Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Food for Thought



Of the almost four million people living in Sydney, it’s estimated some 1.3 million are now celebrity chefs. They can be seen everywhere from the front of the Sydney Morning Herald and its various supplements through to the covers of this year’s White Pages (Residential and Business & Government), not to mention a plethora of high-rating television shows, signed air flight menus with a choice of Thai chicken or lamb curry, best-selling $150 cook books that make the Bible seem shabbily produced, and of course the social pages, where they are usually snapped embracing each other and laughing like drains.

I have been observing this phenomenon for some time – though a word like ‘observing’ does undue credit to the obviousness of being stampeded to death by a herd of men and women in white hats and clogs shouting ‘f-you!’ and ‘lovely jubbly’ as they pass over you in clouds of money, sweat and flour.

Of course I assume it is flour. I come from a prehistoric era when chefs were lesser known and most likely to be red-faced old hands with a 3-bottle-a-night wine habit and a dubious approach to hygiene, or young turks prone to snorting a blizzard of cocaine at 2am once their kitchens had closed before going off to party into the daylight hours. The chef back then was not so much a high profile social figure as the very acme of dysfunctional humanity and workaholic chaos, their private lives a shambles held together by little more than a knack for frying up chops with a dash of rosemary.

Those were the days. And, if you will indulge me in a little bragging, I did party among these aspiring caterers du jour before their stars ascended. But no more guest appearances on morning television with Bert Newton and his ilk looming over them cracking jokes (as if to suggest they were not interesting in their own right!). No more struggling in the shadow of Margaret Fulton. No, the chefs were slowly clawing their way centre stage via an assortment of reality television shows, preparing to take over the media arena, and now of course, the city as well.

This has put enormous pressure on the rest of us common folk, especially when hosting intimate events in the home. Just the other evening I had a few friends over for a lazy Sunday night viewing of Australian Idol. Everyone seemed to be ironically enjoying themselves at this casual soiree when I brought out my piece de resistance – spaghetti with tuna sauce. I quake at even telling you this, the memory is so vivid and painful to me, but among my friends was a celebrity chef who stood and threw their bowl against the wall, roundly abusing me in language that would make a rugby league player blush, before sending me back to the kitchen to cook the meal again – and again – and yet again – oh God, have mercy on me please – “Until you get it right!”

He was doing this for my own good, I know, and as I offered him my last effort at near midnight and he smiled, it was as if Jesus himself had blessed me. Accepted! Embraced! A part of Sydney society at last! My spirits rose like pastry!

I am sure other non-chefs among you have noted this seismic shift in Sydney culture. My book case, formerly dominated by Patrick White and Fyodor Dostoyevsky is now occupied by the complete works of Neil Perry and Greg Doyle. I try to fit in, you see! I say all the right things at parties like “mmm” and “delish”; I avoid subjects like literature and art in favour of my latest pilates class or an interesting tempura prawn canap├ęs I have tried recently. And yet somehow the takeaway pizza, salt n vinegar chipped, Coca Cola swigging side of me is visible to all – and people turn away.

As a consequence I am becoming more of a loner in this city, my face pressed to the fogged window pane of exclusive restaurants and cafes where whippet thin people with fake sun tans and a sprinkling of grotesquely fat bon-vivants gaze down at huge white [sometimes square] plates upon which main courses the size of a minor doodle reside.

Kandinsky, Pollock, Miro? Bah! The chef is the real artist, the Zen calligrapher upon the palette of our contemporary souls.

Me? I shuffle off to a Lebanese take-a-way for a schwarma, or linger at children’s birthday parties stealing party pies and dipping them in a plastic bowl filled with tomato sauce. A barbarian in this city of celebrity chefs, not even worthy enough to be a ‘foodie’, let alone a restaurant critic. The shame and sadness of it all, caste out a world so refined and ‘f’in’ lovely jubbly.

- Mark Mordue

* A Melbourne accented version of this story appeared today (Sept 25th 2008) in The Age under the title 'Starved: the lament of a failed foodie'. The Sydney Morning Herald did not opt to use the piece, but I hoped Sydney friends might equally appreciate it. Link to The Age story runs below -
http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/starved-the-lament-of-a-failed-foodie-20080924-4nbq.html

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