Sydney’s best foodie experience

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Getting fishy with it at the Sydney Seafood School

Yes it’s a big claim but I’m calling it.

To me a great foodie experience needs to be engaging, immersive, authentic, and above all, tasty.

There’s one experience that ticks all the boxes in my book and that’s a class at the Sydney Seafood School. I’ve now racked up about five or six classes over the years, so consider myself somewhat of a veteran.

Anyone who has spent some time in Sydney will be familiar with the Sydney Fish Market but the Sydney Seafood School takes the experience one step further

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Our expert seafood instructor

A stroll through the fish market and past the silent auction halls will most certainly put you in a fishy mood as you enter the school and take a seat in the cosy theatrette. In front of you is a demonstration kitchen that puts Masterchef to shame, with cameras capturing the action from every angle on overhead screens. The walls around you are covered in ‘leather’ wallpaper, made from dried Icelandic salmon skins. The designers really took the brief to heart.

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Raised screens capture all the action

Either a well versed home economist or high profile local chef will demonstrate 3-4 recipes which all use supremely fresh seafood, straight from the market floor. Classes cover everything from tapas and paella to how to barbeque seafood.

I most recently experienced the crab double act: Singapore Chilli Crab & Black Pepper Crab, over a three hour class. The heady mix of salty, sweet and hot flavours in these two dishes works beautifully with fresh green blue swimmer crabs.

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Fresh green blue swimmer crabs straight from the market floor

Everyone working at the markets is an expert on seafood so you always get the backstory on the ingredients being used. In this case we learn how to prepare various crabs (who knew crabs had a flap?) and the distinction between varieties and their provenance. Each dish is broken down into steps and we watch the process intently from start to finish.

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Our studious kitchen team

Then it’s time to step next door and put the lesson into practice. We form groups of 4-6 and congregate around our own free standing kitchen. Each person is armed with a recipe booklet and allocated a task so the prep moves at lightning speed. I don’t often cook with crustaceans so I get a thrill from cleaning and segmenting them, knowing I won’t have to clean up the mess. It’s fiddly business. Read More

The Sydney restaurant that lets diners choose the price

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Lentil as Anything in Sydney’s Newtown

It’s extremely hard to make money in the restaurant business. Often the most creative and technically brilliant chefs are not adept businesspeople. Being the hottest new chef with a swag of awards doesn’t help either. A full restaurant does not equal a profitable restaurant.

My point is that pricing in restaurants is crucial – it has to strike a balance between covering costs and not scaring customers away with a $25 starter of bread and olives.

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Lentil as Anything has a pared back, student vibe

If pricing can make or break a restaurant then what happens when a restaurant comes along with no prices? Enter Lentil as Anything, a pay-what-you-can-afford, not for profit vegan restaurant that leaves the maths up to the customer. The restaurant is built on the idea that “everyone deserves a place at the table” and wants to offer everyone a positive dining experience, regardless of their financial state.

It’s a concept that made waves when it opened in Melbourne originally and then Sydney’s Newtown and begs the question – what do people do when paying is off the hook?

What would I do?

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The succinct menu for the evening

On the Wednesday night I visit with friends Ving and Bel, the place is packed. And everyone appears to be south of 25 in student-style attire. We ­could be in a uni canteen.

There are four mains on the menu, plus chai tea and one dessert.

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The restaurant’s philosophy and their tasty chai tea

We start with a small glass of chai which has much more depth and flavour than the sort of chai you usually get in cafes these days. It appears not to be made from powder which is an automatic win in my book.

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Spicy roast cauliflower, pepita and spinach salad

The mains on offer for the evening are: Moroccan tagine with black eyed bean couscous; creamy cashew and mushroom spaghetti with garlic bread; spicy roast cauliflower, pepita and spinach salad and ratatouille with rice and garlic bread.

Once a dish sells out, that’s it, so getting in early is advisable. Read More

Behind the scenes at a Eurovision party

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My Eurovision survival kit

I have a thing for Eurovision parties.

Is it because of my European background? The fact that I embrace sequins and big hair? Was I over exposed to a wind machine at an early age?

I’ve never quite worked it out. But at some point it became a thing for me and I’ve subsequently felt compelled to throw a party in honour of this landmark event ever since.

And while everyone else is focused on the singing (or lack thereof), I’ve always been firmly focused on the food.

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My handmade flags are ready to go

This year I approached things a little differently. Each of my guests was allocated a country and instructed to bring food or drink from that country. I put a lot of thought into the allocation – giving friends a country where we’d travelled together if possible. That’s how I ended up with a dining table practically groaning under the weight of the collective culinary output of the EU.

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Gluhwein is my go-to Eurovision beverage

As host I decided I would represent Austria (the host of this year’s Eurovision) and Australia.

First up was a heady pot of glühwein, perfect to counter the early winter chill in the air. I cooked the wine for hours with cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves and slices of fresh orange. Intoxicating.

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Mum’s carefully arranged Wiener schnitzel

I couldn’t ignore the national dish of Austria so Wiener schnitzel was always going to be on the menu.

That’s where mum stepped in with one of her pearls of wisdom (I must add it to the list).

Thou shall not fry meat right before thou has guests arriving!

No one likes to enter a room filled with the lingering scent of fried meat but nor does anyone enjoy a stale schnitzel. There was only one thing for it mum declared, she would have to cook it herself and then drop it over right before my party. Bless you mum.

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Classic Aussie party pies

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Prawn and avocado shots

Representing the Aussie contingent were mini meat pies (a party just ain’t a party without party pies) and mini prawn cocktails. I filled shot glasses with shredded lettuce, avocado, dill, added a dollop of mayo and wedged a fresh prawn on top.

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My four-tiered tower of Aussie sweets

Representing the other end of the spectrum was my four-tiered homage to our sweet history, made with lamingtons, Iced VoVo’s, Tim Tams, Anzac biscuits and Caramelo Koalas. By the way, has anyone else noticed how flat the topping on Iced VoVo’s has become?

I also snuck in some of this new fandangled Vegemite chocolate – a salty-sweet concoction that polarised my guests. I don’t like Vegemite but I liked this chocolate – strange, no? Read More

Cocktail Shenanigans

A first class daiquiri from El Floridita, Havana

My last post was all about drinking food which segues nicely into the topic of drinking itself.

I adore cocktails. Literally love ‘em. It was quite convenient when I worked for a hospitality company that owned a dozen cocktail bars because drinking was technically work. Now it falls squarely back into the self-funded leisure category but that hasn’t dampened my spirits in the slightest.

It’s impossible to highlight all my cocktail shenanigans because there have been so very many. Plus I’m not always in a lucid enough state to remember them all. Thank god for iphones.

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The bar at El Floridita in Havana

Possibly my greatest cocktail memory ever happened in Havana two years ago. After a painful 35 hour journey involving three stop overs and very little sleep, I arrived in Havana on a Saturday evening. En route to my hotel I spotted ‘El Floridita’ out of the corner of my eye and knew instantly my impending plans to sleep would be shafted.

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Abel works his magic

”My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita”

noted the famous alcoholic, I mean author, Ernest Hemingway and who was I to argue? My new friend Lena and I got comfy at the bar and ended up spending hours there. The daiquiris were sensational – did I mention this is where they were invented?

The signature Floridita Daiquiri blends crushed ice, sugar, rum, lime and maraschino liqueur and the result is an intense frothy delight. They’re served with a bottomless plate of highly addictive plantain chips which create the perfect ballast to support all that rum. Read More

The day McDonald’s went hipster

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The Corner café entrance

There’s nothing new about the McCafé.

But a McDonald’s hipster café serving quinoa, single origin coffee and serving it on chopping boards? That’s pretty ground breaking for this fast food giant.

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The service area is sleek with bright yellow touches

It’s no secret that the traditional McDonald’s format has been losing fans over the years. No matter how many salads and yoghurt cups they introduce, it’s hard to see beyond two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.

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The extensive sweet selection

They had to do something drastic. And it seems that move was to turn a former McCafé in Sydney’s inner city suburb of Camperdown into a ‘learning lab’ – a testing ground for new dishes and service styles.

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I’m not a Macca’s customer (unless it’s 3am, I’m hungry and it’s the only viable option) but this concept instantly piqued my interest. Plus I love the fact they chose Sydney to trial it, no doubt because we punch well above our weight in the hipster stakes.

A Sunday night recce was the perfect opportunity to scope it out; just me, my trusty friend Marty and a handful of harried nurses from the adjacent RPA Hospital.

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I’ll bet everyone recognises that tiling….

The McDonald’s branding is so slight that if you blink, you’ll miss it. There’s just a small McCafé logo under the main entry sign and a few references in the menus. Although I think most people would recognise the distinctive light brown tiles in the kitchen (didn’t everyone take a tour of the kitchen during a McDonald’s children’s birthday party at some stage?).

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Doggys are people too

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The outdoor herb garden

At first glance all the hipster café signs are there; doggy parking, an outdoor herb garden and plenty of ‘super foods’ like quinoa and kale. Read More

Fishy business

Everyone loves fish in my family, even Macey

Everyone loves fish in my family, especially Macey

If ever there was an ingredient I was born to embrace, it’s fish.

One of my grandfathers was a seafood chef. The other had a fish shop at Wynyard. I learnt how to catch, gut and cook a fish before I could do anything else useful with food. And tuna salad is my default lunch.

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Scaling and gutting a leather jacket

Okay maybe that last one doesn’t count, but in essence I eat more than my share of fish and love it in any shape or form, raw or cooked, from head to tail. Especially the tail. Not to mention the skin, cheeks and eyes. Yes eyes! That’s what my dad taught me and his dad taught him so I never raised an eyebrow : )

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Fresh fish on the barbeque with a few snags for good luck

I went fishing recently and am glad to see I can still reel ‘em in. The only way (in my family at least) to cook freshly caught fish is on the barbeque with oil, lemon and occasionally garlic. The oil and lemon form an unctuous sauce which is heaven against the crispy fish skin.

But there’s so much more you can do with fish and it’s one of my favourite things to experience when I travel (provided there is a body of water not too far away – I generally stay away from seafood in landlocked countries).

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Smoked salmon, any way you like it

Given the vast seas around them, it’s no surprise that the Scandinavians know a thing or two about fish. I almost wept at the sight of beautiful displays of salmon in Helsinki, radiating a signature peachy-orange glow. Read More

A year of heart stopping coffee moments

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A perfect Leipzig coffee

A day doesn’t pass when a cup of the good stuff doesn’t pass my lips. Not because I’m addicted or because it gives me an energy boost (although I’m not denying either of those points).

Rather my daily coffee is a ritual. The where, how and who are just as important as the what. What use is great coffee in a soulless room with a lone grumpy staffer playing bad music? Only the whole coffee package will percolate through my memory long after the event.

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Steffen and his portable Lieblingskaffee

I had my first heart stopping coffee moment in the east German city of Leipzig. My friends Marc and Kathleen took me to Lene Voigt Park, a stunning expanse of green which seemed strangely elongated until I discovered it’s on the site of old train tracks. Here they introduced me Steffen who runs Lieblingskaffee, literally meaning ‘favourite coffee’.

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Steffen takes his time making each filter coffee

Steffen cycles his café into the park daily and sets up camp. Everything he needs is cleverly packed away and unfolded when needed. Ikea would have a field day with this design. Steffen takes his time with each coffee – carefully filtering it to deliver a smooth and sprightly cup.

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Hanging out in Lene Voigt Park

The coffee was tasty. But the moment was heaven. A roaring sun, Marc strumming away on his guitar, locals stopping by to say hi. If you’re ever in Leipzig, you must track down Steffen and this idyllic park.

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Classic Irish coffee – just don’t ask for the recipe

In Ireland, if you mention ‘the good stuff’ they inevitably think you want a pint of Guinness. Thankfully Irish coffee is as ubiquitous as stout, unfortunately the recipe is almost as carefully guarded. Neven and I couldn’t find a single bartender who would reveal the recipe and they purposely made it out of eye’s sight, dammit.

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Can you tell which one is the Irish coffee?

A quick google revealed it was as simple as hot coffee, Irish whiskey and sugar, topped with an almost impermeable layer of thick cream. After a chilly day exploring the Connemara district, nothing is more welcoming than a warm pub, cosy fire and large glass of this delicious concoction.

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Getting some perspective at Monmouth Coffee

And now over to London’s Monmouth Coffee. Big deal I hear you saying. Monmouth Coffee tops every ‘best coffee’ list in London so it’s hardly an unsung hero or undiscovered gem. But by god is it marvellous. The coffee itself is of course sublime – a good body, distinct caramel notes and organic Jersey whole milk make the best latte of your life. But it tastes all the more special when you’re perched precariously on a wooden stool that took twenty minute of shameless hovering to secure, looking down at the mayhem of Borough Market. Then turn you gaze turns upwards to the arresting figure of the Shard. Now that’s a money-can’t-buy view.

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In Sweden I become a fika fiend

Accoutrements are important for any coffee experience. And in Sweden that means kanelbulle or cinnamon buns. I’ve exposed my weakness for these babies before but it’s not just me – all Swedes are engineered to consume coffee and kanelbulle on a daily basis in the name of fika. The coffee in question was in the old town of Stockholm, Gamla Stan, with my local friend Claire. It was Claire who insisted I try the chokladbollar or chocolate ball (”Only if I can still order a cinnamon bun” was my response), beloved of children all over Sweden.

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Proper iced coffee

It wouldn’t be a true list without some Sydney representation. My favourite coffee moment of late was an iced coffee on a hot day with Cheryl in Cremorne. I’m always nervous about ordering an iced coffee. Cappuccinos, lattes and macchiatos are (almost) universally recognised and generally resemble your expectations. But you’re playing with fire (or ice?) when you order an iced coffee – it’s open to interpretation. So Bread & Butter’s cold drop coffee with icy milk and a dusting of cinnamon really hit the spot. I think the drink-in-jar moment may have passed though (you know the zeitgeist has moved on once it’s on the shelves of Kmart).

And to finish, here is my all time favourite coffee moment of the past year:

“One iced coffee please˝ I asked my waiter politely while enjoying the afternoon sun with friends in downtown Mallorca.

And this is what was served.

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Iced coffee – just like I ordered

Technically he delivered what I ordered. But now you see why I get nervous ordering iced coffee!