As a child, I cooked the things kids cook – pikelets, shepherd’s pie, pumpkin soup, pita bread pizza, cheese toasties. It was a little different for us because we grew up near the Swan River and that meant we went prawning too. With that, we knew how to shell a prawn from early on, just like we could gut a fish or get abalone from the ledges or knew the basics of curries. When I was a child, I was very close to one uncle in particular. He was a surveyor by trade and had worked all over northern Australia. When he retired he went to TAFE and learned how to cook in a formal way, making everything from vegan chocolate cake to almond croissants. He taught me how to bake and we would often spend the weekends making copious amounts of food for my extended family. That was real pleasure.
I got my first job at 13 at Pizza Hut, where I was a kitchen-hand making $5.62 an hour. This was a high status job among kids at high school. We had kids who worked at the supermarket, others on milk runs or newspaper deliveries, some who did gardening jobs or washed cars, even others who would only work during the summer at farms on the outskirts of Perth. But fast food was were you wanted to be because of its perks. This included bringing back stuffed up orders much to the delight of everyone at parties. When you finished your shift at 10 pm and kids were hanging out pretending to like the warm beer no one could finish or wondering why the goon was missing, you could arrive with three or four pizzas and everyone was pleased to see you. Sometimes they had to pick the anchovies off the BBQ meatlovers or reassemble something that had been dropped inside the box, but it was free food and that was all that mattered. No one cared, that the meat was cubed, the cheese rubbery, the dough starched and the whole thing greasy. We loved it. For me, I was determined to take a year off after high school to go travelling, and with every $38 paycheck I got I was a little bit closer to leaving home.
The summer before I left, I worked two jobs – daytime shifts at a fresh pasta place where I would spend countless hours cutting cannelloni into the same length. My nights were at a boutique woodfired pizza place where my boss was intent on keeping me well fed. Whereas Pizza Hut was strict with its staff, here we laughed and joked, and cut our produce fresh. I will never forget my first day there, where I spent three hours prepping mushrooms for dinner service. The other advantage was that I did not have to shampoo my hair every time I got home for lack of grease in the air.
As I backpacked around America and Western Europe, I ate in lots of places, mainly sandwiches, pizza and pasta as befits a seventeen year old kid on a grand tour of the big cities around the world. I do not remember any meals in particular though my sister tells me that I used to eat a lot of Carl’s Jr. in Los Angeles and we went for one extravagantly priced sushi meal on Sunset Boulevard. Occasionally, I would pine for a curry, and currywurst was never quite on par. But for the most part, food did not matter on that trip.
Something changed when I made my way to university in Canberra. During that time, I lived in sharehouses with vegetarians and vegans who were happy to cook a combination of any vegetables you could imagine with spices of all kinds. There were always plenty of root vegetables from our farm co-op boxes, maybe some lentils, and to vary it, someone would add either a can of tomatoes or a can of coconut milk. It was, inevitably, served over brown rice. Welcome to adulthood. It was different when I cooked because I adhered to an established set of flavours – making lasagne in a traditional way or curries from my mum in what approximated how she did it. If I was eating hippy slops, I did not want to cook it also.
The real difference between my friends and me was my semi-annual treat – dinner by myself at the city’s best restaurant, Chairman and Yip. For five years, I ate there at the start of each semester when my scholarship check came in. By the end of it, I was on a first name basis with the manager and, even now, can recall many great dishes they served – beef and scallop hotpot; shantung lamb; duck and mushroom pancakes; sea cucumber and pumpkin in chilli; braised oxtail. If I had grown up eating good food in Wembley and Redgate, Chairman and Yip was where I learned to dine as an adult, to overcome the fear of being alone in a room, the shame of wearing a t-shirt when everyone was in suits, the embarrassment of never leaving a tip because you could barely afford the meal to begin with. That indulgence kept me going when I was away from home as much as the warm community of friends with whom I went dumpster diving, ate button soups and drank home brewed kombucha.
I found a similar scene in Philadelphia where I lived with people who volunteered at co-ops. In the home, meat was never allowed. My escape there was a weekly game of poker held every Tuesday with Columbian friends from around the neighbourhood. They would bring empanadas from home and I supplied a case of beer – the cheapest I could find, which was ice-brewed Milwaukee’s Best. At $12 for 30 cans it was a bargain, and at 4.8% no one could beat it for easy drinking. If that card game was not a release from the puritanical wellness of my houses, then how I wound up the night surely was. When the game had broken up, I would go and have a City Wide Special at a local bar that was always open – a tallboy of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a double shot of Jim Beam for $3. Then I would bike down to South Philadelphia, a thirty-minute ride away, to get a cheesesteak from Pat’s. It was as ugly, basic and disgusting as Chairman and Yip was refined. But at 3am, it hit the spot and I will always love that place because of the accumulated memories. It was a guilty pleasure that would have outraged my moral housemates.
For a year or so after Philadelphia, I worked as a waiter. In Australia, no one needed a historian of the American west. At that time, people were needed to work on the mines. But that was never my cup of tea and so I took the only job offered to me – waiting tables at a winery up the road from Redgate. There, I learned how to hold three plates, to pour wine properly, to run the pass, but never how to make a good flat white. Without that knowledge, I was not going very far and when the union saw potential in me, I shifted gears and went to work as an organiser in the aged care sector. Visiting all those nursing homes, I did not even want to think about food.
Since then, I have spent periods of time in Paris, Berlin, New Delhi, Melbourne, Bombay, Kochi and New York. In Paris, I fell in love with fresh produce, especially radishes; in Berlin, it was pickles care of Turkish cuisine and sauerkrauts; in New Delhi, I grew a sweet tooth that I did not know I had; in Melbourne, I ate so well on a regular basis that I began to understand what is wonderful about neighbourhood places; in Bombay where to eat street food is a blessing from the benevolent gods; and in Kochi my wife and I fell further in love with each other while getting in touch with the deep flavours of my family past.
I have travelled a lot as well – to Bolivia and Peru where I ate such wonderful grilled meats that hit somewhere deep; to Mexico where I ate a mole covered whole chicken in Peubla that was worth the bus trip there; to California and up the west coast where I understood what fusion was because people simply live it; to South Africa where I got why new world wine has such big flavour; and right through Asia from nasi padang in Indonesia to sour hot soup in Thailand to dumpling feasts in shiny new malls in China. I spent my honeymoon in Venice. On that trip, we ate the best steak of our lives served on a large wooden platter at a student haunt called Al Timon overlooking a canal in Canareggio. It came with grilled vegetables, chips, romesco sauce. The weather was balmy, the red wine was flowing, it was La Dolce Vita. We would never be this young again. I felt like a connoisseur getting used to the idea of using the word ‘wife’ in a sentence and understanding what it meant to truly live.
But for all that, New York was where I thought about the role of food in my life. In New York, like everywhere else, food matters. But, there you see so many kinds of cuisine, so many restaurants simply doing their own thing. New York is a city of villages and in our short time there, we became creatures of habit as much as anyone else. We lived on the Upper West Side, and, for the most part, never left it. Occasionally, we would venture downtown to see a show or hike to Brooklyn to catch up with friends. But we lived within walking distance of everywhere one would want to get to, and so, we ended up, by default or design, falling in love with our neighbourhood.
While we were there we had regular breakfasts at a butcher, White Gold, which served the best bacon and egg rolls I have ever experienced. The only one that got close was when I drove back to Western Australia from Port Augusta, right across the Nullarbor by myself before stopping at dawn at a roadside servo near Kalgoorlie. It was the best thing I had eaten for weeks, but perhaps this was not on account of the roll itself but my starved palate. Here in New York though, the fresh bacon, the melting American cheese, the poppy-seed Kaiser roll, all come to a delicious synthesis.
For lunch, we go to our favourite diner, which does a very good lasagne with burnt corners and extra sauce on the side with bread that reminds you of flying in an aeroplane as a child. For dinners, we often find ourselves at a ramen bar that has silky smooth, deep, bowls of flavour that keep you warm in winter. These are our neighbourhood haunts that we love to walk to and settle in with books. There we watch New Yorkers talking about how they are all the greatest ever, beyond doubt and without peer, truly masters of the universe.
We have also had festive meals that linger in the memory – Thanksgiving at a farm down south; an extraordinary Contemporary Mexican with an excellent meringue and corn mousse that ranks as one of the great dishes of my life; and a welcome plate of Southern food in Harlem on Martin Luther King day when good feelings where in the air at Sylvia’s.
And throughout it all, I have been cooking, including in a New York kitchen fit for someone smaller, where the gas stove is untrustworthy and bench space tiny. Here, I have made some memorable meals for family and friends: barley soup with fresh herbs and peas; heirloom carrot salads with seeds, black olives and goat’s cheese; roast eggplant and red onion dishes with soy and fish sauce served on rice. But, it is not home, it only is the finishing school for what has been my food journey so far.