There are many different ways to learn to cook.
For many people those first steps to the stoves came at the side of a parent or grandparent, going from licking the bowl to stirring the pot. You learn the family classics, hard worn recipes handed down over generations, each person adding something extra to it.
Some people don’t have that family tradition of cooking to learn from. Instead they find other teachers. From Julia, Elizabeth and Delia to Jamie, Nigella and Stephanie, these are the people who write books and make television, showing the basic skills to thousands of people. They are patient teachers, if not always forthcoming on the feedback.
Personally, I had a little of both, but more often than not I just tried things and hope they worked out. I tried to remember flavours I’d eaten before and what they went with. Coupled with some reading up on basic techniques, you can pick up a surprising amount. Then you just need to play in the kitchen and practice.
But as much fun as it is to work things out yourself, sometimes you just want to learn from an expert.
We don’t get many opportunities to be in a room with great chefs. Even when eating at their restaurants there is usually a wall between you, with you at the table and them a mysterious force in the kitchen. It’s rare to hear them talk about what they do, to get that insight into their minds.
This is what makes events like the Langham MasterClass at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival so exciting. Every year some of the leaders of the food world, both local and international, come together to talk about and demonstrate what they think, what they do, and why they do it. And we get to hear it. Sure, we have to pay, and we sit in a room with dozens of others, but it’s something.
I get to watch as Magnus Nilsson, the wunderkind from Faviken, a 12 seater temple to local Swedish ingredients, chooses a few vegetables to throw straight on to burning coals. Eggplant, carrot, beetroot. They blacken as he plates up another never before created dish of cheese, cucumber and fresh Riesling grapes. That dish done, he slices the blackened vegetables, and lays them on a plate with some cream whipped with beer and lemon. And all the while, he talks.
Alone of the chefs at MasterClass, Magnus didn’t bring specific recipes with him. As part of a global movement that believes food should reflect the time and place it is made, it would make no sense to recreate dishes of the Scandinavian hinterland. Instead, he finds local ingredients and applies the same ideas to them. So instead of trying to recreate a dish of Norwegian langoustine, he uses marron, spears it with tea tree and grills it with some lemon juice, then serves it with “burnt cream”. That cream was a concept the entire room wanted to try at home.
Sadly, we didn’t get to taste most of these dishes. Instead we had to be nourished on the ideas and the words we were hearing. The one dish we did get to eat, a porridge of 9 local grains served with finger lime segments and a Vegemite-seasoned broth, was balanced and hearty, and served almost as a garnish to the presentation.
Magnus had a very laid back way of running his session, seeming changing his plans as he spoke to us in a very free-flowing way. The other international chef I saw, Sean Brock from the wonderful Husk in South Carolina, had a different approach.
Sean also believes in local ingredients, but he is a little more evangelical about his intentions. With his sleeve of vegetable tattoos and his well loved “Make Cornbread Not War” truckers cap, he is one of the world’s leading advocates of Southern US cuisine. Growing up in a small town in the Appalachians he is a champion of the hunting and farming of the region. Catfish and corn, pork and Carolina rice, these are the hallmarks of his food.
I have been lucky enough to eat at Husk, and I raved about the grits served there, so I was sad to hear that the brilliant Anson Mills grits were held up by customs. Even if the coarse polenta made a worthy replacement in the rich, buttery mouthful of shrimp’n’grits with crispy pigs ear that we tried, it would have been great to get the real thing. This was the dish he used to explain South Carolina, to demonstrate the revival of Southern food that he is trying to accomplish. It took a classic comfort food and made it something for everyone to get excited about.
He spoke of his childhood out hunting, and of his grandma warning him of the dangers of a pressure cooker. He talked about the history of the region, the melting pot of cultures that added to it. He showed us a film of him foraging around Charleston. Everything he said, everything he did demonstrated his absolute love of his home. And it was infectious (not to mention delicious).
Matthew Evans’s love for his home down in Tasmania was just as apparent, even if he shows it off with simpler food. The dishes prepared by the Gourmet Farmer were much more home cooking than those of the other chefs. Fish pie, and rhubarb and strawberry crumble aren’t the most exotic plates of food in the world, but when done well they can be incredibly pleasing. I probably didn’t get as many new ideas from his presentation, but it continued to remind how important it is to take inspiration from what is around you.
The other session I attended was about wine and cheese pairings, and it taught me to just try things. The phenomenal cheeses chosen by Will Studd, in particular an extra aged Soumaintrain from Burgandy, and a mystery blue from Oregon that I am not permitted to talk about, were paired with some impressive natural wines chosen by Innocent Bystander winemaker Steve Flamsteed. They didn’t all work together, but it didn’t really matter. If a cheese didn’t work with the wine it was matched with, you just tried it with another. Or, if that didn’t work, you just kept enjoying the amazing cheese.
At the end of the day, despite how fascinating the whole event was, there is a limit to how much you can learn in this sort of format. Yes, I came away with a desire knock up some cornbread, and a few new ideas of things to do with cream, but it’s not really about picking up new techniques. What this sort of day does is reinforce just how much passion comes in to cooking at its highest. How love for ingredients, for tradition, for ideas and techniques and people are so important in taking food to that next level.
I know it sounds like a trite, cliche thing to say. But when you watch and listen these people, feel their enthusiasm about what they’re doing, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.
That’s what I learnt.