Where a Top Chef Dreams of Eating

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Jun 27, 2018

by JESSICA IRVINE, Associate Editor

The chef and founder of the Milk Bar bakeries is famous for her Crack Pie and Cereal Milk soft serve. A sense of imagination also defines three of the most memorable meals she’s sat down to.

One of my favourite meals was in Sydney.

I had just landed and crawled up to the bar at Momofuku Seiōbo. They were playing great reggae music and the setting was a little punk rock. I’ve known Paul Carmichael for more than a decade – we were cooks together at [now closed] WD~50 in New York, overworked and on minimum wage. He’s from Barbados and has such a strong Caribbean flair and here I was watching him translate that spirit into all of the bounty Australia has to offer.

He made this gorgeous crab stew served with cassava gnocchi. Let’s be real – usually you would never expect to find cassava in a fine-dining restaurant because that’s a peasant approach but it couldn’t have soaked up more crab stew if it tried. There was also a kingfish collar with a cream, chilli, lime and tamarind curry sauce served with little triangles of roti. I adore the technical skill of roti – buttery, rich, crisp and doughy – and using that to fork some of the kingfish collar… Well, it was messy in all the ways that give you permission to let go. I thought, “I’m having a food moment,” and drowned myself in it.

I fell in love with food in the aisle of the grocery store and the kitchen of my grandma’s home.

I studied for decades under great chefs but I know, for me, it’s about breathing new life into an ingredient that people look at every day. Having the shiniest shoes or the coolest new whatever won’t impress me; what will is how your imagination works and how you translate it in a way that’s going to speak to people.

A year ago, I took a magical little ride around one chef’s imagination.

Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant outside New York City has stayed with me. He has reinvigorated the old Rockefeller estate [in Pocantico Hills] and the beautiful thing about him is that he is obsessed with the land and the produce. The restaurant’s pastry team has to show up early so they can go out and pick strawberries themselves. Dan demands that closeness to the food.

The most exciting time at the restaurant is summer, when great produce is coming out. But I went in spring, when there were root vegetables. It was an awkward time but also the best way to judge what they were able to do. We were taken to an old shed where composting was happening, to try potatoes that had been cooked in the heat of the compost with leeks and olive oil-infused oats. It’s their celebration of simplicity – the humility of the food they’re using and the way they think, “How can I take this humble radish and do something extraordinary with it?” – that is most impressive and so different from what many others are doing.

Sometimes the simple places are also great.

My husband and I love going to Swensons Drive In in Ohio. It’s one of the last remaining old-school drive-throughs; the staff wear white polo shirts and white shorts and sprint to your car to take your order. They have this incredible burger, the Galley Boy – it has two beef patties, a layer each of barbecue sauce and tartare sauce, two layers of cheese and a little stuffed olive through a toothpick on top – and the most delicious, tart blueberry shakes. That, for me, is Americana. You don’t have to dress up to be there and I like that democratic approach. We go once or twice a year, when we’re visiting family. It’s destination dining for us: special, beautiful and so satisfying. 

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