Saturday 25th July 2009. Driving down to Element Bistro, Lainy and I stop past Lili’s to pick her up. Lili has prepared the dessert for the evening, and the last time we taste tested it, she wasn’t happy. This time though, she has used a different technique, and the chocolate and orange cake was supposedly richer and more moist, she assured me. But my anxiety is taking over me. My heart is running on high speed, each beat amplifying the smallest of concerns into catastrophic proportions. My biggest fear as we keep driving is the venue. I had not spoken to the owner Matt Barnett since Monday, and I do not have his mobile phone number. As I get no answer when I ring the restaurant’s land line, my heart pounds even harder, and I get vivid hallucinations of thirty two secret diners stranded in front of a closed door.
March 17th 2009. I am sitting at work flipping through Good Living in the Tuesday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, and am totally consumed by an article about secret dinners. What grabs me is not the style of writing, or the experience of the author, but rather the concept. Secret dinners. People gathering secretly to dine, brought together by a singular cause or idea shared over a meal in a location known only to them. The author traces back the origins to the days of alcohol prohibition in the United States, but I feel its roots go further back, and that the current form is a reshaped ideological Last Supper.
Over the next few weeks, the idea brews in my head and becomes all consuming. Could I do it? Take over a venue for a night and see firsthand what it’s like to be a real life chef? Of course I can! In fact, it’s what I have to do.
Wednesday 27th May 2009. Life has caught up with me, and the idea of a secret dinner is way behind, but like all great ideas, it fights its way back and I find myself posting a blog entry openly inviting people to register for my secret dinner to be held on July 25th. The night was to be inspired from the Mediterranean and would focus on locally sourced produce, in the hope of introducing people to the wealth they have at their doorstep. I swiftly set my facebook status to “come to my secret dinner party” and low and behold, people are actually interested! I had decided that I would keep the number low. Twenty was a nice even number, and seemed perfectly reasonable, but within about four hours, around eighteen people had already booked and I still had not finished going through my emails. This was becoming scary, and the gracious Lebanese host in me could not say no. One very interesting reply came from Lili. I hadn’t actually seen her for around three years, but for a few months, during my Newtown years, Lili had been a good friend, and as I remember, a trained chef.
Lili’s first message expressed interest in the dinner, but her second message went like this:
Bwahahaha – I just realised that ‘The Food Blog’ was you. Wonderful!
Me too, by the way: www.pikeletandpie.com
I click on the link, and discover a great treat. Food blogs can be very frustrating, with many of them stating boring facts with poor use of the language, giving little insight. But Lili’s blog was different – fun, informative, well written with no spelling or grammar mistakes, and most of all, it really sounded like her, honest and talented. Lili had to be recruited. Luckily though, she was easy enough to convince, and I had my pastry chef problem sorted.
For the next recruit, I didn’t have to think hard. Trish has been a friend for years, and I’ve hardly seen a young person so enthusiastic about food or good produce. Over the years, Trish had worked at many a fine establishment. We met when she was working at Campos Coffee in Newtown, and afterwards she moved to The Cheese Room in GPO, and then to the Central Baking Depot. Trish was a bread making wizard and was about to embark on a six week foodie European journey. We agreed that she will be cooking one of the courses, to be decided when she came back.
After a big mess with the City of Sydney wanting me to provide public liability insurance to allow Channel Nine to film (they eventually pulled out, so I won’t go into that), I had to drop the booking I had made with the Redfern Town Hall and find an alternate venue. I needed somewhere that was capable of holding the number of people booked, somewhere that had a kitchen, and somewhere that would not be in use on a Saturday night. A persistent voice inside pushed me to contact Element Bistro. This was a small intimate venue, below the street level on King Street in the CBD. The ambiance was perfect for the occasion, and I had experienced many fantastic meals there. The chef was a true talent, dishing out honest, authentic French bistro style food in the ex Merrony site. Best of all, they did not open on Saturdays. So I send an email, a phone call being a bit too embarrassing (where’s my courage?), explaining the situation, and thankfully after a brief meeting , chef/owner Matt Barnett accepts to hire out the venue, and to cook one of the dishes. Finally, all the pieces are in place.
The menu is set. Trish would be making a Mediterranean cheese journey. A trio of local fresh cheese based dishes inspired from Italy, Greece and Lebanon. The first would be buffalo mozzarella with tomato and oregano, then buffalo feta on a potato pancake with fennel and orange, and finally labneh (Lebanese yoghurt cheese) with roasted walnuts and beetroot and a honey vinegar drizzle.
My two dishes are Lebanese in origin. First is my own recipe for shish barak consisting of spiced lamb dumplings with a cooked garlic and yoghurt sauce flavoured with coriander and served with silver beet. The second dish is moghrabbiyeh, a Lebanese variant of couscous which I would serve with chickpeas, chicken, black pudding, caramelised onions and a sticky, heavily reduced chicken stock and gewürztraminer, made rich with burnt sugar and butter and gently spiced with star anise and caraway.
Matt’s dish is a fillet of beef wrapped around bone marrow and cavolo nero, served with sauce soubise and a potato and thyme croquette and a stocky, flavoursome jus. This would be followed by Lili’s dessert of chocolate and orange cake, topped with an orange blossom panna cotta, pine nut praline and candied orange blossoms.
Saturday 25th July 2009 – Secret Dinner Day
3:00 PM: The message is sent to the secret diners, the location is exposed
3:30 PM: I’m picking up Lili and heading to the venue, anxious and nervous. Why can’t people drive properly? And why isn’t Matt answering? Will he be there?
3:35 PM: Matt answers the phone! Praise the Lord! Why am I so impatient? Great relief, but is the sauce container in the boot secure?
4:00 PM: Arrive at Element Bistro and unload the food. The kitchen is ready and Matt is fully prepared. We start prepping. Lainy and Eddie start readying the tables.
5:00 PM: Trish arrives. It’s not like her to be late and she is slightly under prepared. She is nervous as she had been visiting sick relatives, and feels she is running behind. We gather our thoughts and start helping her out. Luckily, the dishes track well on time.
7:00 PM: People start walking through the door. All my nervousness disappears for some reason and I am totally calm. Lainy and Eddie are playing front of house for the evening and help the guests with wine and seating.
7:30 PM: Most of the guests are there and it’s time to get the show on the road.
Trish, Lili, Matt and I leave the kitchen briefly to welcome everyone. The evening starts with a local olive oil tasting, and then the dishes start coming out. I manage to sneak out between courses, firstly to introduce the dishes and the chefs, and then to chat to everyone. The dishes are going down a storm and everyone is blown away by the new flavours and textures they are experiencing. From Trish’s wonderful cheeses, to the gently spiced lamb dumplings in yoghurt sauce, followed by the full flavoured chicken and black pudding moghrabbiyeh, Matt’s heavenly tender beef with rich bone marrow and sweet, creamy soubise, that fragrant potato and thyme croquette, and Lili’s decadence of chocolate and orange cake topped with the sexy panna cotta and pine nut praline, a revelation in harmony. Everything works, and works beautifully.
I can’t explain what this experience has meant to me. In fact, I am still having sleepless nights, my mind buzzing with joy and excitement, and I haven’t fully been able to assimilate all the feelings it has instilled. What I do know is that we achieved something special, something most people have not experienced, and that we have been able to share the joy food brings us with people who absolutely loved it. I also know that it felt right cooking in that kitchen.
163 King St Sydney 2000 NSW
Tel: (02) 9231 0013
Fax: (02) 9232 8447
Chicken – John Meredith, Thirlmere Poultry, Supplier Vic’s Meats
Lamb – Organic Lamb from Young NSW, Supplier Dulwich Hill Gourmet Butcher
Black Pudding – Eumundi Smokehouse, Dulwich Hill
Beef – Banksia Beef
Cream – Green Valley Dairy Picton, Eveleigh Markets
Oranges – Eveleigh Markets, locally grown
Wine for Chicken Sauce – 2007 Robert Stein Gewurztraminer Mudgee
Eggs – Egganic, Eveleigh Markets
Buffalo feta and Buffalo mozzarella – Vanella QLD
Labneh – Grampa’s Dairy
Trish’s Olive Oil: Rich Glen Olive VIC (to order, contact Trish on plathourakis(at)gmail.com)
My Olive Oil: Kiewa Estate Traditionally Pressed Verdale, Eveleigh Markets