Sunday morning. A full day of eating and drinking (went to a birthday party after the World Chef Showcase) left me physically bloated but mentally hungry for more.
I arrived a bit late for the morning session, Neil Perry from Rockpool and other restaurants in the country was already showing a video of the dry aging process of the beef he sells. There was a fire on stage that looked promising. Neil talked about sustainability, about knowing where your food comes from (hint: you can’t do that by buying mass-produced meat at a supermarket), and the importance of eating a balanced diet. He cooked rib-eye steaks on the bone on the grill. The smell was hypnotizing.
Dry aged beef is dense and intense, with a complexity of flavour that comes from fermentation. Its texture is chewy, tender and flavourful at the same time, and it cooks quicker because it has less moisture.
While the steaks cooked Neil started working on the tasting plate. He made hand-pounded pesto, for which he suggests never to toast the pine nuts to avoid their flavour to dominate the basil’s. He also said using a mortar and pestle as opposed as a food processor doesn’t burn the basil and lets it release its essential oils. The pesto was served with grilled baby octopus, salad leaves, cherry tomatoes and olives. I founded the dish a bit too salty but the pesto was brilliant.
Wood-fire grilled baby octopus with olives and hand-pounded pesto
Neil chopped the steaks on stage and passed them to the public. Even when it wasn’t a big enough piece to fully appreciate, it was indeed tasty.
During morning tea we were offered the same morsels and drinks as the previous day. I made my way to the book signing area to get my copy of Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton signed. Matt Moran and Neil Perry were signing books too, too bad I’m not a big fan of cookbooks.
Matt Moran signing books
Neil Perry signing books
Next on stage was Francis Mallmann, for me a well-known Argentinian chef because of his TV show in elgourmet.com, which was not surprisingly my favourite cable channel back home. He’s all about cooking in nature, particularly in Patagonia, a cold Southern region in his country. Even when he looks like a mad scientist with his red-rimmed glasses, unstyled gray hair around his bald head and white chef’s coat, he is against “modern” cooking techniques (foams, etc). Mallmann hates marinades and thinks meat, salt and fire is everything you need for a perfect meal. I’ve heard him a million times but couldn’t help to agree, once again, with his thoughts about cooking: “cooking is a mix of tenderness and brutality”, “cooking is not an art, it’s a craft that you learn by doing hundreds and thousands of times”, “cooking is a silent language”.
Mallmann is all about rustic food. His first dish was potato dominoes, square potato slices arranged domino-style, bathed in butter and roasted in the oven. They went around for people to see, touch and taste. Then he cooked a whole roasted pumpkin (in the oven but he normally uses ashes) with goat’s cheese, mint and rocket. He wasn’t shy on using his hands to break and mix the ingredients. The pumpkin was passed around for a taste, too, what it lacked in presentation it had in flavour. He also prepared a dessert with orange slices stabbed with rosemary, heavily sprinkled with sugar and burnt (sugar side down), served with cream.
Oranges with rosemary, before burning them
His main dish was a boneless rib eye with chimichurri. He cooked one on stage but not to his liking (low temp & slow) because of time restrictions. The steaks we were served were perfectly cooked, tender, extremely flavourful, and simple. I’d have liked a bit more of chimichurri, but maybe it’s just me. Mallmann ranted a bit about how chimichurri was overdone without respecting its basic structure (hopefully that won’t happen in Sydney now that Argentinian food is becoming popular).
Rib eye with chimichurri
During the morning we also had author Diana Kennedy talking about food in Mexico, the country where she has lived most of her life.
We had just had two amazing tastings with the masters of cooking on fire, our bodies and clothes were smelling like BBQ, and it was lunch time. Lucky us! The buffet was similar to the one the day before, with slight changes. Salads were changed from Caesar and pumpkin to pasta and Waldorf. The main protein dish was not chorizo anymore, but lamb chops and Cajun-spiced salmon. The chops were the highlight of the day, the salmon could have used a bit more seasoning and a little less cooking.
I had lunch as fast as I could (without choking) and went to line up for Gastón Acurio‘s appearance. There were already a bunch of people queuing, including a party of VIPs who got one of the tables closest to the stage. I hadn’t seen so many Peruvians together in Sydney since the elections. Diego Muñoz (Bilson’s) and Diego Alcántara, the chef’s helpers for the day, entered the room first. As soon as Gastón arrived, people started getting photos taken with him. It may seem ridiculous but most Peruvians have a huge respect for him because of everything he’s done for our cuisine; he’s more a hero than a celebrity.
Gastón started with a video with images of my country’s culture, from music to food, from street vendors to fine dining restaurants, while he talked about the pillars of current Peruvian cuisine: biodiversity, cultural diversity, social commitment, and sustainability. He explained how food became the thing that allowed social classes to come together, and how now we’re the country with more cooking students in South America.
Then the magic started. Gastón’s first dish was a cebiche del amor (love cebiche), with fish, oysters, sea urchin, prawns, squid, and scallops. For the leche de tigre (tiger’s milk, traditionally the “juice” that is left from previous cebiches) he used lime juice, Peruvian chillies (rocoto and ají limo), celery stalk, garlic, coriander, ginger, fish trimmings and salt. Leche de tigre is believed to be an aphrodisiac, especially when powered by such a variety of seafood, hence the name of the dish. The cebiche was great. A bit sweeter and far less spicy than typical Peruvian cebiches but exquisite. I could hear the spoons banging against the plates all over the room. And not only Peruvians were delighted, an Aussie couple at my table who hadn’t eaten cebiche before loved it.
Cebiche del amor
The next dish was a hot cebiche. It was inspired in an ancient way of cooking marinated seafood on hot stones, only that he did it on a stovetop grill. The meat of choice was crayfish, which was marinated with leche de tigre (sans ginger and plus ají amarillo) and cooked on a corn husk. We didn’t get to try this one but was passed around the tables for a quick look.
Crayfish “a la piedra”
The third cebiche married Peruvian and Australian ingredients, as as way to celebrate the similarities between the two countries in spite of being so far apart. The local ingredients included green mussels, mulloway, green papaya, strawberries, grapes and asparagus. The Peruvian touch was leche de tigre with rocoto, ají amarillo, ají limon, coriander and red onion.
Unfortunately, none of Gastón’s cookbooks were on sale at the event. However, he was signing programs. I found it a bit lame but got mine signed nonetheless, and had my photo taken with him.
Gaston and I
Afternoon tea nibbles included cookies, which I think were from Baroque. Didn’t touch them.
Afternoon tea cookies
Next on stage were Ricardo Zárate from Mo-chica and Picca restaurants in Los Angeles and Alex Atala from DOM in Sao Paulo. Their mission was to talk about the impact of food in Latin America’s social, cultural and environmental development. Although I realise it must have been hard for native English speakers to understand everything they said, I think the message was clear: things are changing and chefs are responsible for leading this movement.
Alex Atala and Ricardo Zárate
And once again we had a sweet end of the program. Willie Harcourt-Cooze (I confess I had no idea who he was, because I don’t watch TV anymore), owner of a cacao farm in Venezuela, made a really passionate celebration of chocolate.
While cooking on stage he explained us the characteristics of the different varieties that given to each table in a sampling plate. First we tried cacao nibs, which hit the tongue with a burnt flavour that ended with a hint of chocolate taste.
Chocolate tasting plate
Then we tried a very intense 100% chocolate, recommended for savoury dishes. Willy used it to make cacao and olive bread, which was sent to the tables. The olive flavour (from whole green olives and oil) dominated the taste of the bread. The chocolate actually didn’t make it taste it like dessert, but gave it a nutty flavour. A few fennel seeds on top gave it a nice contrast.
Cacao and olive bread
Willie made a classic chocolate mousse, for which he had already prepared the crust: tempered bitter chocolate painted on a piece of baking paper lined on a cake tin. For the filling he used the Indonesian 69 present in our sampling plates, a delicious chocolate with acidity notes and citrusy flavour. For the crust he used the Madagascan 71, which had a little bit of acidity but was much fruitier and sweeter than the Indonesian. I missed the explanation on the last chocolate from the sampling plate (if there was any), and I didn’t enjoy it as much as the previous ones. It had a fungusy, earthy flavour. Willie topped a finished chocolate mousse with berries and we were handed mini versions of it, along with a glass of Brown Brothers Cienna wine, defined by the winery representative as “summer berries in a glass”. The mousse was good, although not the best I’ve had in my life. I couldn’t stay for the Q&A session but really enjoyed both programs.