The great thing about cheese is that it’s surpassed trend status. It always has been, and always will be, one of Australians’ most loved ingredients – and when handled well, it makes for a dish that sells itself.
Some ingredients are best left untouched, and cheese is certainly one of them. One of the best ways to enjoy cheese is of course the humble cheeseboard, but, increasingly, Australian chefs and restaurateurs are incorporating cheeses in more elaborate menu items, and they’re reaping the rewards. In fact, some venues, like the four mentioned below, have created such popular cheese-based dishes that it’s now impossible to take them off the menu.
1. Buffalo Dining Club, Sydney NSW
“We first saw Cacio e Pepe in Rome about 15 years ago. We were at an underground restaurant and a little nonna came out and she threw this massive cheese wheel at the table … then she brought out fresh pasta and we tossed it in ourselves, hacked at the wheel and ate it,” said Buffalo Dining Club’s owner, Marcelo Garrao.
The classic Italian pasta dish, which translated means ‘cheese and pepper’, is by far the Surry Hills diner’s most popular menu item, with the 55-seater selling up to 100 portions a night.
“At the moment we go through a cheese wheel nearly every night,” Garrao’s said. “We used to go through one every two months. Social media has played a big role in that. The dish was always popular; the restaurant has always been popular, but now pretty much every single person that walks in the door will have that dish.”
It’s become even more popular in recent months, after a video of the Cacio e Pepe being prepared was published by on an American blog.
Buffalo Dining's Marcelo Garrao. Image: Anna Kucera – Time Out Australia
“They put it online and it got something like 28 million views worldwide. It just went to another dimension. We had crowds of people who would come in and try to get a table, and when they couldn’t get a table, they would surround the tables outside with cameras. It was as if a celebrity had come to dine at the restaurant.”
Unlike in Rome, the cheese wheel isn’t left on the diner’s table. Fresh spaghetti is tossed with a high quality olive oil, parsley, salt and pepper then placed in a wheel of pecorino romano, with the waiter chipping away at the wheel and mixing it all together before plating it up in front of the diner.
The cheese wheels are delivered weekly and are imported from the Lazio region in central Italy, on the western coast. Every now and then Buffalo Dining will replace the traditional pecorino romano with a different variety, such as pecorino infused with truffles or peppercorns, or Grana Padano.
“It’s so the diners can see that there are different things that you can do with cheese, and different styles of cheese, different twists that you can do with that dish,” Garrao said. “The Cacio e Pepe is one dish. We still have a selection of mozzarellas, scamorzas and caprinos, and there are a whole bunch of other sides and salads that we do.
“Cacio e Pepe has become what the restaurant is about. The only unfortunate thing is that there are a lot of other amazing dishes on the menu, and sometimes it’s hard to get them out of the shadows and into the spotlight.”
2. Big Poppa’s, Sydney NSW
Swinging open its doors just last month, it’s too early to say which of the many cheese-inspired menu items at Big Poppa’s is the favourite. The venue’s concept combines cocktails, hip hop and cheese, and is the brainchild of Jared Merlino from The Lobo Plantation and Lewis Jaffrey from Shady Pines and The Baxter Inn.
“The menu is really tasty,” said Merlino. “We’re not reinventing the wheel by any means, but the cheese focus has really got people talking, and we’ve been doing a roaring trade since we opened.”
Early sales reports show that Big Poppa’s burrata is a success, served with cherry and heirloom tomatoes, a balsamic reduction and crisped farro. Another hit is the baked eggplant, which comprises four different cheeses: buffalo mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano, tellegio and pecorino Romano. Then there’s the gnudi dumplings, made mostly from Meredith Dairy goat’s cheese, but also featuring pecorino Romano and Sotto il Noce.
Big Poppa's baked eggplant
“They’re amazing. You cut them in half and goat’s cheese melts everywhere,” Merlino said.
But these dishes aren’t making quite the same impression as the lamb ragu, which is finished off in the pan with a good dose of pecorino Romano .
“The ragu just flies out the door, especially late at night when people want something a bit saucier and a bit heavier. We’re selling out every night, and the pappardelle is done in-house – the [chefs] actually can’t keep up.
Parmigiano reggiano is microplanned over the dish in front of the diner (as much or as little as they’d like), and straight after opening, Big Poppa’s was going through 10 kilograms of the parmigiano reggiano and over 20 kilograms of pecorino a week.
Merlino said Sydneysiders’ appetite for cheese is booming and while mozzarella and burrata are “everywhere” at the moment, he’s most impressed by a growing interest in cheeses that traditionally have been quite polarising.
“It’s amazing how many people are asking for blue, when they’re asking for specific cheeses. When a cheese board is presented, traditionally, in my experience in restaurants, people would shy away from even touching the blue. Now, they’re really getting into it. People seem to be a bit more adventurous with those heavier types of cheeses,” he said.
3. The Stables Bar, Perth WA
If you’re looking for a profitable dish to add to your menu, it’s hard to go past humble arancini balls. Rice balls coated in bread crumbs and deep fried, they’re easy and simple to prepare and a favourite amongst diners.
At Stables Bar in Perth, the menu changes every two and a half months, and while arancini balls are never be taken off the menu, the flavours within them change all the time.
The latest variation is the jalapeno arancini, which includes Oaxaca cheese and comes with a lime mayonnaise.
“Oaxaca is a Mexican cheese,” said head chef Ben Keal. “We break it up and then make it into almost a little sauce, and then put it in the middle of the arancini, so when you cut into it, it oozes out.
The Stables' jalapeno arancini, which includes Oaxaca cheese
“It’s got a slightly raw milk taste to it, but it’s extremely stringy and very nice,” he said.
Together with Stables’ mac ‘n’ cheese and sliders, the arancini balls are the highest selling entre on the menu, with the kitchen pumping out a couple of hundred serves each week.
“It’s one of our biggest sellers, and it’s definitely one of the best in regards to profit. It’s one of those things that just makes good money. Some things don’t; the arancini does, and we could never take it off the menu … I’d be taken to the nearest tree [if it was]. There are certain things you just don’t do,” said Keal.
“The usual cheese in arancini balls is parmesan, mixed through the risotto base, but a lot of people are doing different things. There aren’t that many people using Oaxaca because there’s not a massive shelf life on that cheese, but we’re flying through it so it’s not a big problem for us. It’s just about using the right product for the right dish.”
The Stables' gnocchi with Bookara goat’s curd
The top selling main dish on Stables’ menu is also one that celebrates cheese.
Like the arancini balls, Stables’ gnocchi is another non-negotiable inclusion on the menu, and again, the cheese used in the mixture changes regularly.
“We were doing ricotta; we’ve done smoked ricotta. We just try to mix it up,” he said. “At the moment we’re using Bookara goat’s curd, which is from a place just near Geraldton.
Four hundred grams of goat’s curd is mixed in a two kilo batch of gnocchi, and after being plated, the dish is garnished with bites of baked ricotta.
“The goat’s curd just makes the gnocchi a little bit more fluffy; a little bit lighter. When we were using straight ricotta it was a little bit denser and more filling, but this one is just that little bit lighter, so we add a few extra gnocchi to each serving now,” said Keal.
4. The Beaufort, Carlton VIC
Mac ‘n’ Cheese is pretty familiar to most people, but what’s on offer at The Beaufort isn’t the stock standard interpretation, and that’s what makes it the top selling menu item.
“I would say that half the people that dine with us eat it,” said co-owner Dave Kerr. “So we’d do a few hundred portions a week. It’s pretty insane.”
The dish is made up of six different cheeses, mixed through macaroni with truffle oil or fresh truffle, then garnished with blitzed Cheezels or Twisties.
The Beaufort's mac 'n' cheese
“It’s not exactly a fancy dish; it’s very humble. So obviously we have the macaroni, and then our mix is six different cheeses, so they’re gruyere, tasty cheddar, American cheddar, parmesan, Monterey Jack and Queso Fresco, and then we also use white Italian truffle. That mixture is then made up, passed through the macaroni, then it’s prepped and ready to go. From there it just needs to be heated. Finally, we use Twisties or Cheezels as our crumb along the top,” said fellow co-owner, Will Baguley.
The dish sells for $12 a portion, making it a fairly profitable addition to the menu, Kerr said, however there are some serious costs involved.
“It’s mainly the truffle oil and the prep time that goes into it,” he said. “Having to individually portion out that many portions is a massive pain, and then Robot Coupe-ing Cheezels – as much as it sounds like it wouldn’t take that long – it’s actually pretty laborious. I guess it’s just one of the bigger prep jobs because it’s one of the biggest selling dishes. But certainly a lot of time and effort goes into making the humble mac ‘n’ cheese into the ridiculous dish that we serve.
“Without the truffle oil and the labour, it would be daylight robbery to charge what we do for it, but we put a bit more love into it,” he said.
The dish was first put on the menu just over a year ago, and it won’t be coming off any time soon. “I figure there’d be a revolt if we did,” said Kerr.
Australians’ appetite for cheese is remarkable at the moment, he added, especially in Carlton.
“Cheese is fever pitch for some people. Around the corner from us is this place called Milk the Cow. It’s a fromagerie, so you go there to eat cheese and drink wine. Maybe Carlton is an epicentre for it – being Italian. There’s cheese all around us. There are mozzarella bars around here. I guess we’re in a cheese hub, and I certainly think that the element of cheese is what makes the Mac ‘n’ Cheese; otherwise it’s just bland, boring pasta, isn’t it?”