Why do we live? I ask myself this question often. There are variations of this, some of which are more tortured than others: what am I doing here? Where am I going? What’s the point? I do not ask these questions flippantly as if to make existential dilemmas a plaything in the world of food blogging. Or to grandstand and overreach about what the scope of this platform is. I ask them because it is important to know the direction to take, the goals to set, the way to move onwards and ever upwards never forgetting where you have been or what you have tasted.

To answer that question, I have some answers that I tell myself – to write, to be a good husband, son, brother, uncle, cousin, to enjoy life, to take pleasure, to teach, to experience, to be, to savour, to embrace, to give, to nurture, to inspire. Sometimes it is hard to keep one’s eyes on the prize, to think about whether the suffering is worth it. And I say that as someone conscious of my privilege – as someone with opportunity, wealth, health, access, capital in all facets of my life and body. But, some days it feels hard to get up and at them, to wake up in a cold apartment, to see whether the water is hot, to realise there is no food in the fridge, to struggle for the daily existence that is our bread as writers far from home.  And this feeling is compounded in the festive season, when the tyranny of distance is keenest and the temptations of the city are just beyond reach with the sun setting earlier than I am used to. I miss the long days at the beach, the home caught crayfish, the family around the table. But, to lament as much when one is in a great city of the world is to be a pessimist and a whinger, something I never want to do.

Luckily, K and I have had some visitors of late – Y, S and C are in town. It feels good to be surrounded by family and friends, with people you can trust and collaborate with. They help us answer the question I opened with – why do we live? We live with and for other people. We also live to enjoy food, to take pleasure in eating and drinking, to share stories over a common table. And we have been doing that in spades today. Y, who is a chef, takes us to Cosme. He has worked in their mother restaurant, Pujol, in Mexico City and this New York edition came highly recommended, with a reputation as being one of the best in the world (40th at last count).

The lighting is dramatic and intimate. The service is impeccable and welcoming, with every server being aware that we have a nut allergy at the table.  We order liberally – Y and I get Tecates, K gets a margarita, S a martini and C a whiskey. The sommelier and I share a laugh about Tecate and how good it is despite its formerly odious reputation. To be in one of the world’s best restaurants and able to order a $6 beer is truly sensational – quality does not need to be expensive and for easy drinking there is nothing I prefer, not even Emu Export.

The menu is divided into three sections – raw, vegetable, meat. We get an uni taco; a cobia al pastor with yuzu and pineapple puree; and a salad with cactus, cheese and avocado. The flavours work well together in each of the dishes and as a whole. They are all to share – the rich and refreshing uni with a deep flavour, the cobia is sweet and citrusy in equal measure, the salad doused in oil of the finest quality.

Our second course is a beef short rib with onions; a deboned duck with radishes; a honeynut squash tamale; a mushroom huarache; a 300 day old mole (a 300 day mole!). There is balance, harmony, joy. They are all served with the best tortillas I have ever eaten. There is something light and fulfilling in this bread, an evenness and calm that is delicious. We order a second round and mop our plates until we can eat no more. The conversation is flowing and the share plates allow us to relax, be comfortable with each other, to celebrate this place and the greatness of Mexican civilisation in company that gets it.

We finish with the husk meringue and corn mousse. It is plated beautifully, like some sort of yin yang cross, a pale purple colour that reminded me of lavender. The texture is full and creamy, it is smooth and sophisticated, refined and smart, accessible and delicious. There is something touching in it. Y says 'what is going on with that' and is incredulous and impressed in equal measure. K simply says 'oh my god, what the fuck' and C lets out a declamatory 'damn'. S and I recline, sigh with happiness. This dish might be the best thing I have eaten all year. It is a pillow of dreams. It is unforgettable like Ben Shewry's kangaroo tartare, Paul Iskov's marron, and Dan Barber's nine grain risotto. It ranks as one of my all time eating experiences.

And so, this meal is the answer to our question. This is why we live, to eat like this. Cosme is an affirmation of what matters, a place of welcome in a cold city, a kind of homecoming that allows one to breathe life in, to take a break from the familiar and get on with the hard labour of helping make our place a little easier for everyone to find pleasure in.

35 E 21ST St, New York, NY 10010
Subway: 6 at 23rd.
~ $110 per head


It is hard to estimate the importance of French culture in America. From the Louisiana Purchase to Alexis du Toqueville to Marquis de Lafayette to freedom fries, France has played an integral role in shaping the American imagination, including its very real palate. I am tempted to demonstrate the differences between the two, pointing to the bread being crusty, chewy and savoury, or soft, white and sweet. There is a reason that we say ‘this is the best invention since sliced bread’ in the settler societies. But, I am always tempted to look for similarities, to find out what brings people together even if they retain a certain individualism. In that way, the root of the Franco-American love affair is to be found in a shared revolutionary spirit, a kindred desire to overturn monarchs even if that means installing tyrants in their place. They have both encouraged a society that is passionate, grand, dramatic, which comes through in imperial presidencies with cults of personality complete with entourages, tanks and triumphant music.

The revolutionary spirit in cuisine though is somewhat different, with France perceiving itself to have a tradition to uphold; an empirical reality that means good taste is to be found in the palate of every citizen. However unenlightened the average Frenchman gets, he will always know how to dress a salad. The same cannot be said in America, notwithstanding that, at the top end, they are able to do it with the very best. Rather than excelling at delicate croissants, it is the processed donut that becomes the apotheosis of common taste here. I say this as someone who loves to eat in both nations, particularly in Paris and New York, where you can find Japanese or Chinese or North African that lifts you up by your very bootstraps.

What all revolutions share is a desire for the new, a reset button that marks a year zero and allows the people to re-boot. This is there in Paris to which one only need to cite Adeline Grattard’s restaurant yamT’cha that fuses French and Cantonese into something wholly new. In the American case, this has meant the proliferation of new dishes and the re-working of flavours into distinct combinations. This comes about is in fusion food such as the celebrated Korean-Mexican. As delicious as that is, French and American is the dominant fusion, at least when it comes to the meeting of cultures (rather than chefs and New World ingredients). It is there most explicitly in the dishes from New Orleans, but we get it in New York too. I am not talking about the steak frites and onion soup that one gets at Bar Olivier in Park Slope or the coq au vin at French Roast just down the road. I am speaking here of American dishes that betray a French influence. One exemplar of this is the Deluxe Beef French Dip from an Upper West Side haunt called Maison Pickle.

The French Dip is a sandwich of thinly sliced roast beef served on a baguette with a side of jus that you dip your sandwich into, hence the curious name. There are competing claims as to who invented it, but it is a toss up between two Los Angeles restaurants. This is a rivalry that started in 1908 between Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet and Phillipe the Original. At Cole’s you dip your own sandwich while Phillipe serves it ‘wet’. The use of ‘French’ in the title comes from the type of bread used and the dip tends to be quite thin, not something thick like hummus or yoghurt or aioli. There are variations of this found in Chicago and across the Midwest, but it is not synonymous with one place like the cheesesteak is in Philadelphia. To be certain, it is part of the burgeoning sandwich culture of America. What should be noted is that the French do not have something similar. In that way, the bread has crossed the Atlantic but, in a revolutionary twist, is now part of a new dish.

In the Maison Pickle version, one first notices the mood of the restaurant. As it is French in America, it is built for romance. The dim candlelight takes a little while to adjust to and the waiters in white shirts pour water out from silver jugs. Across Broadway, there is a cinema with flashing bulbs and they cast shadows across the bar. People come here on dates, or date nights when the kids are asleep around the corner, or pop in for tuna nicoise on their way home from the office wearing cashmere jackets and wondering where the day’s stocks ended up, scrolling through news about NFL players kneeling in protest of this president. K and I first came here before we went to Murder on the Orient Express, spending our daily budget on two glasses of (very good) wine and pull-apart bread that was garlicked to high heaven before being entertained by a campy interpretation of a classic tale.

Tonight though, we have come for French Dip sandwiches. I take mine Deluxe Beef and it comes with strands of onion that are like necklaces of caramel, a rich gooey gruyere fondeau that is silky smooth, and packed with rare roast beef that is thinly sliced. And, of course, a side of jus that is thin, perfect for dipping into or drinking as a soup. I love it and make short work of it. But, as with any revolution, there are dissenters, and K has a few things to say: 'the most disgusting eating experience'; 'it's repulsive and I never want to eat meat again in my life'; 'this is for people with gout, you might as well be dipping it into fat'. I have learnt that it is not good trying to persuade her otherwise (especially with raw meat or fish), but she agrees that the atmosphere is convivial and it is a welcome place to be when it is cold outside. That makes her enough of a fellow traveler for me.

Maison Pickle 
2315 Broadway, New York, NY 10024
Subway: 1 at 86th. 
Open 9am - 4am on weekends.


I grew up in a biracial family in Australia in the 1990s. Although there were some moments that were awkward or painful because of that, for the most part we lived in a welcoming community that valued ‘diversity’. The food we ate was loved and our culture was appreciated. This was in the sweet spot of multiculturalism but one can find the ongoing persistence of pleasure and welcome in today’s world not only in advertising, media, the British royal family, but in food where fusion is often celebrated if not quite taken for granted. This is the second wave of hybridity. And still, cultural traditions persist, as they should. I think here of eating the traditional food on my mother’s side of the family – curry, appam, putu, string hoppers, chutney, sambal, all the things one finds in South India; Kerala to be more exact. When I eat this food, I feel good in my body and it is an argument for remaining autonomous, independent, self-sufficient, connected to the roots of one’s palate.

In that way, I often think about the politics and flavour of ‘soul food’ here in America. I am not going to start explaining black culture, not even for an audience that is mainly based in Australia, not even given my decades long relationship with certain expressions and people. Rather, it might be enough to say that we, even on the other side of the world, are exposed to African American culture through media, entertainment, sport. And, of course, living in our moment we know that Black Lives Matter. So, how does one approach soul food?

It might be enough to share with you one place that I love here in New York. It is Sylvia’s in Harlem. Sylvia’s is an institution and on the welcoming walls, one sees photos of Al Sharpton, Barack Obama, Shaquille O’Neal. In fact, you name the celebrity and they will be there, beaming and eating. Our wait staff tonight have accents that cover the board –the Southern drawl of the man who seats us, the lilt of Jamaica in the woman who takes our order, the Francophone inflections of Haiti in the man who pours our water. Here is a melting pot, a kind of welcome meeting spot that has asked us over to share a meal, and it reminds me of being in Kerala with Muslim, Jewish, Christian Indians all meeting and sharing.

Tonight, K has an interview and is at home, but C, Y and I are out on the town for a mellow meal. We all order fried chicken and I get sides of candied yams and string beans. The yams are sweet and sticky, the beans a little vinegary. I order them precisely for this balance, precisely because they offset the crisp, salty goodness of the moist chicken. When you add hot sauce, the variations of flavour help one to find joy in the palate.

And when you taste that joy, you know you have arrived. Joy as the salt to the pepper of tragedy. Joy is why I get up in the morning and put on a cup of tea and make my self happy with waffles or pancakes or cornbread.  As my favourite black thinker, W E B DuBois said ‘a  true and worthy ideal uplifts a people.’ To that we might add, a true and joyful meal gives us hope in a world that is cruel. And that, is the pleasure of soul food.

328 Macolm X Boulevard, New York, NY 10027
Subway: 2, 3 at 125th.


Being in New York, one could be forgiven for falling into the trap that this is the centre of the universe, of buying into the myth that this is the only city that matters, that if you make it here you make it anywhere. There is a history founded on that belief and this is the place where people make their dreams come true according to the popular story that is often told. But it will also break you down, and one sees people resigned to the fate they did not think was theirs to have and to hold.

Perhaps this is also true of ‘America’ at large for people who are not from here, that it is the biggest market, that it is the best in show, that it really is synonymous with the world. Certain types of advertising and self-perception would support this, not least in sports where the national winners of the ice hockey, basketball and baseball are all anointed ‘World Champions’. But, the world resists, it always does, creating its own competitions and grading systems. Nevertheless, there is something about American exceptionalism that generates its own momentum.

I was thinking of America as K, C and I went on a day trip to Philadelphia, the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and with that the birthplace, arguably, of ‘America’. Keen readers of this blog will know that I lived there some years ago and I was keen to visit and see how the city was doing. I lived there for a year in 2003 and 2004, and then for two more between 2006 and 2008, going to a fine school where I got an excellent education beyond anything I could imagine. I appreciated being in school there, which was, to my mind a wonderful challenge that I accepted heartily. But, I did have mixed feelings about the city. I lived in a charming neighbourhood that was dominated by working class, African American families who were friendly and inviting. But the city as a whole felt unshod, kind of tough and rough and grimy. And, in winter it broke me. How the city would stop when the snow fell, the feeling of always being cold inside my house, the way the buildings were crumbling, falling in on themselves, the abandoned cars, the body count that was reported like a weather report on the front page of the local paper, the toxic masculinity that was expressed at sports, the way the city always lived in New York’s shadow and gave people a chip on the shoulder. I say all this as a way to prove my affection, to demonstrate that I did love it there in the way that other people suggest – through criticism. It was the first city I really lived in. I grew up in the suburbs of Perth, spent time in Margaret River and South East Asia a lot, went on a grand tour of Europe after I left school, moved to Canberra as an undergraduate, but I had never really lived in a city. It helped give me an understanding of modernism in particular, but also the mindset that comes with being in an apartment, with taking the subway to work, with hustle and grit and grime and dirt.

There were a great many things to appreciate about Philadelphia – the eccentric legacy of Benjamin Franklin, the role of Quakers, the founding of America. While I was there, I also grew to love Philly cheesesteaks. I remember the first time I had one, and, was not impressed. This was what people had been talking about. This sloppy mess. But then, after trying it again, and again, I grew to love them. A cheesesteak is chopped up steak that resembles stringy mince served with onions on a hoagie roll with cheese. I prefer cheese whizz but some like American, some like provolone. The genius is in its simplicity and the execution is what matters. They make the grill hot then fry the steak cutting it up at a furious pace while it cooks, mix in the ready to serve onions, then they place cheese slices on top of it until they melt somewhat, then it is all placed in the white bread roll and squirted with ketchup to finish it off. It is the food of drunks. What I love about it is the mouth-feel and the salty, melty goodness. It is delicious.

But where does one find this piece of local pride and eating heaven. Like all good cities that have a customary food, this is hotly debated in Philadelphia. From a guard at the art museum (who, incidentally, was happy to inform us that she went to high school with Will Smith) the recommendation was Jim’s on South Street. From our Uber driver (who, incidentally, was happy to inform us that he went to high school with Rasheed Wallace), the recommendation was Geno’s. But, I myself prefer Pat’s. Pat’s is next to Geno’s in Italian Market and it seems like a slightly more low key kind of place. It is open 24 hours and after poke on Tuesday nights, I used to ride my bike there from West Philadelphia when the weather permitted it. Their cheesesteak was always what I wanted after a beer or two or eight. This time we went there on our way to the basketball game. That was the reason we had come to Philly. C’s team was visiting and it was a chance for him to see the best of the best in competition. But today, though we had it all planned, the snow came in and the city was struggling to cope. We were the only people eating cheesesteaks outside in the sub-zero cold. The meat was soft and pliable, the cheese melted, the bread the perfect chew. Still, I think I was eating more out of memory, more out of the feeling I used to get when I was younger here and still somewhat in awe of cities. K simply says 'it's good but I wouldn't travel for it'. When in Philly I guess, but if not, then don't bother. 

Afterwards, we made it to the game and C’s team won in triple overtime that renewed my faith in sport. We missed our bus back to New York because of it, only to find the last three seats on a  midnight Amtrak, arriving in the seedy underbelly that is New York's Penn Station at 2am, waiting for the subway uptown and a warm bed at home. Once K and I got there, I felt like another cheesesteak, but this time we settled for goat’s brie on English muffins with cornichons (or vegemite in her case), which some town would be wise to declare their local food and make a honeypot for travellers to fall into.

Pat's King of Steaks
1237 E Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19147
Open 24 hours.

Photo: Chris Gurney


The farmers’ market has been a commonplace during my time in America. When I lived in Philadelphia a decade ago, I used to frequent Clark Park where Amish people would sell whoopee pies, relishes of a great many types, and acorn squash when the season was right. There is a farmers’ market I visit every Thursday here in New York. Located just near Columbia’s campus, there is a handful of stalls that have the seasonal basics and the regular items that one lusts for – moist cakes decorated with nuts and spices; boutique soda with old school flavours like maple cream and apple cinnamon; cheese, oh what cheese, from goat to blue to brie and back again past cheddar and gouda and everything in between; baked treats like focaccia with olives and tomatoes, small tarts with custard and fruit; cider that has beads of moisture on the side of the bottle looking like the gods have presented refreshment itself. The farmers’ market is a treat, a kind of fete for those of us who miss the dirt in this concrete city.

When I wander along here, seeing the hot air rise from the subway below, a million recipes come into my mind. Should I make herb barley soup with roasted heirloom carrots be they white, orange or purple? Should I make pasta with julienned zucchini, slivers of eggplant, a glug of olive oil? Should I splash out and break the tradition of not eating meat at home, buying a shoulder of pork to baste and roast with a love so tender that the mouth begins to water simply thinking of it? This is to say nothing of what happens when one starts to talk to the people here. You say that the pak choi today is particularly good? Maybe I can make a stir-fir with a sticky garlic sauce. The spaghetti squash has just been picked this morning? Maybe I can roast tomatoes and toss it with basil on top. And you think that this arugula is peppery and fresh, the last harvest before the snow? Well, maybe I can dress it with walnuts, balsamic vinegar and honey.

The stall I go to most often though is Lani’s Farm. Their produce, like every other place, is arranged simply on foldaway tables. They have a great selection of leafy greens, root vegetables and apples as well as a handful of jarred goods. What keeps me going back though is the monopoly they have on Jerusalem artichokes. The artichokes here are fresh and relatively inexpensive. These knobbly vegetables are worth the seasonal blues. They keep me happy when it seems like the winter has got me down and they are something I always look forward to. When I see them on a restaurant menu I always order them – pureed or creamed or made into a soup. Jerusalem artichokes are where my heart is at.

All we do on Thursdays is roast them in high heat (say 450 degrees) and sprinkle them with salt. The outer skin is golden, crisp and chewy, a kind of earthy caramel, and the inside is soft, moist and fluffy, a kind of wet chestnut. We eat them almost without fail every week and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why they are not the most popular vegetable in the world. And, thanks to Lani’s Farm, I have them all winter.

Farmer's Market
Thursdays at Columbia University
Subway: 1 at 110th, 116th.