Emica’s metropolis – a culinary tour of New York

My oh my. Ole Blue Eyes had it right about New York when he said if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. London is a global city, but New York is a metropolis. They say you can tell a tourist from a New Yorker because the visitor spends half their time craning their necks upwards at the enormously tall buildings, while the locals are blase about living in a modernist architect’s model come to life. I am definitely in the provincial gawker category. New York is so tall! And wide. And busy. Looking at old photos in the wonderful, compact Museum of New York City, you can see that the skyline hasn’t changed a huge deal since the late 30s (with two notable exceptions of course), which must have made the scale of the city all the more impressive to country rubes when the Empire State, Chrysler, Rockefeller etc were first built.

It’s a topic that’s been exhaustively explored in books and film, but it remains true that New York is the great immigrant city. I was surprised by how Hispanic culture has a very strong presence in the city, naively thinking that because of the Mexico-American West connection, there wouldn’t be much of a Hispanic population in New York. But it was the brilliant and fascinating Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side that really brought home to me just how integral immigration and the immigrant experience is to the life and character of New York.

Visits to the museum are based on a number of themed tours where the immigrant past of the area is explored. As our guide explained (herself of Italian background), the area had previously been known as Kleine Deutschland and was almost wholly German speaking prior to 1880; the decades after this, into the early 20th century, saw huge numbers of Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Russia and other parts of central and eastern Europe. After that the area became home to the Sicilians, the Puerto Ricans and the Chinese in the 1970. At one point, a quarter of New York’s population was Irish and very large numbers of African Americans moved from the South, settling in Harlem. Describing how these waves of new Americans managed to deal with the sweatshop conditions where large families lived and worked in three or four rooms in these tenement slums, our museum guide made the point that they had nothing to go back to; working out how to survive and thrive in the new country was the only option. The caricature of New York as a hustler city seemed at least partly true, with a very active, pushy street life and people by turns aggressively rude and exceptionally kind and friendly. Without going overboard on the basis of one week’s holiday, it struck me that this character is perhaps a cultural by-product of New York’s eternally arriving population and their determined drive to make it.

And of course, one of the great things about immigration is the food traditions that come with the new residents. From the Jewish side of NYC’s population, Katz’s Delicatessan almost doesn’t need an introduction, so well know is it from When Harry Met Sally. Internet debate rages about whether Katz’s is the real thing or over hyped or whether other delis are more authentic and/or better. I dunno, but the pastrami and pickle sandwich I had was amazingly, meltingly delicious. I’d never had proper pastrami and it doesn’t even begin to compare to that wafer thin prepacked sliced stuff from supermarkets. They’re also famous for own-brand soda. I think that should be infamous because The Man had Cel-Ray, a celery flavour soft drink which tasted like mineral salts crossed with Lucozade; I had a root beer that tasted like cough syrup filtered through the collective footy socks of both grand final teams. Disgusting.

London doesn’t have much of a Hispanic population and American friends moan about lack of proper Mexican food. We had an amazing lunch at a tacqueria (taco joint) in the back of a Mexican grocery in the Hell’s Kitchen area. It had a dozen stools at a counter which offered 5 kinds of hot sauce and, like so many restaurants of the newly arrived, ordering in English was hit and miss, it was cheap and damn delicious. I particularly liked my taco of corn fungus but the slow cooked goat quesadilla was awesome.

Chinatown and Little Italy are next to each other and we were a bit dubious about eating in either, figuring there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of marketing guff giving an area an “identity” and the quality of the cooking. A good review sent us to Chinatown and the New Yeah Shangai Deluxe. With a name like that, how could anyone say no?! Unfortunately, it had disappeared since the review, so we crossed the road to another place where the scallion (spring onion) pancake was raved about. Not sure why it was such a feature as was a bit dull, but The Man’s slow cooked beef with greens and noodles was beautiful. He complained that it was a bit too real, with gristly bits and bony bits but I think that’s picking holes; the beef was melting and the broth beautifully spiced with star anise. I had fine noodles in chicken broth with a pork stuffed poached spring roll and stuffed deep fried tofu, which was good – chickeny in the right way – but not a patch on the beef broth.

Harlem is an iconic area and, apparently, more white people have moved in but it didn’t seem that way to us on a mid week lunch time. Sitting at the counter of Fishers of Men, the only white girl in this Southern style fry-house, I definitely felt I stood out but was made to feel very welcome. Fishers of Men is a hole in the wall hotdog and fried fish outfit.

Established by a deeply religious family, the Ten Commandments are printed on the wall and evangelical FM radio plays the Word of the Lord over the PA. It’s not just a hokey cliche though, because the fried catfish is damn good. Four generous fillets in a light, seasoned batter were sandwiched between white sliced, with mayonnaise and some kind of house made chilli sauce. We added collard greens, a Southern speciality which we discovered were something like silver beet with shredded ham hock, and was both smokey and pleasantly bitter. Unfortunately my coleslaw was made with that sweet industrial mayonnaise but was commendably crunchy and obviously freshly made.

Every holiday I have a food Mecca that I have to visit. For NYC it was Momofuku Ssam Bar. It sort of crept into my consciousness, although the post by Melbourne Gastronome prompted me into action. David Chang opened the first of the Momofuku family, the noodle bar in the East Village, in 2003 and the ssam bar opened in 2006. I believe ssam means wrapped food in Korean and the original intention of the ssam bar was an Asian burrito cafeteria style place. As this profile from a few years ago outlines, that idea didn’t really work out and a more structured approach was introduced to the restaurant when it failed to take off. Certainly, the only remnant of the burrito bar idea we could see when we went for Friday dinner – and again for lunch on Saturday – was the pared back utilitarian decor and the pork belly buns.

Whatever teething troubles that may have beset Ssam, they’re certainly long vanquished. We got there around 8.30 on a Friday and had a lengthy, but not unpleasant wait with gaggles of would be diners in the adjoining Milk Bar, which serves cake, cookies, beer, ice cream and pork buns. To their credit, the restaurant staff keep an eye on you, offer you drinks and remember you’re waiting to eat. Our pork buns were truly delicious. A flat pita shaped bread of the same fluffy consistency as steamed pork buns at yum cha is served open, wrapped around two generous slabs of soft pork belly, smeared with hoisin and topped with spring onion and coriander. We came back the next day for more of these little guys. Yum.

It makes sense to describe Momofuku as fusion, but actually it’s almost beyond categorisation because, although its influences draw from around the world, it’s not pretentious, cheffy or up itself. I say this now because alongside the pork buns we had a plate of Arkensas ham with butter and crusty bread and a plate of the most zingily interesting pickles – included were kimchi, carrot, cauliflower, mushroom and, best of all, rhubarb.

The food wasn’t without a few bum notes. My air dried beef with various accoutrements and hot stock poured over was incredibly salty and for afters we had one of the compost cookies. These are something of a trademark and they’re OK; I may sound a bit pernickity, but they suffer from the wrong proportion of butter and sugar to dry ingredients, which Dr SO so accurately identified in this post. However, all was forgiven because of the cereal milk soft serve – it really does taste like the milk after you’ve eaten all the nutri grain and The Man asked for it to be rolled in salted corn flakes. This is what good, modern, interesting and thoughtful food looks like.

So far in this epic post most of the eating has been a global tour of NYC’s various populations, but we ate a lot of ‘American’ food as well. A juicy burger with American cheese (basically plastic cheese slices) at Williamsburger in, you guessed it, Williamsburg Brooklyn overlooking the impressive derelict sugar refinery. A stack of pancakes with a jug of syrup and sausage at Big Daddy’s Diner; I was on a sugar high after that! And the most amazing donuts at The Donut Plant in the Lower East Side.

A combination of nosiness (me) and friendliness (the nice New Yorker) meant we got chatting with a fella sitting next to us at the Hester Street artisan market, where for breakfast we ate Vietnamese baguettes filled with lemongrass, coriander and pork meatballs and fruity Mexican style icy poles from La Newyorkina. He recommended the Donut Plant, round the corner – a fine piece of synchronicity because we were just about to head across the river to Brooklyn in search of donut excellence. I didn’t know this at the time, but the Donut Plant was the first in a wave of donut visionaries reimagining the donut and recreating it as a viable pastry, not some kind of aerated styrofoam police officers’ snack. For our first round The Man had a square blackberry jam donut and I had a hole-less creme brulee version, which had sweet eggy custard in the middle and a crackly glaze on top. It is one of the yummiest things I’ve ever eaten. For the second round I had chocolate – chocolate glaze, chocolate cake and chocolate ganache inside; The Man had the healthy carrot cake option. And, exemplifying New York’s tension between bad-ass attitude and helpful friendliness, the previously surly super cool server unexpectedly gave me a fifth donut, their famous tres leches flavour with some kind of creamy deliciousness inside.


And they’re rounding the bend … or sending Dr Sister Outlaw around one: Midseason Masterchef post

So, nine to go, which means eight eliminations before we find out who is The One. We are getting to know the personalities, and everyone surely has their favourites and their hot tips, and enough good people are gone now to be a bit upset (Jake and Skye, for instance). Last night Matt Preston tweeted that every week of episodes equals 10 days of filming and we are catching up to where the remaining contestants are really at.

While we wait to see who goes home from tonight’s Blue Team (which contains most of my favourites), it seems a good time to reflect on the series thus far. I will present the following observations, for the purpose of discussion and debate. (With the exception of the first point, which is beyond question, OK?)

1. Joanne simply has to go. No one can take any more of her ingratiating manner, which is so incongruous with her tightly pursed lips. Lest anyone think my loathing of her is about appearances, let me make it very clear – she put Carrie in it with the creme brulee even though she contributed to it by making Carrie fix her peaches and she dumped on Jonathan’s leadership. This is where we need a voting mechanism – Australia hates dobbers.

2. I really like Jonathan now, and it seems to me that, after a rough start, the others are fond of him too. Under pressure he’s a good leader, he takes responsibility and if he can survive the emotional strain of one more elimination challenge, he’s a contender. He’s also a fearsomely talented cook and I’d like to read a cookbook he wrote.

3. Aaron really needs to wash his hair and shave because I don’t like thinking about him handling food as he currently appears and I am in no way particular about these things. Also, he should get over himself.

4. I really like Claire, Adam and Marion, but I think that they might be disadvantaged by having faced too few eliminations. Adam and Marion’s immunity may weaken them in the longer term.

5. George really should stop saying beeyouteeful and just say bewdiful, like he really wants to.

6. Last time I posted about Masterchef, I observed a distinct skills deficit, but the skills really have improved. This makes me wonder just how much training they do off camera.

OK, so that’s my two cents’ worth. What do all youse think?

Two takes on Molecular Gastronomy

I am in love with a blog I’ve just found called resistance is fertile, and am working my way through the archives, finding joys like this take on “101 quick meals”and this, which involves chocolate and poetry, and is beautiful.

Lagusta is an anarchist chef living in upstate New York who runs businesses delivering home cooked vegan meals and making chocolates, including one called a Furious Vulva. And she thinks that all vegans should go to Alinea, the famed Chicago restaurant of Grant Achatz recently ranked the best restaurant in North America, and the seventh best restaurant in the world:

vegans should be embracing this molecular gastronomy business. It’s so vegan friendly. It uses tools we’ve been using forever (agar, kuzu, flax seeds, various powders and elixirs), but it uses them unapologetically, not as “replacements,” but as interesting elements of a dish on their own merit.

Several world aways is Oliver Peyton, an Irish-born art lover and restauranteur. He seems much more straight-laced than Lagusta, but is apparently known for running off at the gob sometimes.

I was looking for Luke Ngyuen videos on the SBS food site, when I stumbled across Peyton’s “Eating Art“, an examination of the antecedents of molecular gastronomy in modernist art.

The show has some painful sequences of Peyton striding around in picturesque international locations, but starts to fly when he asks fancy New York chef Sam Mason to interpret Cezanne’s still life Apples and Oranges (1899). Mason (re)constructs sharp-edged boxes of intense appley-ness, that nod at both Cezanne’s determination to see and capture structure and his urge to move his craft forward

Wylie Dufresne of wd-50, gets the altogether more grim Juan Gris’ Bottle of Rum and a Newspaper and constructs an octopus terrine eaten with a toasted saffron cake, pickled ginger and pine nuts that have had very, very, very elaborate things done to them. It looks amazing.

And finally, at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Northern Italy, a three course Futurist fancy including a fake roast ham (cooked sous vide, blow-torched for colour and complete with atomised aromas); then a thin square of freshly hand minced raw beef, laid with a path of salty flavour.

It concludes with a triumph of nostalgia. Foie gras is infused with milk and cherrywood smoke and cooked sous vide. A stick is inserted, then it’s injected with the local Modena balsamic and rolled in roasted almond and hazlenut. I couldn’t manage a screenshot even as shabby as the two above, so you’ll have to take my word for it that they totally made a Golden Gaytime. In proper Marinetti-fashion, it is served accompanied by a large Italian man booming avant-garde poetry.

On sneaky racism and “other culinary horrors”

I started writing this post in June, but never finished it. I thought the moment had passed, but a conversation with my dear fellow food nerd Tammi about her PhD thesis brought the original article to mind, and when I read it again I was still pissed off. I’ve edited it a bit here and there.

The article is “Saucing the best”, written by Necia Wilden in The Weekend Australian Magazine on May 30-31.

For those scoffophiles who’ve had their head under a giant jamon for the last couple of several months, Wilden and John Lethlean have taken over the food and wine chairs at The Weekend Australian Magazine. I’ve stopped getting the Weekend Australian regularly – I almost never buy a dead tree newspaper anymore – but have checked out a few of the issues since the Food & Wine relaunch.

There’s potential for a beefed-up F&W section in a weekend broadsheet daily to really sing – but it will take more than I”ve seen so far. There was quite a bit of fanfare around the first edition, including a cover shot of Wilden and Lethlean, but it’s hard to work out who the section is trying to appeal to. The part I liked best was the double page focus on a particular ingredient, but I’m yet to see it repeated in the section. (Updated – still haven’t seen it again, but I’ve pretty much given up on it. I wonder if the new Simon Thomsen/Matt Preston section “taste” in the News Ltd tabloids on Tuesdays will be any better?)

The article rankled, but the reason why took some time to percolate through (updated: however the depth of the rankle proved long-lasting, as it turns out) It begins by saying that Ms Wilden’s Asian cooking has passable technique and execution but suffers because she can’t access the top drawer ingredients she uses to cook more familiar ie, European, food. Fr’instance, for Italian, she buys “the best”:

“costly extra virgin olive oil, Ortiz anchovies, imported durum-wheat pasta .. you name it, if it achieves a great result I buy it”.

She doesn’t mention how she learned to cook Italian food or where she buys her Italian delights, but it’s certainly a bit more glam than the Asian grocery, which is mysterious, confusing, and probably poisonous:

“I’m faced with row after row, jar after jar of anonymous muck loaded with sugar, preservaties, artificial colours, MSG and other culinary horrors. It’s odd how so many people seem to turn a blind eye to the truth about the staples of the Asian larder.”

Isn’t that creepy!

“I don’t know why food writers and chefs who should know better tell us to use hoisin sauce in our Asian cooking. Have you checked the ingreedients list on a bottle of standard hoisin lately? Or a bottle of so-called oyster sauce, for that matter?”

Well, inquiring minds and all, let’s see what’s in the fridge. A bottle of Tung Chun Hoi Sin sauce from Hong Kong, which lists these ingredients:


What’s the scariest sounding bit, maybe that “E129” there? It’s a red food colouring, Allura Red AC, the “E” indicating it’s approved in the EC. According to Wikipedia, it’s banned in a number of European countries, and approved for use in food, drink and medicines in the US.

Here’s the ingredients list on the Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce:


Not knowning that this brand was the one recommended by Tony Tan “if you must buy oyster sauce”, I picked this brand for the excellence of the label:


If you chose to completely avoid artificial additives, colourants, etc, you won’t want to eat this stuff. If MSG has a nasty effect on you, as it does on some people, ditto. I certainly don’t have any a box of MSG in the cupboard, but personally I have no difficulty with small infrequent amounts of it. Barbara Fisher of Tigers and Strawberries has a post about it here.

Eventually Wilden gets to the nitty-gritty:

“Let’s cut to the chase. In a country where I can buy jamon made from pigs fed on acorns, real buffalo mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano, carnaroli rice and single-origin coffee, why and I still only dreaming about their premium Asian equivalents?”

“It’s a minefield even for Asians … (says Tony Tan, man of impeccable credentials in respect of both food and personal Asian-ness)… This is a relief to hear, because so far in our tour the usually simple act of identifying the right product has involved so many bizarre clues and riddles I’m starting to feel like Tom Hanks in a Chinese remake of The Da Vinci Code.”

(Updated – as the months have passed the usefulness of twitter has become more obvious for those who lack (or have temporarily misplaced?) “an Asian friend” – there are a huge number of food bloggers and tweeters, particularly in Sydney, who either have Asian heritage or are extremely knowlegeable about Asian food. Twitter operates so often as a gift economy, and I have found people I’ve developed online relationships with really helpful with the round-eye questions – lookin’ at @stickyfingers and @thatjessho here in particular.)

I don’t have a problem with food snobbery, but while here it’s dressed up as a cry for excellence it’s standing on the shoulders of white bourgie entitlement. It sets up European food traditions as normal, and Asian food traditions as deviant. What if it’s more than a case of you say vanilla, and I say pandan?

She does provide some pointers, of course –

“It is possible to find good quality in Asian supermarkets here, You just have to know where – and how – to look.”

That’s putting the cart before the horse. To my mind, what you need to do is buy and taste. When I started learning more about Asian food, I never finished a bottle of soy sauce, fish sauce, any bloody thing without having another ready to go in the cupboard. Not out of some freaky survivalist mentalitity, but out of a desire to educate my palate and learn. If the soy sauce was nearly finished, I opened the new, different bottle. I poured some into little glass saucers and tasted, sniffed, looked. I asked Owy to do the same, and we talked about what we sensed and thought.

The article suggests that you buy fish sauce with “Nhi” on the label, which “means first-pressed and is a designation of high quality. Aha! The extra virgin olive oil of fish sauces.”

Did you know there’s three other methods for working out the good fish sauces? (1) choose a bottle wrapped in plastic. If you peer through the plastic, you’ll see the magic “Nhi” on the label. (2) Choose a bottle that costs more than $3. (3) Ask the shop attendant.

It’s this last one that’s the sticking point, innit? Christ knows I’ve bumbled my way around enough different tiny bloody grocery shops of one flavour or another to know. In general, if you’re keen and polite and have a specific question, people will help you where they can. But they might not know the name of that handsome shiny dark green leaf in English, having never had need to call it by its English name before. It’s nothing to get cut about, or feel your sense of entitlement under threat – in general it’s just a fact of life dealing with a small low profit margin business run by people who work really hard.

(Updated – of course that whole discussion of fish sauce is now moot, a white guy having decided to bring us the best fish sauce available to humanity. Haven’t tried it yet, as I haven’t seen it in any of the places I shop.)

Part of the problem Wilden sees is that we don’t have a “one-stop, upmarket Eastern shop, no Simon Johnson of Asian ingredients“. It’s part of her problem, anyway, because she might live close enough to where it might be profitable to locate that shop. Unless there’s some kind of “trickle down” culinary effect she anticipates, the rest of us are left shopping at whatever little Asian grocery we can find near us. Much better to teach people to taste, to eat, to read and to trust their palates than to tell them to hold fast for announcements from on high.

The article makes me shitty enough to write a response to it a many months later because it’s something I really care about. I want people to love, and understand and cook Asian food at home. I want them to know the excitement of coming home with a bag full of stuff that they don’t understand yet, and coming to understand it. I don’t want people like Wilden to take all the risk, iniative and excitement out of learning about ingredients from an Asian grocery store. It’s not like you’re paying the prices that get asked for acorn-fed jamon, after all.

While it’s a low-cost high-return activity it’s important not to be stingy, as I mentioned in an earlier article about demystifying Asian ingredients – for example, buy the relatively expensive paler dried shiitakes with lovely cracks across the top of the cups instead of the dark, tight brown ones. They cost about four times as much by volume, which is still, frankly, bugger all for what you’re getting.

I spend hugely on food, a lot of it organic, artisan-made, etc, etc – so if I’ve got a problem with this stuff I’m guessing Wilden’s on pretty shaky ground. I think she wants to be, actually, as the article ends:

“And will I get accusations of elitism from some? Of course.”

I don’t have a problem with culinary elitism, but the average journalism and exclusivist underpinnings of the whole article are a killer.

I suppose you can’t criticise an article for not acheiveing something it didn’t set out to do. But what it did set out to do is provide guidance to entitlement-minded foodies who need to be told what to think. There’s as much trickery and marketing guff in Asian food items as there is anywhere else. Look at things carefully – as Tony Tan points out in the article, one golden pagoda Shao Xing wine is great, two golden pagodas is crap. You should investigate and draw your own conclusions.

Emica has a disappointment at Nahm

I mentioned to Zoe that a couple of weekends ago The Man decided it was about time he took me out- gosh! – and we went to Nahm, and she forwarded me a Terry Durack article praising Nahm in a recent piece on Sydney Thai food. Terry’s right about London having few great Thai options, but I am sorry to report that I’m not as convinced as him that Nahm is one of them. For us, it was a 50/50 experience, which, given we had such high expectations, was disappointing.

I was initially surprised that, located in the lobby of a posh hotel, Nahm looks like any restaurant located in the lobby of a posh hotel. I’ve no idea what traditional Thai decor is, although I’m pretty sure the kitschy knick knacks festooning my local Thai up the road aren’t, but the rather hootchy-kootchy bland light gold hotel chic room felt at odds with a cuisine that is so punchy, sweet/ sour, salty/ hot and fragrant. Not exactly something to complain about, but not what I imagined a Michelin starred temple of Thai food would look like.

After a bit of confusion on our part following complicated instructions about how to order from the five separate menu sections to ensure a balanced meal (soups, stir fries, salads etc), we ordered the tasting menu that had one thing from each section. An early disappointment for me was the entree, which was a beautifully presented crispy noodle net with prawn and herb salad. It was nice, and the crispy noodles were very cool, but it didn’t sing with the Thai flavours. It tasted a bit beige.

Apparently the kitchen was saving all the seasoning for just two dishes. The main fault with our meal was two dishes that were so salty we could only manage a couple of mouthfuls of each. There was an eel & pork stir fry and a mallard salad which were Dead Sea salty. It was such a shame because the duck in individual pieces was lovely but the overall effect was overwhelmingly salty and really killed any other flavour. The eel thing was scorched earth on a plate. I got the impression they’d salted it to get a crispy skin, which it had, but went overboard. I don’t know if that’s how they’re meant to taste and I’m just a soft westerner who can’t take a bit of enthusiastic seasoning, but after those two bad boys, the inside of my lips felt like when I’d been swimming too long at the beach – sort of pickled and wrinkled. However, the hot and sour soup with clams could raise the dead! It was poetry in a bowl – no, actually more like old skool motown (y’know- get up, get on up etc). And the grilled kingfish was beautifully marinated.

We had been told that the tasting menu is served in the Thai style, with everything served at the same time. But the tricky bit about that, especially when there are just the two of you, is that everything gets cold while you eat other things, which kinda made me feel rushed to get through each thing before it got stone cold – even the rice ended up cold! I can now see the point of those slightly daggy rice buckets they have in Chinese restaurants. I’m not quite as hung up as my mum on scalding hot food, but I am the kind of girl who always heats my plates, so food that’s the cold side of lukewarm isn’t great.

The desserts were interesting. I just had a plate of exotic tropical fruit, only two I could name but delicious. The Man had something called ‘ash pudding’ which was a rice pudding – yummy salty-sweet in the same way as salted caramel- and a sort of quenelle of black sticky stuff. It really did taste like vaguely aniseed flavoured dirt.

It was a shame we weren’t blown away because we’d been so looking forward to it. The Man and I agreed that, actually, our local Thai outclassed this meal in many ways and at a fraction of the price.

What are your Thai eating experiences? Dr Sista Outlaw, I would be interested to know about your experiences of ‘real’ Thai food versus restaurant Thai.

Julie and Julia and Nigel and Pammy Faye


Oh the joys of going to the cinema – especially when driven by our loyalty to PDP! We thought we were attending a foodlover’s premier of a promising-looking film about cooking and cookbooks. The good reviews of the filmic biography of Julia Child, starring Meryl Streep, sucked us in.

What we ended up experiencing was a special foodies night for a sweetly entertaining flick that was indeed about Mrs Child, the author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but also – its contemporary theme – about food blogging! Co-starring the very perky Amy Adams: Julie and Julia, the film by Nora Ephron pressed more buttons than we had anticipated…

Apparently the Dendy assumes foodies are easily stimulated. It wasn’t a premiere, so what did we get for our extra ten bucks?


There were “free” tiny tipple cocktails (Bernini’d champagne) and on each seat a show bag of three samples including ten sea salted half macadamias, a teaspoon of lime and white pepper gianduja chocolate, half a teaspoon of vanilla salt, some Canberra Centre propaganda, and then three quarters of an hour of slightly naff food and cocktail demos. Naff though it was, it did feature Emmanuel the slowest “cocktail barista” ever to grace the stage, plus a non-committal but cliché-ridden master-sommelier-in-training. Nevertheless they did treat us to a very yummy soup-son the size of a twenty cent piece made from the vanilla salt cured salmon on a bed of mascapone cheese with horseradish. Soup-son? All the sophisticated French words were anglicized or malapropped by the Executive Chef, Neil Abrahams (vinegar-ette, acicity) throughout the event.


The film starts with a lot of 1940s car sex. We were transfixed by the art director’s perfect reconstruction of late 1940s Paris, as the bored but larger-than-life (and seemingly always inebriated) Julia Child squeezed her way through narrow streets in a monstrous Buick Woody Wagon, and through classic French street markets with her engaging and endlessly diplomatic husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci). Then we were fast-forwarded to a flat in Queens in 2002, to meet an equally bored 29-year-old Julie Powell, a frustrated would-be novelist stuck in a dead-end job taking sympathy calls post 9/11. While she’s much sharper than her yuppy friends, she doesn’t know what to do with her itchy mind.

The one thing they both love is food. Julie remembers her mother’s first Julia Child boeuf bourguignon, while Julia overcomes the barriers of gender and gaucherie to become a Cordon Bleu chef. The French, she discovers, “eat French food everyday: Heaven!” As we follow Julia passionately demystifying French recipes, we watch Julie discovering her own foodie passions via a self-imposed blog challenge (“I could write a blog. I have thoughts!”). She sets out to blog her way through every recipe in Julia’s book in a year, 536 recipes in 365 days. Time and space are nicely compressed as Julie becomes Julia. Almost.

Between postings in Paris and Marseilles, then somewhere in Germany, and then somewhere in Norway, and ultimately back “home” in the USA, there were lots of “yum” food pix and sequences. Julia discovered a correspondence between “hot cock” and cannelloni, while Julia (stuck in Queens) discovered that the poached egg was “like melted cheese”. Hmmm. Both husbands survived the “you can’t have too much butter” mantra.

But it was cute. Julie found the courage to boil live lobsters; discovered she had fans who actually read her daily purge; finally mastered the art of deboning a chook; saved her marriage from her own obsessive egotism; got an interview in the NYT and subsequently got flooded with publishing offers. All of this inspired by the spirit of Julia. Apart from a slightly sooky offering-in-homage of a half-pound of butter in a Julia Childs memorial in the Smithsonian at the end of the film, this is a delightful tale of food and love and blogging. A combination made in heaven.

You know you’ve been watching too much Master Chef when…

You get home from work and start rushing to get the dinner on and you suddenly imagine George Columbaris at your elbow. “How are you going there? You’ve got TWENTY MORE MINUTES! Those SPUDS SHOULD BE PEELED by now!!!”

You find yourself thinking “Which Masterchef contestant would I be?” (Just because I identify with her in some ways, her cooking choices are not like mine at all. “Aussie”? “Baked dinner”? erp!)

You say “You eediot! Not that way!” at the TV.

Your twelve-year-old starts insisting on helping with the dinner (Can I say W00t!), and comes out with stuff like, “The onions are caramelising nicely while the sausage has taken on a whole new dimension of flavour.”

You yell “Booooo!” whenever Hat Man Chris “Boris” Badenough appears

You’re watching a cookie-cutter Fremantle Media reality show with a cast of characters who are holed up in a house and one is voted off each week, crying and the word “journey” mandatory – in other words, a massive yawning cliche – and although you’re feeling a bit dirty, you can’t look away.

Who else has been watching Masterchef? What are your impressions? Triumphs, disasters, heroes, villains? Has it changed any kitchen routines in your household? Anyone suddenly taken to wearing cravats?