Vegemite grilled cheese (no, really), kangaroo with quandong and whisky truffles (Image: Renée Suen)
Today is Australia Day, which celebrates the establishment of the first European colony in New South Wales in 1778 (also:
Vegemite dingoes, babies, and Crocodile Dundee). Here in Toronto, three Ontario chefs— Matt Kantor (Secret Pickle Supper Club and Ghost Chef), John Placko (culinary director of Maple Leaf Foods) and Kingston wunderkind Luke Hayes-Alexander (Luke’s Gastronomy)–banded together to host three nights celebrating Australian cuisine, complete with Australian wines, beer and whisky pairings at the Cookbook Store’s kitchen studio, the site of last year’s dinner. El Bulli Imitació
This time round, Kantor took a back seat this time to
(an Australian native) and Alexander-Hayes, who recently staged at some of the best restaurants in Sydney. With nothing but a Placko (and some social media promotion) to tease ticket-buyer appetites, most of the evening’s attendees came with open minds and empty stomachs. Catering to 12 guests per evening, the trio sent out 15 courses that began with familiar indigenous ingredients used in unfamiliar ways before ebbing into unfamiliar territory—everything from quandong to wattleseed—and finishing off with a glorious Tim Tam Slam. No idea what we’re talking about? cheeky website Check out the slideshow »
Cookbook Store manager Alison Fryer
Guests Anthony and Mary Ito share a “slam” moment
The Tim Tam Slam is the practice of drinking a hot beverage, like coffee, through a Tim Tam biscuit (like a straw) with opposite corners nibbled off. The result is a softened biscuit with a warm, creamy chocolate centre.
The Tim Tam, a.k.a. “Australia’s favourite cookie.” This was the key to the evening closer: the popular “Tim Tam Slam.”
John Placko “poaching” the wattleseed whipped cream balls in liquid nitrogen.
Liquid nitrogen–poached wattleseed. Essentially a flash frozen ball of whipped cream studded with nutty wattleseeds. Diners were instructed to eat the two-bite frozen treat as soon as it was served for a crisp meringue exterior and soft ice cream interior.
The “testosterone” cologne that Hayes-Alexander created. Each diner received a mini-bottle of the manly essence in their take-away gift tins, which also included a package of Australian Tim Tams, Bush Dreams Pepperberry Rub and handmade sweets (fennel lollies and mandarin wafers).
“Testosterone”: a whisky cream–filled croquette, musk meringue, “long black” toffee (that’s how one orders espresso in Sydney) and vanilla pipe tobacco ice cream. This was served alongside a wooden pipe filled with a scent Hayes-Alexander created to complement the dessert.
Boozy whisky truffle, stabbed though with a nail
Dessert prep: some of the ingredients that were used in the cheese and dessert courses by Placko including dehydrated grapes, meringue, passion fruit pop rocks and gold. (The crisp micro-sponges were used in the soup course.)
Pavlova, a meringue-based dessert that’s a part of the national cuisines of both Australia and New Zealand, was created in honour of the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova in the 1920s. This was a crowd favourite and featured passion fruit in different textures: passion fruit curd was topped with passion fruit ice cream and a poached meringue before being surrounded by shards of airy and thin baked meringue. The dessert was something of a palate cleanser, with tart passion fruit pulp, raspberry niblets (fruit separated by liquid nitrogen), passion fruit “pop rocks” and gold. Placko’s reason for including the latter: “because we can.”
The cheese course consisted of Roaring Forties strong blue cheese (made by King Island Dairy, which is located south of Melbourne), dehydrated grapes (i.e. homemade raisins on the vine), compressed apples and walnut bread crisps.
A deconstructed take on the previous course, featuring braised beef cheek over a light pool of pastry sauce and a smear of thick, sweet roasted onion purée. Other items dressing the busy plate included roasted onion wedges, roasted onion tuiles, pickled mustard, red chilies, garlic, white wine jellies, tiny, cookie-like brown butter maltodextrin balls, chives and a generous pinch of Bush Dreams seasoning salt.
This the first snack Hayes-Alexander had when he landed in Sydney—a ball of pastry wrapped around braised shoulder of beef with shallots and served in a brown paper bag.
A trio of lean and mildly gamey rare kangaroo loins that were cooked to 60 degrees with caramelized onion micro-sponge, tamarillo fruit purée, black garlic purée and quandong chutney made with onion, mustard powder and quandong cooking syrup.
Kangaroo meat is high in protein and low in fat. Quandong, below, is a type of wild peach with a big nut and a leathery skin that grows on small desert trees. The fruit is tart, but highly nutritious (twice the vitamin C of an orange) and is an important part of the aboriginal diet.
Wattleseeds are the edible seeds from 120 species of Australian Acacia eaten by Australian Aborigines either directly or made into a type of bush bread. Their flavour straddles chocolate, coffee and hazelnuts.
“Blinman”: White stripe lamb, beets (two ways), lemon myrtle, brown butter and wattleseed. This dish was based on Hayes-Alexander’s experience in Blinman—a deserted mining town 25 almost 2,000 kilometres from Sydney, Australia—where the young chef was the first Canadian invited to attend and judge the legendary Blinman Camp Oven Cook-Off. Here, a thick wattleseed-studded shell surrounds loose braised lamb.
Micro-sponges: sort of like sponge cake, but softer, springier and not sweet. These were baked to top the pumpkin soup course and also served moist and soft with the kangaroo course.
Pumpkin soup with goat cheese and ginger. Butternut squash is also known as “pumpkin” in Australia and is ubiquitous in soup form on grocery store shelves. Placko served a modernist version with a warm goat cheese sphere and crisp micro-sponges that were flavoured with pumpkin and ginger.
Barramundi brandade with an olive vinaigrette (lemon, olive oil, chives and parsley)
Coopers Brewery Sparkling Ale. A refreshing English pale ale that went very well with the first flight of starters.
Yellowtail crudo with coffee, lemon and beer. Yellowtail is a popular fish in Australia. Here, silky and aromatic fillets of sashimi-grade yellowtail were drizzled with coffee oil (Kantor tells us the coffee was roasted by a Torontonian from Australia) and lemon juice before being dusted with Murray River pink salt. The crudo was sided with an emulsion of Coopers Brewery sparkling ale and some baguette.
Oysters Kilpatrick: a classic way to serve oysters in Australia. The Malpeque oysters were topped with chopped cooked bacon, a bit of butter and Worchestershire sauce before being baked in the oven for five minutes.
Two well-known savoury ingredients shipped in for the Australia-themed event: Vegemite and Murray River pink salt
Vegemite grilled cheese sandwich: buttered bread sandwiched with cheese and a thin layer of Vegemite paste. Similar to beef boullion, the brewers’ yeast extract is salty, slightly bitter and incredibly malty; in the grilled cheese it adds a layer of umami flavour that is savoury and strangely addictive.
A beet and Granny Smith hot and cold martini, a little riff off of the hot-frozen gin fizz from Kantor’s El Bulli Imitació dinner. Kantor was keen to note that both beets and Granny Smith apples are native to Australia.
A preview of the last course. Most of the guests weren’t sure what to expect, although they did recognize a few of the table’s items including the Australian flag, a giant bucket of Vegemite and a didgeridoo. The playlist featured Australian artists and a little didgeridoo.
The menu and handouts about the evening’s special courses provided to each of the guests
A sous-vide setup was kind of given, as modern techniques are common in the kitchens of all three chefs.
John Placko leading the Toronto Down Under team in a discussion about the evening’s agenda. From left to right: Matt Kantor, Sarah Placko, Michelle Rabin, Luke Hayes-Alexander and John Placko
Matt Kantor (Little Kitchen, Secret Pickle Supper Club, Ghost Chef), John Placko (culinary director of Maple Leaf Foods) and Luke Hayes-Alexander (Luke’s Gastronomy, Kingston) get ready for the meal