20th century novelist George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950) said ‘there is no love sincerer than the love of food’. Today it has become a common bond that cultures all around the world share, a universal experience that unites us all.
My life has been all about celebrating the happiness and warmth of friends, family and food.
Sitting by a riverside eating the freshest just caught prawns out of butcher paper with a glass of chilled white wine, is as equally appealing to me as the dressed up experience of enjoying haute cuisine in a wonderful architectural space, because it is also all about the people who enjoy and share both the experience and ambiance with you.
By the mid 80’s the sun as it set at London, was sparkling off glorious clean golden stone buildings, dating from Elizabethan to Art Deco times.
As the restoration of both the city and the countryside had gradually improved during the years I had been travelling there, so had the well-being of its citizens, their health and eating establishments.
As memories of World War II faded, a new optimism prevailed. Into this milieu came Aussie actress turned interior designer Anoushka Hempell, who created Blake’s Hotel at South Kensington in London in 1978.
This was one of the world’s first luxury boutique hotels. Its restaurant skilfully blended both east and west in its decor, as well as in the food on offer in a simply superb subterranean location.
Sinking into silk cushions while reclining in a stunning lounge for drinks before dinner was the ultimate in divine decadence. The whole place was so very chic and exotic, rich with lacquer work and wonderful textiles.
Like a wonderful cave Blake’s Restaurant has since become world-renowned, and a regular haunt and habitat of the rich and famous.
During the 80’s they used to serve an incredible Duck with five different salts on the side of the plate.
It was written up in all the gourmet magazines around the world at the time.
Just thinking about it still makes me salivate; such was its fabulous flavour.
Dining among brilliantly coloured flowers in this richly coloured interior, overlaid with decorative detail was always an exquisite experience. And it’s still available if you are off to London.
We went on a number of magical cuisine tours of England in the 80’s and 90’s that were to die for. Highlights included tracking up through Derbyshire to dine at The Cavendish, which was a gracious establishment set into the walls that surrounded the Baroque masterpiece Chatsworth House.
Then was the fabulous duck served by our hostess in a tiny country cottage filled with antiques at Giggleswick near Settle in Yorkshire. High on a very steep hill at Richmond in the Yorkshire Dales two former Qantas stewards set up Millgate House, a gorgeous Georgian pile they had furnished with antiques.
They also planted a walled town garden from where they picked the herbs they used in all their cooking, which was truly sensational.
Sleeping over was a very good idea.
A classic 400 year old English Country House Hotel named after Isaak Walton’s book of the same name, The Compleat Angler is located on the banks of the River Thames at Marlow nearby to Oxford.
We enjoyed a luncheon celebration at the Angler, after arriving from Paris on the Venice-Simpolon Orient Express.
The trip was planned to be an integral part of one very dear Australian friend’s 40th birthday journey.
Another aspect was a delicious dinner at Fouquet’s at Paris the night before we boarded the Orient Express.
It was dignified, elegant, French dining at its most exquisite.
Brunch on board the Venice Simplon Orient Express, while sitting in the glorious Lalique Dining Car racing across the French countryside, was truly special.
Fields in flower floated by as we imbibed on SeLe afood Terrine, Poached Eggs in Aspic, Smoked Salmon and Avocado with Prawns, all fabulous taste sensations. However the journey on the Pullman carriages on our way up to London from Folkestone is what we remember most. We enjoyed the lightest possible fresh scones with absolutely delicious home made preserves, topped off with thick dollop of Cornish clotted cream.
They were certainly to die for and I remember thinking that my Nan would have heartily approved.
Then there was the taste of the icy cold quality French Champagne that accompanied them, we remember it well because it quite did us all in.
Of all the meals I enjoyed abroad there are a number that stand out the most in my memory.
Eating and staying at Raymond Blanc’s le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, which opened in 1977 at Great Milton in Oxfordshire, was one of the best of all experiences.
There was nothing stuffy about it. Very relaxed, beautifully appointed and wonderfully welcoming, with culinary delights that tantalized the palate and were definitely to die for.
Raymond Blanc was always such a wonderful host and his recipes were and still are, both accessible and achievable.
A self-taught cook Monsieur Blanc was generous with sharing both his style and cooking tips with happy clients, and he enabled me a great deal.
We were staying there when he launched his first cookbook, full of fine cuisine gems. I cherished my signed copy passing it over to my daughter in law only recently, who with my second son is hot on the trail of eating their way around the world too. Relating their latest eating experiences at Vicenza and Venice in Italy recently made me want to jump on a plane and go back for more.
He has now made a series of ‘cooking shows’ for the BBC which has been much acclaimed and the book of the series is out and available through book offers.
La Manoir has become one of the great live in eating experiences in England. The two-acre kitchen garden produces oodles of vegetables and an extraordinary range of herbs.
Raymond Blanc was a champion of the organic movement three decades ago, long before it was politically correct, believing that ‘flavour alone would be a reason to buy organic food, quite apart from its freedom from additives’. His was definitely ‘La Cuisine Moderne’.
He also established a Cookery School to pass on his beautiful imaginative cuisine and sensational style. I cannot single out one meal here to rave about, except to say that they were all truly incredible. No wonder he has retained his two hat Michelin status for 26 years, a remarkable feat.
A meal at L’Archestrate at Paris (now closed) on the rue de l’Exposition its first location was also truly superb.
It was an elegant room decorated in shades of chocolate brown and terracotta, with cane wallpaper. An entrée of Goldfish with fried celery tops was completely out of this world taste wise, followed up by Poulet (Chicken) with Caviar, Agneau (Lamb) with Curry Sauce and a selection from a Cheese board that took two men to carry.
These were served with a special toast made by the chef, full of flavour and packed with fruit. An exotic Gateau Chocolat followed. Much talked about chef, Alain Senderens, was only young at the time with a contemplative intellect, opening up his restaurant controversially by serving fresh salt Cod.
L’Archestrate was one of the six top restaurants at Paris in 1982, which included – L’ Archestrate, Grand Vefour, Lasserre, Taillevent, Vivarois and La Tour d’Argent.
They all had three hats from Michelin at the time, although each were as different from the other as were the seasons in the year.
L’Archestrate was wonderful in its first incarnation, unpretentious, food lovingly cooked, waiters friendly, quite the opposite to reports about ‘attitude’ when it moved grandly onto the rue de Varennes in 1971, where it stayed until finally its doors closed in 1985.
It reminded me of great art that struggles to be born, eager, conscientious combining purity of spirit with passion until finally the artist gives into temptation and becomes corrupted by commercialism and fame, rather than trusting his passion.
At La Tour d’Argent, one of France’s most famous old restaurants, where I was fortunate enough to visit three times, the final meal enjoyed there in 2001 would turn out to be the most memorable, despite them all being fabulous.
Exquisite hors douvres, the rich texture of their specialty Duck, followed by the simplicity of flambéed fresh juicy luscious peaches served with iced luxurious 100-year-old French champagne was unforgettable enough on their own.
The makeup of people who have dined at this wonderful establishment is quite remarkable. Presidents and ambassadors, company presidents, movie stars, politicians as well as people like me, who simply saved up the funds to go.
We all came to gaze out across the Seine, share a great bottle or two from the restaurant’s famous cellar and to partake of their legendary duck.
Then there was the too divine dinner at the Auberge du Bon Laboureur at Chenonceaux in France.
This was a total surprise. The understated elegance of the surroundings ensured that our culinary delights were enjoyed in great style.
It was a complete spur of the minute encounter of the most wonderful kind.
It happened after spending the afternoon at the nearby Chateau of Chenonceaux seeing the sights.
With the sun not setting until nearly 10pm, my tour companion and I decided on dining out before returning across the countryside to where we were staying.
We found the delightful geranium in bloom ivy covered eighteenth century inn after a short walk into the nearby village.
The table must have been a cancellation, because to dine here we discovered was, and still is difficult, because it is always booked so far ahead.
They served the days specialty, fat white asparagus with lemon butter sauce followed by an ‘essence of asparagus’, a consommé so exquisite that my friend and I both thought we really had died and gone to heaven. The main course was tender lamb, which was a symphony of textures and flavours.
We were both gobsmacked.
In between were many restaurants in the most amazing places. High in the alps of Switzerland, as we wound our way through a forest in legendary Liechenstein, or in different regions of Provence in southern France, where we enjoyed dining in simple eateries with slow cooked meals that were both comforting and entirely delicious.
The way they served the main was another treat, in two sittings, the final one with a salad. For instance if you were having duck they would serve the more delicate breast first with vegetables and then the leg with a salad.
Those meals we enjoyed at Mougins, a commune in the Alpes-Maritimes department in south-eastern France, which at the time hosted many world celebrities, were nothing short of extraordinary.
Renowned Chefs Roger Vergé and Alain Ducasse both had restaurants in the village and at one time so many had three chef hats from Michelin, it was impossible to choose the one to try.
Finally, but still abroad although more local, it would be impossible not to rave about the cuisine, the wine, the decor and the service at the multi-award winning Huka Lodge in northern New Zealand, nearby to Lake Taupo. It may seem strange the best of all dining out experiences abroad was the one enjoyed so close to home. But there it is.
This amazing lodge is sited on a spot where the Queen Mum used to come to fish for trout in days of yore.
It has since become one of the world’s great holiday havens and retreats.
Sited spectacularly on the Waikato River with its great cascading Huka falls, every meal here is an unforgettable joyous experience.
Huka Lodge is like a wonderful symphony, where everything comes together in harmony.
You can go fishing or hot air ballooning with a guide and partake of a freshly baked croissant, fruit and coffee in the early morning mist.
Meals in house such as freshwater lobster poached with lemon-infused gnocchi and watercress really are to die for. The ambience is cosy and comforting, with just the right dash of chic. Spending New Year’s Eve there is an amazing thing to do.
Fitted out like a very chic hunting lodge, you could add a dash of tartan to your attire and be totally in tune. For over 25 years Huka Lodge has established a tradition of fine hospitality, which is invested in both its philosophy and culture.
Eating out at Sydney over their teen years helped my three son’s develop a love of culinary delights as well, although you can give them bangers and mash or, my take on Spag Bol, and they are all completely happy.
They know it is all about the quality of the produce, the cooking and the company.
During their growing years they were all motivated, inspired and taught by one of the best cooks around at the time, the quietly spoken Rosemary Penman.
Dear Rosemary, God bless her, consulted on the opening celebration and designed the Menu’s on the Run for the first decade of David Jones Food Hall.
She was a simply sensational cook and a cherished friend.
Over twenty years of working together on a great number of culinary projects, she imparted her wisdom, some great recipes and she taught my boys very special skills.
Rosemary was a patient, kind and caring mentor and we all adored her.
Now they are scattered all over Australia living in different cities, they remember her fondly for giving them so many tips, ensuring that what was being cooked would be a success. It did not matter if she was busy cooking a special dinner party, she would take the time to lift number three son up onto a chair beside her, complete with a striped chef hat and apron so that he could help her.
Gretta Anna Teplitzky had a restaurant at Killara, where we used to dine out as a family for a special treat.
Then she started teaching, so once again I indulged. She was a no nonsense lady with great short cuts, that always had a great end result. She also helped me to plan an eating focused journey around France.
At her urging I went to North Sydney Technical College (TAFE) where I completed a year of training in the art of Cordon Bleu. Working in a team at one session we had a toffee-pulling nightmare, which was certainly a whole lot of fun. Along the way we also learned a great deal as well.
A family favourite for twenty odd years was the Bayswater Brassiere, sited on the edge of King’s Cross. Two talented New Zealand boys and their well-trained informative waiters reigned supreme.
This fabulous place now also only a memory, became our home away from home when a new kitchen for the Paddington terrace we were renovating was destroyed by fire as it sat on a loading dock to be delivered next day.
The boys at the Bayswater Brassiere became well known not only for their fabulous food and great back bar, but also for training many of the first wave of master chefs to hit the Sydney scene.
In Australia during the time I was travelling abroad, our chefs were quietly taking on the rest of the world by storm establishing excellence as their basic level, believing they could go well beyond that point.
There was Gai Bilson at Berowra Waters, Tony Bilson at Bilson’s on Circular Quay, Claude Corne at Claude’s at Paddington, Phillip Searle in the divine old rectory building Leo Schofield had renovated at Woollahra and Paul Merrony at Merrony’s Circular Quay, all of whom I have many fond memories of, as well as of their marvellous meals.
Paul Merrony who trained with the famed Roux brothers, London, worked at La Tour d’Argent, Paris and cooked at Berowra Waters, cooked a trio of marvellous lunches for my Academy students in a special Jane Austen presentation at the State Library. He is now in London where his La Giaconda Cafe and Restaurant, renovated in 2012, is divided into two parts – the front section, a café with wipe-clean round tables, and a rear section housing a the very stylish restaurant.
Then there was the always animated delightful Armando Perouoco at Buon Ricordo, Damien Pignolet in charge of Claude’s second coming, and after that at the Bistro Moncur, Woollahra Hotel where his Steak Café de Paris has become deservedly legendary.
Maggie Beer, all you have to do is say her name and people perk up and smiles broaden. She’s the cook who enjoys cooking with chefs.
My first encounter with food cooked by this amazing lady was at her Pheasant Farm, where my friend who lived in Adelaide and I went to dine at the restaurant when she first opened. She served great game to die for. My friend and I would make the journey up to the Farm over all the years she had her restaurant there from the late 70’s until 1993.
We celebrated my friend’s 50th birthday there too, while both our husbands were overseas. We always wanted to lick the plate, not a ladylike thing to do, but an impulse that had to be completely repressed.
When we found out Maggie was closing the restaurant down we made a final journey together the week the restaurant closed, enjoying the food still at the high standard of excellence Maggie had always achieved.
It was why the Pheasant Farm was voted Restaurant of the Year in Australia so many times and also why she gained such a legion of loyal fans. Since then she has gone from strength to strength and and endeared herself to millions of people who enjoy the love and passion she pours into her wonderful range of comestibles. She has certainly shared the love around.
Staying at Hintlesham Hall Hotel, Robert Carrier’s former cooking school at Ipswich in the rolling Suffolk countryside of England for Christmas 1988 was a return special treat, but this time enjoyed by our whole family.
They were all grown up now and we were on our way to the holiday we always dreamed of having together, a journey up the River Nile in Egypt. I had read Sinuhe the Egyptian as a teen, and we were considerable archaeology fans.
Going to see the place where civilisation was refined into a superb culture had long been on the top of the list.
The political situation made it completely impossible for years, but then there was a brief window of opportunity in January 1989 and you couldn’t hold us back.
To make the journey I sold well a set of twelve antique chairs that I had bought at a time when no one wanted them.
At Hintlesham Hall Christmas stockings were stuffed with wonderful goodies to eat and hung on the bedroom chimneypiece to find on Xmas morning.
Their award winning wine list included the best wines from France and Australia, which was a lovely surprise.
During the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s in Sydney we enjoyed fabulous meals at Italian eateries such as La Strada, Lucio’s, Beppi’s and Machiavelli’s.
A few colleagues of mine and I regularly visited Bill Granger’s first eatery Bill’s for Breakfast and Lunch. His scrambled eggs were so incredibly creamy you just had to keep going back for more. Then there were his Ricotta Hotcakes, served with fresh banana and honeycomb butter.
Just writing about them makes you crave to taste them once more.
Over the last decade the Bambini Trust Café on Elizabeth Street, Sydney has been a favourite. It is a real treat to enjoy a fine meal there with my son and his wife when I am in Sydney. Its a handsome place with a European flavour and a friendly Aussie sophisticated city touch.
The food is always amazing, the service relaxed and friendly. Reminds me always of good ‘old fashioned’ hospitality in every sense of the word.
Spending a little more than a decade in Brisbane was memorable in so many ways, especially cuisine wise. It went from being an overgrown country town in 1998, to a sophisticated small city that I left for good in 2009. Dear Brisbane, the city big enough to get lost in, but small enough to feel at home.
From Two Rooms at Milton to Circa with Brad Hamilton and on to Ecco’ and the culinary delights of The Gunshop Café. Then there was Alchemy or Brad Hamilton’s 2nd incarnation Era Bistro Restaurant Two and Three Bistro with David Pugh and Mr Cool himself, Michael Conrad. Those two were in a class of their own.
Early morning coffee with a fresh almond croissant along the river, or a Sunday night special of Steak Chips and Salad at the Moray Café with members of the choir from St John’s Cathedral after Evensong were also great, as was breakfast at Harvey’s on James Street.
Living in St John’s Cathedral precinct from 2000 – 2005 I shared many culinary delights with everyone from Bishops to Choir Boys from Deans to a huge diversity of visitors in my Turret eyrie. Cooking lunch for Leo Schofield was an unforgettable experience.
Of all the chefs in Australia I have admired over the years Matt Moran is truly the man with the Midas touch and loads of the X-factor.
Matt started his career at La Belle Helene Restaurant at Roseville, nearby to where we lived on the north shore when all the boys were all in high school. There we enjoyed many a memorable meal with friends as he mastered the art of French cuisine.
He opened his Paddington Inn Bistro with a partner the year our family all moved to Paddington from the North Shore and we became regulars there as well. Revamping a pub from being a haunt of the 50’s blue singlet brigade was a sensitive thing to do at the time and wisely many chefs kept a casual back bar available for years later.
Moran also opened his own establishment at King’s Cross too, which we haunted often too. He always came out to talk to everyone at the end of service to garner feedback personally, a wise and clever thing to do.
I am sure the information stood him in good stead when he opened, Aria Restaurant his masterpiece, where singing a song from an opera would seem an appropriate thing to do. Not because the original is opposite the Sydney Opera House, but because it would be a wonderful way to show him appreciation and applaud the state of extreme excellence that he, and by and large many other Australian chefs have achieved over my lifetime.
A visit to his new venue at Chiswick Restaurant in a public garden at Woollahra in 2013 brought back old memories of its former owner the truly wonderful Greek impresario Tony Geminis, and his wife Betty, who were dear friends.
One of the original landmark private gardens in that area, Chiswick was acquired in 1938 for use as a public park. The house was demolished, but the stables were converted into a kiosk and caretaker’s residence, which eventually evolved into a restaurant premises.
In 1971, restaurateur Tony Geminis moved his acclaimed Pruniers restaurant from Double Bay to Chiswick Gardens. Pruniers had been long respected for its classic menu, and it was namesake of a famous and enduring Parisian establishment.
Chiswick Gardens Restaurant operated for over forty years from its stunning location, well exceeding its quarter-century spent in Double Bay.
Masterchef, My Kitchen Rules, Poh and her wonderful guests, The River Cottage and other cooking shows on television have certainly help profile many cooks and chefs today, whose passion for food seems to never end. Above all it is talent combined with good produce that always wins out.
Moving to Melbourne to live permanently at the end of 2009 for me has meant a whole range of new experiences including writing and publishing Online for the ‘Circle’ and eating out Melbourne style.
There has been the likes of Verge, Ezard, Harvey’s, Vue de Monde and Merchant, whose chefs, including the brilliant Shane Bennett, have continued to inspire my passionate pursuit of culinary delights.
Then there is the Botanical Restaurant visited with friends from Brisbane for a birthday celebration. Laid back sophisticated contemporary Aussie city style.
Botanical, nearby the gardens, gained a new chef following a revamp of both the interior and kitchen. Cheong Liew Will has been voted ‘one of the 10 hottest chefs alive’ by the US Food and wine magazine. His style echoes a new trend in seasonal eating. In a recent interview with The Age he said it was all about using food as a conduit to keep the body in harmony with the environment and to achieve the best of health.
It has indeed been marvelous eating out in so many great restaurants around the world, as well as in Australia for nearly four decades now.
These days I only tend to dine out with my family and friends wherever that may find me and that has included some interesting places in the last few years.
In South Yarra where I live the tiny divine Da Noi has a stunning set menu matched with superb wines, Sardinia-meets-Victorian Melbourne osteria.
It, and the French bar and restaraunt A La Bouffe are both family favourites.
If we want to indulge and enjoy fabulous, Bistro Gitan at South Yarra certainly has a stunning atmosphere and great food.
My movie buddy and I especially enjoy the house special prawn pizza with pear and rocket salad at Insieme in the Como Centre, which is again just perfect after taking in a movie at Palace Cinemas.
Studying the art of cooking and entertaining over my lifetime to date has enabled me over the years to develop and refine my palate and my appreciation for fine cuisine, as well as an ability to discern the brilliance of what is the best on offer on the day, from what was or is just great and good.
The choice and diversity of both décor and cooking styles enjoyed has meant many wonderful and memorable experiences.
From the cosy and informal bistro’s at Paris to a quiet French style bistro and bar in Melbourne Australia such as A La Bouffe and Bistro Gitan in the contemporary age, surely enjoying a fine meal with those you love and care about in any setting, is the penultimate celebration of life.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2011 – 2014
NB: This is the final in a Three Part Series