The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry: Lee Tran Lam quizzes chefs, critics, bar staff and other people from the food world about their dining habits, war stories and favourite places to eat and drink in Sydney.
Paul Carmichael – Momofuku Seiobo
“I literally got here and the first two weeks, everybody quit." Despite this challenging start to becoming Momofuku Seiobo's executive chef, Paul Carmichael has since scored many awards (both Gourmet Traveller and Time Out named him Chef of the Year) and he's been called one of the world's greatest chefs by his boss, David Chang. The restaurant has received two glowing reviews in The New York Times and been ranked as one of the best places to eat in the world by Besha Rodell in Food & Wine.
Paul isn't about basking in the acclaim, though. "You’ve got to become comfortable with failing,” Paul says. "We’d make something, it’d be shit." Then, after a lot of work, it becomes great.
At Momofuku Seiobo, he's created a one-of-a-kind menu that reflects his upbringing in Barbados. The food is also a way to represent the Caribbean, which people often reduce to holiday-spot stereotypes. “I feel like the way they talk about it, they talk about it like a club,” he says. For Paul, it's his life – not a gimmicky theme – so throughout the podcast, we talk about dishes from the region: like coucou, which his mother makes with a special stick that's older than Paul; and roti that originated in India and ended up in Trinidad – which he grew up eating as a kid. A lot of these dishes have travelled.
“It had an origin somewhere, but this is where it ended up being," he says, "The Caribbean is 500 years of fusion. Maybe that should be the name of my book.” Migration and colonisation also shaped the cuisine – as did slavery, which isn't as far into the past as we'd like to think.
The chef doesn't want to “elevate” dishes that have generations of history, but also show that you can present a dish that's rice and vegetables and prove how it can belong in one of the city's top restaurants. “It looks like a pile of goop - but there’s so much that goes into it,” he says.
Paul also talks about how people still turn up to Seiobo thinking it's a Japanese restaurant (five years after Paul introduced his Caribbean menu), how he lived off supermarket specials while Seiobo was closed during the lockdown, using "mum tricks" to stretch Seiobo's budget in its current COVID-adapted incarnation (where staff also wear face masks in the colours of the Barbados flag). We also talk about his favourite budget meal, what to order at his favourite Chinese restaurant – as well as tougher topics: like having to deal with blatant racism and the cops pulling a gun on him just for asking for directions. We also cover the media pressure of taking over a highly acclaimed restaurant, too.
This podcast was recorded last year, but is especially relevant now with Momofuku Seiobo announcing its last service for late June. I loved talking to Paul on this episode, I hope you enjoy this podcast, too.
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Joanna Hunkin – Gourmet Traveller
Reporting from murder scenes and interviewing Lorde live at the Grammys – that's what Joanna Hunkin did before she became editor at Gourmet Traveller. Enduring these high-pressure situations meant she wasn't too shaken by her first year at the magazine – which has been incredibly eventful and challenging, and involved her relocating from Auckland to take up the role.
On her very first day on the job, at the Restaurant Awards at Bennelong last year, she was handing out honours to chefs Ben Shewry and Kylie Kwong. Then, as the pandemic hit, she found herself having to produce a magazine under lockdown – a tricky feat, given that photo shoots, recipe testing and other group activities are key to Gourmet Traveller's coverage. Her team used some leftfield ideas to complete cover shoots and other editorial work while socially distancing!
We talk about some of the most memorable stories that have run in the magazine in the past year as well as relevant topics such as "authenticity" in food and how chefs feel about dealing with dietary requirements (from diners who claim they can't consume anything "shiny" or beginning with the letter 'A' to legit allergies to gluten and wheat – I wrote about this for the October issue of Gourmet Traveller).
We also cover her early days in Hong Kong (where her mother fed her microwave bacon!) as well as Joanna's return to the city later in life, where she dined at secret restaurants hidden inside Hong Kong's high-density apartments.
Joanna also chats about her top three Australian restaurant experiences of the past year, as well as her favourite dining spots in Auckland.
Topher Boehm – Wildflower
They're not obvious candidates for making beer: wattle, strawberry gum and leftover sourdough from Ester. Topher Boehm turns to flower cuttings and other NSW-only ingredients to create wild ales for Wildflower, the Sydney brewery he runs with brother-in-law Chris Allen. They've named beers after their children – including the wild-raspberry-flavoured St Phoebe, which was selected over 1500 drinks to be named Australia's best beverage. And his curiosity with fermenting has led to Topher brewing 200 litres of soy sauce in a barrel, just for fun. Maybe his revved-up creativity shouldn't be a surprise – Topher once had 70 home-brewing experiments on the go in his apartment (until his wife fairly decided that perhaps that was just a little too much to co-habitate with).
So how did Topher go from making frozen sandwiches for his family in Texas – and studying astrophysics and considering a career in shoemaking – to brewing beers that are found in 10 William Street and other top bars and restaurants around Australia? It's a pretty surprising path that also involves a really sweet love story (and a literally stinky town in New Zealand).
You don't have to be a deep beer nerd to enjoy this episode, as Topher is a great storyteller – just listen to the unbelievably "epic" tale behind the coolship vessel that's being made for his spontaneous beers. The vessel has survived bushfires and flood – intense conditions that literally swallowed a truck belonging to the Blue Mountains blacksmith who is making the coolship. And while Topher has learnt about beer from hanging out in Europe and the US, he is keen to create a beverage that gets its flavours from sources you can only find in his home state. “We were calling beer local, but it was made that way from where it was brewed, not the ingredients it was from,” he says. Which means Topher is especially interested in bush foods, like saltbush, and is experimenting with the idea of bringing back his sold-out St Phoebe run using native raspberries.
This episode actually features two parts: one recorded in January (before the pandemic) and a part two that sees us catching up remotely a few months after lockdown sets in.
We also cover historical aspects of beer: it's the reason for the world's oldest recipe and, despite its cliched blokey image today, it was actually women who traditionally were brewers. (Go back to Ancient Egypt and it was women who tended to beer.) PS The cherry beer you hear fermenting in the background is actually now available from Wildflower (it's delicious)!
Natalie Paull – Beatrix and "Beatrix Bakes"
Natalie Paull once pointed a brûlée torch flame in the wrong direction – and accidentally set a whole docket rail of dessert orders on fire. She's endured brownie explosions and baking disasters, too. But people rightly associate Natalie with oven-baked triumphs – like the brilliant sweets from her popular Beatrix bakery in Melbourne. Think passionfruit cloud chiffon cakes, Tart-A-Misu, Moroccan Snickers tarts, cinnamon-glazed apple fry pies (without the fryer’s remorse!) and more. Her sugar-laced cakes have a transformative power – even for people who've undergone heartbreak and tragedy. Natalie has received letters of appreciation that have made her cry.
Because Natalie is a big believer in "cake for breakfast", we talk a lot about desserts – from the blockbuster "floating" cake she made for own wedding, to the four-hour spiced quinces from her Beatrix Bakes cookbook, which have the most surprising story behind them. She also recalls her days working with chef Greg Malouf (after his heart transplant), Maggie Beer, Cath Claringbold and more.
We also cover some of the "all-time favourite cakes" she's ever eaten around the world, from Kanazawa to Barcelona and beyond (including the "most perfect bite of cheesecake" in Tokyo)!
Shinobu Namae – L’Effervescence, Bricolage Bread & Co.
Shinobu Namae runs one of Tokyo's best restaurants: L'Effervescence. It has two Michelin stars and is known for its sustainable focus (nearly everything served to diners comes from Japan, even the cheese) and the menu is inspired by everything from McDonald's fried apple pie to world peace. Even the dish names are memorable (you can order something called 'Hurrah')!
Namae-san has worked for Michel Bras in Hokkaido (the story behind this proves that overeating in New York is always a good thing to do) and he was Heston Blumenthal's sous-chef at The Fat Duck. Even though Namae-san grew up with an American-influenced diet, the chef has devoted his career to showcasing Japanese ingredients, from the artisanal wheat in the oven-baked goods at his cafe, Bricolage Bread & Co., to the menu at L'Effervescence. (The story behind the Japanese cheeses at the restaurant is pretty surprising.)
He also talks about some of the memorable food he's had around the world – including his experience at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse, which he calls one of the best meals of his life. (He also has a sandwich inspired by her on his menu at Bricolage.)
This episode was recorded when the chef was here last year, for Tasting Australia.
Charlotte Ree – "Just Desserts"
Charlotte Ree once ate 30 different kinds of croissants during a trip to France – then got a croissant tattoo afterwards. She's so dedicated to pastries that she'll stay up until 5:30am to finish a baking marathon. Pulling 120 cakes out of the oven during the hours people reserve for sleeping – and then going to work the next day, as communications manager for Pan Macmillan (the publisher of Hetty McKinnon's cookbooks) – well, that's just a normal whirlwind day for Charlotte.
Charlotte's love of all things sweet is clear on every page of Just Desserts, her latest cookbook. It features recipes for Nutella thumbprint cookies, peach and raspberry tray cake, tiramisu swiss rolls and chocolate ganache Bundt (Charlotte likes big Bundts and she can not lie). Just Desserts also includes "a nod to the king of biscuits" and is laced and frosted with a good dose of puns (sieve the day)!
Charlotte talks about how to land a cookbook deal (when you're not a celebrity chef), being on the publicity trail with Hetty McKinnon, as well as Charlotte's personal baking triumphs, fails and memorable moments. Plus, we take an express trip to her favourite patisseries around the world (I've saved her Tokyo recommendations for my next trip)!
Note: this was recorded a few months ago, before the current pandemic and lockdown hit. So, social distancing is paramount, but please take note of eateries you can still responsibly support as they need the help right now. And there's plenty in the podcast archive (the Christina Tosi episode, the one with Lune Croissanterie's Kate Reid!) if you're keen for a self-isolation soundtrack or audio company during this unprecedented time.