Fine Wines import company and 1889 Enoteca, the restaurant is the kind of meeting of kitchen talent, a building with great bones and a backer with a frankly exceptional wine cellar that big-city diners dream of. Is Rothwell’s going to stake the sort of claim on the big end of town that Rockpool Bar & Grill holds in Sydney? With Russell plating up perfectly polished renditions of steak tartare, prawn cocktail and a seafood platter worth pushing the boat out for, the indications are positive. And if the offering from the grill – a full chorus of big, juicy rib-eyes and T-bones complemented by onion rings, watercress salad and a full battery of condiments – doesn’t get you reaching happily for the Barolo section of the wine list, the beef Wellington, resplendent in a golden jacket of fine pastry and served to share, will definitely get you over the line.
Daniel Pepperell and Michael Clift, chefs/restaurateurs, Bistrot 916, Sydney
Daniel Pepperell is the master of the knowing twist. You wouldn’t call him a deconstructionist – not for Pepperell the blobs, foams and smears. No, his signature move is more a savvy spin. The dish he plays with will remain recognisable, true to its roots, yet the flick Pepperell (and now his friend and chef-at-arms Michael Clift) gives a given classic as it leaves his pass makes it distinctively, recognisably his own. At 10 William Street he enriched his Bolognese with a swig of fish sauce, and daubed caviar on his carpaccio. At Restaurant Hubert he plated his escargots with XO sauce butter and laid a shimmering maple-syrup jelly over his satin duck liver parfait. And now, here at Bistrot 916, the venue he opened with Clift and sommelier savant Andy Tyson, that same joie de vivre remains at the fore. There’s a zesty, give-the-people-what they want spirit here that’s entirely fitting for the bistro genre and for the raffish Potts Point setting. Among the main courses Clift and Pepperell offer not just a classically crowd-pleasing steak frites – there’s also a duck frites, a mushroom frites and, for the truly OTT option, a market-priced lobster frites to boot. It’s exuberant, it’s packed with flavour, and it’s a lot of fun.
Blaze Young, chef, Nieuw Ruin, Perth
‘Good food. Good cocktails. Weird wine.’ Nieuw Ruin’s name might seem a bit curly on first glance, but the mission statement is very straightforward. And while the wine part of the equation will elicit different reactions depending on which side of the minimal-intervention fence you stand, Blaze Young’s brief is to the point and a delight to all. She fashions garfish into rollmops, serves her crudités with French onion dip and curries her fries. Her gift for handling offal has brought many a formerly hesitant diner into the fold, not least for her Wagin duck livers, which she serves on toast, tossed in a cream sauce spiked with a dose of hot mustard that judiciously cuts the livers’ intensity. Best of all, her food is wine-friendly, even the spicy stuff, from the oysters and mignonette (just made for a lush Fanny Sabré aligoté) to the Torbray asparagus and zucchini with goat’s curd (the perfect alibi for a bottle of Sebastien Riffault Sancerre). Here’s a young chef very much on the up – and you’ll want to be there for the ride.
Clare Smyth, chef/restaurateur OnCore, Sydney
How do you follow up a career that takes in experience under Alain Ducasse and Gordon Ramsay at their respective peaks, that has earned an MBE, and the first and only three-star rating from Michelin for a restaurant run by a woman in the UK, not to mention being named The World’s Best Female Chef by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants? If you’re Clare Smyth, your encore is OnCore, planting the flag in Sydney with a sister restaurant to London’s Core.
What sets Smyth apart from the rest of the Franglais fine-dining pack? There’s the clever, playful weave of British classics and Australian ingredients, for one. Playful, that is, but underpinned by serious craft. Fans will be thrilled to learn that ‘potato and roe’ has made the journey with her. The Core signature dish pays homage to Smyth’s Northern Irish roots with a potato cooked long and slow to a perfectly luscious texture before being topped with roes of herring and trout. Not for nothing did Bloomberg call it “the world’s best potato”. The plush room commands views across the harbour to the horizon, and while the ‘casino’ setting might put cynics in mind of a cash-grab from a chef domiciled on the other side of the world, dishes this flavoursome and elegant can only be executed by a team with total commitment. It’s the real deal.
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