Secret Dinners Sydney International Food Festival 2011 – Guest Post

Following a massive October, time is slowing down again and life is falling into place. I finally have a place of my own, after being displaced for close to 6 months (hence the low frequency of blogging) and it’s great having all the dinners I had been planning all behind me now. The eggplant dinners and secret dinners I’ve organised have been a huge success, but man, they were exhausting. Without the massive amount of support I’ve received, things may have turned out differently.

The post below is a guest post by Linda To, aka: cuz, Jonathan, your sister and what’s your name again?. Linda is a good friend of mine, a hugely talented cook and a blogger at Eat Show and Tell, one of my favourite Sydney blogs. Below she shares her experience of being part of the secret dinner team. Here’s a huge thank you to Linda, Justine, Darren and Thomas from Restaurant Atelier where my secret dinners were held, Somer, Anise and the boys from Efendy and Priscila, my friend from Romeu & Julieta.

Linda To, the creator of a most awesome secret dinner dessert, writes:

The last couple of weeks has been one of the most amazingly intense experiences that I have ever experienced. Thanks to Fouad, I was fortunate enough to be involved in a couple of Secret Dinners for the Crave International Food Festival. This will be a relatively long post summarising the highs and lows of my journey, so sit back, relax and enjoy.

Prepping in the kitchen

Prepping in the kitchen

It all started 5 weeks ago. Howard and I bumped in to Fouad and a friend whilst walking along George St in the city to our dinner destination one saturday night. It had nearly been a year since I’d seen Fouad, with his newborn baby Sara and months of travelling around the middle east taking up his time, the bloke was a busy man so it was quite a pleasant surprise.

Fouad proceeded to introduce us to his friend, the conversation went something like this:

Fouad: Hey Guys, this is my friend Linda. Linda, this is my friend Howard and…

All four of us must have stood there for about the longest 5 seconds ever with Fouad staring at me in confusion. Sensing this, I reminded Fouad that my name was also Linda =P. Understandably embarassed by this encounter, we both laughed it off and bid each other farewell.

An hour later, I received a message from Fouad apologising profusely for the little mishap, but more importantly asking me whether I’d like to work with him on a couple of Secret Dinners. Having worked with Fouad before, I knew this was too good an opportunity to miss, however I did vow to never let him forget about “that” incident.

The First Secret Dinner

Fast forward one week to the first Secret Dinner. At 5pm on Sunday, the guests were notified of the location of the dinner via SMS which was at Restaurant Atelier in Glebe. Fouad suggested that I come up with a Lebanese inspired dessert for the secret dinners. On such short notice I wasn’t able to come up with a dessert I was actually happy with, so we both agreed that we could serve a dessert that Fouad previously made for his chickpea dinner.

Chicken liver parfait with pomegranate molasses

Fouad divised the menu in to 4 courses; Cold Mezze plus a salad, Hot Mezze, Main and Dessert. Cold Mezze served on the first night were: deliciously smooth Chicken Liver Parfait dressed with pomegranate molasses, pieces of pomegranate seeds and watercress salad; and Hummus with pomegranate molasses.

These Cold Mezze were served with freshly baked turkish bread. I am generally not a fan of hummus finding it little bland (please don’t shoot me), however I found the addition of the pomegranate molasses added that much needed kick that I was yearning for. The salad was the only consistant factor throughout the three dinners, a refreshingly herb salad consisting of tomato, cucumber, radish, red onion, watercress, A LOT of thyme, cheese and olive oil.

Prior to serving each of the courses, Fouad would go out and describe to the diners the next dish, the history of the dish and sometimes adding anecdotes of his family’s influences. Most of the time whilst Fouad did his thing, I was busy in the kitchen plating the dishes whilst desperately trying to listen to his stories. The only thing I can derived from listening to Fouad’s gibberish (=P) is that this guy is one hell of a storyteller.

Hot Mezze for the first night were Fried Pumpkin Kibbeh stuffed with minced lamb and onion, served with a yoghurt and green chilli dip. Initially Justine (sous chef of Atelier) and I had difficulty shaping the Kibbeh in to it’s traditional oval shape. Realising the impossibility of producing 65-70 evenly shaped kibbeh, Fouad suggested we used plastic dariole moulds to help shape the kibbeh, producing what we later named the “Fez Hat” Kibbeh.

The other hot mezze served on the night was my Linda Fried Chicken Wings (LFC) served with Toum (Garlic Sauce). I absolutely adore toum, thanks to El Jannah in Granville, however after tasting Fouad’s version, I think Fouad’s could rival the holy grail.

Fouad proudly presented his Main course of Moghrabieh served on a round platter approximately 1m in diameter (I may be exaggerating a little) to a silent room. Each person stopped in their tracks as they realised the sheer monstrosity of the platter. It was definitely the talking point for the remainder of the night. The Moghrabieh was cooked in a concentrated chicken stock, topped with tender, fall off the bone roast lamb shoulder and poached chicken.

To finish off the night, we served Fouad’s trifle chickpea dessert. The bottom layer consisted of a Labneh, thickened cream and icing sugar mix, it was then covered by pieces of Mamoul-mad (a semolina and walnut cookie/cake), another layer of the Labneh mix, sprinkling of chopped candied chickpeas and finally garnishing of vibrant candied orange blossom. Each components of the dessert worked really well together, the tangy Labneh was a good balance to an otherwise too sweet dessert.

For me, our first secret dinner was the most difficult. Working in an unfamilair kitchen for 10 hours straight, slicing, dicing, chopping and frying took its toll on me and by the end of the night, I was buggered. My back and legs were aching, my arms sore, I was tired and hungry, I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to handle another 2 nights like this. However, learning about all the different traditional Lebanese food that I have never ever heard of before, the franticness (is that even a word?) of getting food ready at service time, and generally having a hoot working with Fouad made all the pain worth it.

The Second Secret Dinner

The second Secret Dinner a week later was a vegetarian dinner. This time, I found working the entire day much more manageable, this could also be due to the fact that we had a couple of chefs, Greg Malouf, Darren Tempelman, chef and owner of Restaurant Atelier, Efendy’s Somer Sivroglou and Fouad’s friend Priscilla helping us in the kitchen throughout the night. Overall, it was just a relaxing and enjoyable evening.

Cold Mezze served for the Vegetarian dinner were two delicious dips, Muhammarah and Baba Ghanoush served with deep fried Lebanese bread or fresh Lebanese bread. I loved the Muhammarah so much that I smuggled a container home after the dinner. It was a great addition to my mundane sandwiches for lunch.

Hot Mezze for the vegetarians were traditional Turkish Pacanga which Somer happily taught us how to make. As Pacanga are normally filled with Pastrami or prosciutto and kashar cheese, for the vegos, Somer substituted the pastrami for mozarella cheese, creating a super cheesey Pacanga. The other Hot Mezze was Stir Fried Okra, chillies and deep fried bread with pomegranate molasses.

Vegetarians were served main course of “Fez Hat” Kibbeh, however the lamb mixture was subsituted for a caramelised onion and toasted almond and pine nut mix. These fried goodies were served in a yogurt soup.

Once again, dessert for the night was Fouad’s chickpea dessert.

The Last Secret Dinner

Fouad warned me for the last dinner there was to be no more excuses, he really wanted me to come up with a dessert, the pressure was definitely on. Throughout the month, I had so many ideas racing through my mind, deciding on what Lebanese ingredients to use, and how to incorporate these ingredients in to each components of the dessert. After weeks of experimenting and chopping and changing ideas, finally, 2 days before the dinner, I came up with something I was proud enough to serve to people.

The final dinner was held last Sunday. By this time, I knew the kitchen like the back of my hand and everything ran smoothly on the day. Each person knew their roles and responsibility, we were so efficient that we finished prepping by 4pm, which is extremely rare.

The Cold Mezze were the Muhammarah and Baba Ghanoush, you can’t go wrong with these two beauties. Hot Mezze were traditional Pacanga filled with Pastrami and Kashar cheese and Somer’s Loquat kebabs. The main was the Morabiah that we had served at the first dinner, however the Moghrabiah pasta was replaced by Basmati rice.

Ding Ding Ding. Show time! It was my turn to reveal my dessert.

The aim of my dessert was to utilise ingredients that are commonly used in traditional Lebanese desserts and incorporate it in to modern desserts that most people are familiar with e.g. chocolate cakes, caramels and ice cream. I wanted to show the versatility of these ingredients and hopefully encourage people to experiment with them.

“Johnathan” – My plated dessert

Components of my desserts consisted of:

  • Chocolate Pistachio dacquoise base – Fouad loves dacquoise so requested I somehow use it in my dessert.
  • Chocolate Labneh mousse – Chocolate mousse are usually quite rich. To cut this richness, I incorporated Labneh (strained yoghurt) into the mix.
  • Kataifi dusted with icing sugar – Kataifi is finely shredded filo pastry. I couldn’t believe that I had never used Kataifi in any of my desserts before. It’s such a light pastry that when baked in ghee provides a beautiful buttery delecate crunch.
  • Orange blossom caramel – As the name suggests, orange blossom syrup is a syrup made from the flowers of an orange tree. Prior to this dinner I had no idea this fragrant thing existed. For the orange blossom caramel, I made a standard caramel and to finish it off splashed in a couple of teaspoons of orange blossom syrup.
  • Pistachio crumble – I used the same recipe as the one I used for the Merivale’s Bistro CBD dinner, however substituted the almond for pistachio.
  • Zaatar ice cream – Fouad’s contribution to the dessert was the Zaatar (thyme) ice cream. Using Fouad’s recipe, I churned out 8L of ice cream which we found out later that night was way more than is necessary, however I was more than happy to take home the leftovers. I love the idea of using herbs in desserts so I was ecstatic by the outcome of the ice cream, it was freaking fantastic.
  • Poached spiced pears – I poached the peeled and cored pears in a syrup spiced with star anise, cloves and cinnamon.

Plating up desserts

Somer and Darren helping to plate my dessert

Looking back, the most memorable moment of the whole event for me was standing back and supervising Darren, Somer, Fouad and Justine plate up what I had conceptualise, my dessert. It was such a surreal moment, something I will remember for a long time.

A special event like this would have not happened without a couple of key people. To finish off this post, there are a few people I would like to thank. Fouad – for giving me the opportunity to work with him again, I meant it when I told him it was such an honour to work with someone that’s so passionate about their food and their culture. The chefs that helped us throughout the month, Somer, Darren and Justine – some of the most resiliant people that I have ever met. All the patrons that came along for the experience, hopefully you all enjoyed yourselves!

Finally Howard – for being my critic and advisor. If you thought Terry Durack was tough, try being criticised by Howard, toughest critic ever!

The original concept using chocolate brulee instead of Labneh chocolate mousse.

Its funny how blogging has opened up opportunities like this for me. Hopefully, I get to experience something like this again in the near future.

Thanks Linda for a great post, and a huge thanks to Howard, also from Eat Show & Tell for providing all the fantastic photos.


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