The chefs behind Australia’s most iconic dishes

21 May, 2019 by
Annabelle Cloros

Tetsuya Wakuda, Lennox Hastie and Heston Blumenthal are all behind dishes that have become intrinsically linked to the restaurants they run. Heston Blumenthal’s meat fruit is known the world over, confit of ocean trout has been on the Tetsuya’s menu for more than 25 years and Hastie’s Firedoor won an award for red meat cookery — even though most of the menu revolves around seafood and vegetables.

When a dish achieves cult status, a mixed bag of thoughts often follows. ‘Am I pigeonholing my restaurant?’ ‘Will people order anything else?’ ‘Can I create something just as good?’ These are all questions chefs may ask after a dish hits the big time.

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Hospitality speaks to Hastie, Wakuda and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal Melbourne head chef Evan Moore about the pressure and processes behind cult creations, dealing with great expectations and if they will ever take their respective golden tickets off the menu.

It might be hard to believe, but Tetsuya Wakuda’s confit of ocean trout didn’t involve trout in the beginning — it all started with salmon. Salmon became a popular choice at restaurants in the early ’80s, but supply was a problem for restaurateurs. “It wasn’t available every day or even every week,” says Wakuda. “In the first three months, we used salmon and then moved to ocean trout before going back to salmon again. I tried to use both, but I preferred the taste and colour of the ocean trout as salmon becomes really soft.”

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After the chef secured a year-round supply of ocean trout from Petuna Seafoods Tasmania, confit of ocean trout became a fixture on the Tetsuya’s menu and hasn’t left since 1991. “I never thought it would become my signature, but that’s what the guests decided,” says Wakuda.

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Meat fruit piqued worldwide interest when it appeared in 2009 on television show Heston’s Feasts. Blumenthal recreated the dish, which was served at the Royal Court of King Henry VIII circa 1500, and viewers were captivated by the concept.

When developing the menu for Dinner by Heston Blumenthal London, chef Ashley Palmer-Watts decided to take the meat fruit from the small screen and put it front and centre of the restaurant. The same notion applied when the Melbourne iteration of Dinner opened in 2015 — meat fruit was a no-brainer. “It’s been on every single day, every single service — we probably serve 120 a day,” says Evan Moore.

The lifelike mandarin has racked up nearly 8,000 posts on Instagram and has an unmistakable sense of whimsy Blumenthal has forged a career from. While masquerading as a mandarin, the fruit is in fact spherical chicken parfait dipped in two layers of mandarin jelly. In spite of its novelty appearance, Moore says there’s much more depth and complexity to the meat fruit than meets the eye. “The great thing about the dish is that it has a unique presentation, classic flavours and it eats really well,” says the chef. “The parfait is the best parfait and the acidity from the jelly is just the right touch.”

Becoming known for beef was the last thing on Lennox Hastie’s mind when he launched Firedoor with the Fink Group in 2015. “I wasn’t keen on becoming a steakhouse because there are a lot in Sydney and steak is broadly represented in the Australian market,” he says. While the majority of the menu showcases fish, shellfish and vegetables, Hastie decided to put one steak on the menu on the condition it was the best meat he could get his hands on.

But things took an unexpected turn when the dry-aged beef ended up becoming the dish du jour for Firedoor. “We produce it with the farmer and Anthony Puharich [Victor Churchill, Vic’s Meat], so it had a compelling enough story to put on the menu,” says Hastie. “The beef is such a rare ingredient — it’s essentially a freak of nature and only happens to three per cent of the entire herd. We’re ageing for a minimum of 150 days and we only get two to 10 sides a fortnight.”

Demand for the dry-aged beef has been high from the start, and Hastie says customers can’t get enough of the coveted dish once they’ve tried it. “When they put it in their mouth, they realise it’s something else — it’s ridiculous,” says the chef. “I love giving it to people for the first time. They can be mid-conversation and suddenly they stop and make some of the most amazing faces like, ‘What is this?’ It’s incredible.

                                                                   
Image credit: Nikki To

There’s no doubt signature dishes are a dangling carrot for the culinary industry, and customers are happy to fork out to experience cult dishes in the flesh. But when a creation receives significant acclaim and a flood of attention, expectations are elevated and become difficult to manage and sometimes even impossible to meet.

Moore says diner reactions to the meat fruit are largely positive, but some customers simply aren’t able to wrap their heads around the concept. “Some diners don’t really get it … they peel the jelly off or just eat the toast and never touch the fruit,” says Moore. “We’ve had people come in who just want to take a photo of it.”

The chef believes one of the reasons why the dish has become one of the top sellers for the Melbourne location is because of its association with Blumenthal’s Bray restaurant The Fat Duck — the dish ultimately offers a portal for Australian diners to experience the three Michelin star restaurant on home ground. “It’s the most tangible link between The Fat Duck and Dinner — that kind of whimsy, play on your senses — which is the most literal translation from The Fat Duck menu to ours,” says Moore.

While the aged beef brings diners to Firedoor, Hastie says customers often have preconceived ideas surrounding steak given its widespread availability. “People expect a lot from a steak, they can visualise and imagine what it might taste like to a certain degree,” he says. The chef is often met with surprise when diners learn the restaurant only has a few red meat options. “People assume it’s going to be like any other grill restaurant if you have a wood fire,” says the chef. “But 80–90 per cent of the menu showcases fish, shellfish and vegetables. People are extremely surprised by the chariness and slight smokiness [of these ingredients], which almost exhibit meat flavours.”

Hastie uses his menu as a springboard to educate customers on sustainable alternatives. “Beef is limited and has environmental impacts as opposed to other forms of livestock such as kangaroo,” says Hastie. “A lot of people come for the steak, but they will try other things such as quail, camel or kangaroo and love it. These are the foods we should be eating more of and the foods of the future.”

Creating signature dishes can be an exhausting and fatiguing process. Chefs are creative, and cranking out the same dish for years on end can take away the excitement experienced during the research and launch phase. “I’ve been with the company since we opened and seen hundreds of thousands of meat fruits,” says Moore. “You kind of lose the joy and novelty of it when your job is to pick out imperfections and make sure they don’t get to the customer. But we have the chefs table behind us, and we get a lot of people in who have waited years to try it. It’s a nice feeling to experience it through them for the first time and see people enjoying it.”

Making the same dish for an extensive period of time underlines the importance of consistency. Wakuda’s ocean trout is celebrating more than a quarter of a century on the menu, but the chef says making the dish only increases in difficulty as the years go by. “People think you can close your eyes and make it,” says Wakuda. “They think it’s easier because you make the same thing every day, but it’s harder. It has to be the same every day and there is a lot of effort that goes into it.”

Working with natural products comes with fluctuations in flavour profile and size which can change throughout the seasons. “In summer, sometimes the fish are smaller and it can be hard to get the volume of fish that meet our specs,” says Wakuda. “We only use the centre cut and it’s a deep red colour, which can be a struggle to get in summer, but Petuna look after us.”

Signature dishes often exhibit highly technical elements and require lengthy preparation processes.  For Firedoor’s beef, the dry-ageing process takes place at Vic’s Meat and requires a minimum of 150 days that often extends beyond 200. “Our beef is dry aged and left to hang at a controlled temperature,” says Hastie. “Myself and Anthony coined the term ‘fat ageing’, which is dry ageing the beef in its own fat. You lose less of the overall weight — dry ageing loses between 30 and 50 per cent weight whereas fat ageing only loses 18 per cent.”

While the end product speaks for itself, the process is significant for all parties involved, from the farmer to the butcher and the chef. “The whole idea of shelving 120 sides of beef for 150–200 days makes no sense,” says Hastie. “It’s time-consuming, costly and I question it all the time, but it makes complete sense when you see people enjoy it.”

Changing a signature dish can be problematic, especially once it has reached peak popularity. Chefs may feel pressured to leave dishes as is to avoid diner disappointment, but sometimes change is necessary, especially when a dish has been created in another country.

Meat fruit is made with foie gras in London. While the ingredient is able to be imported to Australia, production is prohibited, which led to a switch. “We knew it wasn’t going to be available, so we started making it with chicken liver,” says Moore. The team have also localised the dish by switching out European wines and Portuguese ports for Australian alternatives, which led to a recipe tweak. “We had to balance the sweetness of the alcohol and take out some eggs and add some butter. If you did a blind taste test, you wouldn’t be able to pick between the two.” The restaurant has also dabbled in creating other meat fruits including the launch of a plum during winter, which featured spiced wine jelly.

Wakuda’s confit of ocean trout swaps out accompaniments according to season, with options ranging from apple and witlof salad to celery or fennel. Although the side components change, Wakuda has considered altering the dish, but the constant demand has led to the trout remaining as is. “Guests are coming to the restaurant because of the trout, so we keep doing it and we try to be better,” he says. “Diners have decided it’s our signature and of course I have to keep it. It’s nice to have people coming back and I’m grateful people have enjoyed it long-term.”

They say all good things must come to an end, but in the case of signature dishes, the notion doesn’t always apply. When asked if Dinner would ditch meat fruit, Moore highly doubts it. “I would be very surprised if it ever came off,” he says. For Wakuda, it all comes down to demand. “One day, if the guests say they’ve had enough, I would make the decision,” he says. “But at the moment, people still want it.”

Hastie admits he has been contemplating taking the dry-aged beef off the menu to make way for new culinary challenges, and has made the call to remove it from the set menu. “We’ve put on a new chefs menu which will be a premium menu without the dry steak,” he says. “It’s an active decision to say ‘that was that and this is this’. We need to move forward and showcase other ingredients in the same light.”

Cult creations are a double-edged sword. Restaurants are able to attract customers and garner attention, but creativity can falter. Whichever way you look at it, there’s one certainty — signature dishes are signature for a reason — they’re delicious.

This story originally appeared in the April edition of Hospitality. Subscribe here.

Ocean trout credit: Christopher Pearce

Steak credit: Nikki To