The culinary year that was on a plate

AUTHENTIC: Chris Schofield, head chef of Susuru Ramen and Gyoza. Picture: Marina Neil
AUTHENTIC: Chris Schofield, head chef of Susuru Ramen and Gyoza. Picture: Marina Neil

It has been a big year for food in Newcastle. Every second week a new cafe, restaurant or coffee spot popped up in the city or in the suburbs. Slowly but surely, the Hunter Region’s reputation for coal and steel is being replaced by quality food and trendy eateries.  

TALENT: Nathan Martin and Nathan David Griffin. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

TALENT: Nathan Martin and Nathan David Griffin. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

ON THE MOVE

FRESH AND FUNKY: Bao Brothers Eatery. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

FRESH AND FUNKY: Bao Brothers Eatery. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

But first, pop-ups – 2017 was definitely the year for food on the move. Restaurants, cafes, wineries, breweries and even chefs became more mobile than ever.

Many bricks and mortar businesses purchased a “food truck” of sorts to take their product to the people at special events and markets. It’s not a new phenomenon, certainly, but it has definitely become more common. Newy Burger Co. has been doing the rounds with “Preecy”. MEET popped up on Darby Street, The Tea Project bought a Kombi van for its new “Collective” venture and El Poco Loco is still going strong.

2017 was definitely the year for food on the move. Restaurants, cafes, wineries, breweries and even chefs became more mobile than ever.

Sometimes it worked in reverse. Doughheads and Bao Brothers started off as pop-ups and then invested in the bricks and mortar. 

It helps that the increased popularity – and availability – of international “street food” is tailor-made for the mobile market. We’ve seen Taiwanese, Japanese, American, Mexican, Vietnamese and even French cuisine represented. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

Online ordering systems like Uber Eats, Crave and EatNow were introduced and are redefining the concept of takeaway and food delivery. Once again, the focus is very much on making life easier for the consumer. A phrase being used more and more is “delivered dining” and we can expect to see more players enter the game this year.  

Two enterprising young chefs took the pop-up idea another step further by branching out into unique pop-up culinary events. Josh Gregory, of EXP. restaurant, launched Hunter at Keith Tulloch Wines on August 14. Who knows where and when Hunter will pop up next however the inaugural dining event was a success. Unique, clever and thought-provoking.

Pastry chef Gareth Williams, of Restaurant Mason, challenged himself with pop-up bakery Covered In Crumbs. Every last crumb sold at the first event in November at Sherwood Coffee Bar. 

INTERNATIONAL FLAVOURS

Another inner-city trend was the addition of more and more international cuisines to our culinary smorgasboard. Winnies Jamaican (Jamie Thomas), Susuru Ramen & Gyoza (Taiyo Namba with chef Chris Schofield), Cielo and Signora Italian (Andrew and Lisa Margan), Little Castro, Hawaiian poke bowls at Lulus, Austrian fare at Doppelganger Kitchen on Darby Street, Vietnamese sandwiches at Screamin’ Veemis (Andy Howard and Adam Lance) – the list goes on. 

Acai and “Buddha” bowls continued our preoccupation with healthy wholefoods, and ingredients became easier to source as new wholefood stores opened around town.  

Tapas remained popular – Tatlers in the Valley launched a new menu, and Battlesticks Bar and Blacksmiths’ Te Aroha Place opened, for example – and from this the concept of shared plates became commonplace. It didn’t matter if the menu was Spanish or not. Reserve, owned by Patrick Haddock, started offering shared plates, as did Signora at The Landing Bar & Kitchen.

The idea of sharing food and making it a communal, social event caught on.

Street Feast on Market St Lawn soon spread to beachfront sites; Street Eats kicked off in Maitland and Feast Fest gained a foothold. Once again food trucks played a major part. Many markets also adopted a strong food focus, like Five Senses Twilight Market, and Olive Tree Market continued to promote artisan food makers and products.

FORWARD THINKING

And then there was Hey Zeus, an entity of its own. No waitstaff, no visible cooks – you just order electronically, pay and pick up your meal. Owner Jacob Beye’s innovative Newcastle story was picked up as far away as London. 

Foraging was a buzz word for a while, inspired by the Nordic practice and redefined by Cooper Thomas, also known as The Wilderness Chef; and Maitland’s own Josh Niland put his own stamp nose-to-tail seafood at Saint Peter in Paddington.

Frank Fawkner of EXP. restaurant launched Fawk Foods and started making and selling his very own “black garlic”, earning high praise from his peers. 

Troy Rhoades-Brown of Muse Restaurant told Weekender: “I think his style and offering is different for our region with some uncommon and individual flavour pairings that are strongly influenced by native Australian and locally grown ingredients. The restaurant’s food service is interactive with the chefs, which a lot of guest really seem to enjoy. It’s a young restaurant but it’s ongoing success will continue to see it grown and evolve.”

As for Muse, the two-hatted Pokolbin restaurant continues to raise the fine-dining bar – and move the goal posts. Rhoades-Brown and his team are always looking for new and unique ways to use Hunter produce and are, for example, teaming up with a farmer who breeds lamb in his olive grove. 

“We are still at a trial stage but we break down the whole lamb, leaving it on the bone, hot smoke it for two hours with olive wood and pits then finish cooking submerged in extra virgin olive oil served with olives all from the same farm,” Rhoades-Brown says. 

It’s all about, he says, “what makes us unique in terms of produce in the Hunter and Upper Hunter region –our diverse range of landscapes, soil and sub climates which allows us to be successful in so many agricultures. Beef, dairy, poultry, lamb, vegetables, fruit, nuts, grapes”.

One of Muse Restaurant’s most recent additions to the menu – local red deer served raw in fine sheets of pickled turnip katsuobushi, black sesame, puffed buckwheat and radish – is a case in point. Talk about combining cooking methods, local ingredients and diverse textures, not to mention flavours – this is the very definition of fusion. 

In addition to locally-sourced ingredients, sustainability influenced many a menu and a back-to-basics approach was generally favoured when it came to flavour. Native Australian ingredients continued to be in high demand and in-house fermenting and pickling proved popular.  Slow Food Hunter Valley launched a world-first “earth market” and farmers from the Great Lakes region, just a couple of hours’ north, banded together to promote their unique coastal food bowl through the seasonal Great Lakes Food Trail. Port Macquarie’s Tastings on Hastings festival proved people will travel for a love of food. 

Maitland Taste and Maitland Coffee and Chocolate Festival continued to be crowd-pleasers. It will interesting to see what Newcastle Food and Wine Festival, which was postponed from November 2017 until April 2018, will bring to the table. 

SUPERCARS

Many traditional chefs and restaurateurs also proved they were willing to adapt. Take, for example, the way Rascal and Restaurant Mason teamed up during the Supercars event in Newcastle in November. It was heartening to see talented chefs manning an outdoor table and dealing directly with customers. 

The same goes for Samuel Alexander of Reserve. He was spotted literally running after people with some kind of sausage sandwich in his hand. Bocados set up shop on the pavement with churros and coffee; Momo introduced a special race-day menu and The Persian Place had easy-to-eat lunches ready to go.

Chefs spruiking their food to the masses – showing initiative, modifying their menus to suit their audience and taking their service to the streets – were the ones who prospered. Many of these also had the benefit of location, of course. 

Oma’s Kitchen, who had closed for several months while roadworks were going on outside their Watt Street restaurant (and so that they could film season two of Travel Guides) had a stall near pit lane. 

Other venues chose to offer wine, dine and box seat package deals for their customers – think Rustica, Paymasters, Customs House, 48 Watt and Bocados.

It was a learning experience for all. As Randolph Movick of Paymasters told Weekender in August, it was always going to be a case of “suck it and see”. Some did it tough, especially those just outside of the race circuit. Year one was always going to be a challenge. It will be interesting to see what happens at next year’s race event.