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Melbourne’s Creative Spark

Writer Tom Downey tracks down the sources of surprising culinary innovations in Australia’s second city.

Photos by John Laurie

I woke up at 6 a.m. in Melbourne jet-lagged and hungry. I made my way from my hotel to a nearby café called Silo by Joost. It was tiny, with just 15 counter seats built from recycled kegs. I expected little more than good espresso and decent chow. But then I saw the chef carefully remove eggs from an immersion circulator, a specialized slow-cooking device—not your typical mom-and-pop café equipment. I asked him where he was from.

“I grew up in Japan, but I went to the Culinary Institute of America, in California,” Hiro Okada told me. I ordered eggs, and he continued. “I cooked in New York, staged at Etxebarri in Spain and at places in other parts of Europe and Japan. Then I came to Melbourne.” A few minutes later, head chef Florent “Flo” Gerardin arrived. He was French, from La Rochelle, and had come to Melbourne with an haute cuisine background even more extensive than Okada’s: stints at Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier and Alain Ducasse’s three-Michelin-star 59 Poincaré, both in Paris.

Silo by Joost

A barista makes a flat white (espresso served with steamed milk that has little foam) at Silo by Joost.

I stopped chatting long enough to taste the coddled eggs. Served at 63 degrees, the yolks were radiantly orange and perfectly runny, the whites soft but not undercooked. Sprinkled on top, microgreens and crunchy seeds and nuts transformed the texture. Melbourne, everyone had told me, is experiencing a culinary moment. Even so, I was surprised by what I found at Silo by Joost: two highly trained chefs who served me astonishing modernist eggs in a small place that didn’t even open for dinner. I couldn’t wait to see what was for lunch.

Some countries with a history of great food—Italy, France, Japan, China—have culinary roots that are relatively easy to trace. The red-sauce traditions of Naples, for instance, are owed to the volcanic soil of Vesuvius, which yields some of the best tomatoes in the world. But other cities, such as Melbourne, New York, London, and Los Angeles, lack a long-standing, singular cuisine that reflects a sense of place. I wasn’t yet sure what my breakfast at Silo by Joost told me about Melbourne’s restaurants, but clearly, something was up.

Maybe the city’s past would yield clues. I asked my friend Guy Richards, a filmmaker and Melbourne native, to take me to some of the places where he remembered eating as a child. We drove to Queen Victoria Market, on the north side of the central business district, and walked through food halls where cheese vendors, fishmongers, and butchers hawked their wares in a cacophony of foreign-inflected Aussie accents. “My two favorite places here,” Guy told me, “are the doughnut truck and the sausage stall.” At the sausage place, we joined a raucous crowd shouting orders from a jumbled queue. Next door, dozens of people waited for hot börek, a kind of Turkish pastry. I ate my bratwurst, delivered in a soft roll, with a slathering of mustard so spicy it shot a wave of heat up my nose. After fresh börek emerged from the oven, I jostled into position and scored one. They were made with bread dough different from anything I’d ever seen in Turkey, where they are made with phyllo-like yufka.

American Doughnut Kitchen

American doughnuts get an Australian twist in the food truck at Queen Victoria Market.

Next, we waited in line outside at the American Doughnut Kitchen for a white paper bag filled with five piping-hot, oblong jelly doughnuts, which, the truck’s facade told us, had been sold here since 1956. “It must have been some kind of post–World War II venture,” Guy said, “after all the American soldiers were here during the war.” The “American” doughnuts were not overly sweet, containing just a small spoonful of red jelly in some unidentifiable flavor. Like the börek, they were unlike what I was familiar with in their supposed country of origin.

Melbourne’s market culture is obviously very much alive and, in the case of Queen Victoria Market, has been since the 1870s. I asked Guy about other local culinary institutions—where were the Melbourne restaurants or bars that had been around for what seemed like forever? He was stumped. There was no Melbourne equivalent to McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York City, which dates to 1854, or Brooklyn’s Peter Luger Steak House, which opened in 1887 as Carl Luger’s Café, Billiards, and Bowling Alley. There were a few bars and Italian places from the 1960s, but according to Guy, nearly everything here was new, even by my own New World standards. There had been, of course, the food traditions of Australia’s indigenous people, but as in North America, that cuisine was now largely lost.

Queen Victoria Market

A Greek delicatessen in Queen Victoria Market

After my day with Guy, I continued to eat my way around Melbourne. Although praise for the city’s culinary renaissance tends to focus on a few chefs—at such restaurants as Vue de Monde, Cutler & Co., and Attica—I wanted to get beyond the cult of celebrity and find the food that felt truly Melbournian. To my surprise, the places most representative of Melbourne’s dining scene today had something else in common. For virtually every dish I tasted in what became my favorite restaurants—such as the Athenian street food at Gazi; Café Di Stasio’s rich risotto with chunks of the strange, stubby lobsters called Moreton Bay bugs; and the dry-cured Wagyu beef at Saint Crispin, chef Joe Grbac’s riff on his father’s Croatian charcuterie—the recipe had been imported from outside Australia. The city’s best cuisine, it turned out, had been shaped by waves of immigrants, starting with the English. Fortunately for Melbourne, things had moved way beyond the British legacy of meat pies, mashed potatoes, and boiled meat.After World War II, incoming Italians, Greeks, and later Lebanese were collectively dubbed the New Australians, and their influence remains evident. On Lygon Street in the Carlton neighborhood, for example, in a gleaming, newly relocated and renovated Italian café called Brunetti, recent immigrants work the espresso machines. And there’s the empire of Greek restaurateur George Calombaris, whose places have ranged from gourmet fast-food souvlaki joints to upscale, experimental Greek dining.

Turkish börek in Melbourne

A trip through Melbourne’s dining scene turns up a spinach and cheese Turkish gözleme.

Between meals, I read Shane Maloney’s 1994 crime thriller, Stiff, set in 1980s Melbourne. In the novel’s vividly depicted social universe, recent Turkish immigrants battle over ideology, old-school Italians fight their upstart younger brethren, and local politicians dine on the city’s dime at Melbourne’s fanciest Chinese restaurant. After I finished reading Stiff, I reached out to its author for insight into the immigrant experience that had been the dramatic backdrop for his fiction and now seemed to be driving Melbourne’s culinary ascendance.

Maloney took me first to Preston Market, a bustling food mart on the city’s north side. Maloney often sets scenes from his novels here. We heard fish-stall staff speaking Pacific Island languages next to halal butchers; we saw Greek cafés serving hot galaktoboureko (custard pie) flanked by dim sum specialists. Much of the north side, once a working-class immigrant enclave, is fast becoming a hip, desirable neighborhood, and the ethnic worlds that had seemed exotic and impenetrable in Maloney’s early books have, he told me, become a part of everyday Melbourne life.

For dinner, Maloney suggested we go to Rumi and dine with its chef, Joseph Abboud, a friend of his who was producing understated, delicious Lebanese food. Over starters of house-made labneh (strained yogurt) and bastourma (air-cured beef ), chef Abboud talked about his background. “My family owned fish-and-chips stores here in Melbourne, but within my family I was known as a terrible cook, and so I never got to do anything,” he said. “We didn’t dine out at restaurants. We ate at home, or we got together with other Lebanese. I only learned to cook much later, when I went to work in a restaurant kitchen.”

Rumi chef Joseph Abboud

At Rumi, chef Joseph Abboud stokes the charcoal for his speciality: grilled lamb ribs.

As Abboud brought out a dish of caramelized carrots with a little herbed yogurt on top, I asked him what he called the kind of food he served here. “It’s Lebanese,” he said, “even if we make some changes, update recipes, and refuse to serve hummus. Why is it that French food encompasses everything from the most traditional to the most experimental, but for ethnic cuisines like Lebanese, only the very traditional stuff is considered the real thing?” Fried cauliflower came out next. “The Lebanese always ask, where’s the tahini and garlic sauce? Anytime a waiter comes into the kitchen for tahini,” said Abboud, “we know the diners are Lebanese. On the other hand, Europeans tell me the cauliflower is too brown. That it’s burnt. But I say to them, it’s better that way.” And it was.

Melbourne’s many different ethnic groups are dynamic enough that none can dominate or remain isolated for long. That gives Abboud and other chefs the freedom to experiment with their native cuisine. They aren’t competing with dozens of traditional restaurants in their communities, and they’re appealing to a diverse dining population. We finished with lamb ribs—the tender, pink meat coated in the spice mixture known as za’atar—that we dipped into toum, a garlic sauce with bite.

Over sweet tea, we discussed Rumi’s origins. “I was able to open up here, on the north side, because it was so much cheaper than downtown,” Abboud said. “But it’s now no longer just a working-class neighborhood, which means that I have more customers who can regularly afford the food here. We’re close to sections of the city that have a lot of Lebanese, but we’re not right in those sections. We have a kind of freedom.” Just as Abboud was freed from the weight of tradition, so were his customers. If you’re an immigrant in a place with hundreds of thousands of others from your country of origin, you often stick to your own culture and cuisine. That was hard to do here, which made diners more open-minded.

Melbourne's Rumi restaurant

At Rumi, chef Joseph Abboud serves za’atar-spiced lamb ribs, fried cauliflower, roasted carrots, and asparagus salad.

Maloney explained that after the influx of Italians, Greeks, and Lebanese, a subsequent wave of immigrants came to Melbourne, starting in the 1970s and still arriving today, mostly from Asia, followed by the Middle East, India, and Sri Lanka, and, more recently, Africa. Of the eateries established early in this new wave, Flower Drum, a high-end Chinese restaurant founded by Gilbert Lau in 1975, had become iconic. Eleven years ago, Lau sold Flower Drum. Then, restless in retirement, he opened a more casual venture, Lau’s Family Kitchen, recommended to me by several local chefs. Lau’s son Michael, who now manages the place, steered me to his favorite things on the menu. The highlight was a simple but spectacular silky dish made with only three ingredients: egg whites, cream, and crabmeat. The seasoning was just a little salt and pepper.

“Our chef from Hong Kong introduced us to this,” Lau said. “He’s amazing on the wok.” I asked Lau if he knew how to cook. “No way,” he said. “Nowadays, everyone wants to be in the kitchen. But 20 years ago, when I started working, the kitchen was considered hot, tough, backbreaking labor. It’s funny how that changed.” What I liked about the food Lau served was that it wasn’t upscale, experimental, auteur fare, nor was it thoroughly traditional. It was what Lau’s father had most wanted when he left his restaurant and opened the Family Kitchen: gourmet yet home-style, in a casual environment. “It’s the kind of food we like to eat,” said Lau.

Lau's Family Kitchen

A dish of blue swimmer crab at Lau’s Family Kitchen.

In addition to the old and new waves of immigrants represented by Rumi and Lau’s Family Kitchen, Melbourne experienced a third wave consisting of immigrant chefs, restaurateurs, and sommeliers. Attica, Melbourne’s most celebrated restaurant, was taken over in 2005 by New Zealand chef Ben Shewry, whose team now includes chefs and stagiaires from as far away as India and New Jersey. The Town Mouse, a wine bar with superb food, opened last year thanks to a team of Kiwis who knew each other from Wellington. Silo by Joost, started by a Dutch guy with an executive chef from England, now boasts a staff including Japanese, French, and Canadians. It’s this third wave of immigrants—the foodies—including line cooks, bartenders, and baristas, who are shaping Melbourne’s food culture today.

Attica’s severe interior design—black walls and spot lighting—puts the focus solely on the food in front of you. Shewry is an international star in the same sort of hyperlocal, hyperseasonal culinary movement as René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. His most famous dish is a potato baked under earth until it acquires an almost pudding-like consistency and maximum potato flavor, mimicking the method New Zealand’s Maori people used. My favorite dish, though, was probably Shewry’s most conventional—a seared kangaroo steak, served rare with a tiny local fruit called quandong that gave a burst of sweet-and-sour flavor to complement the meatiness of the ’roo.

Silo by Joost

A couple relaxes on the stoop at Silo by Joost.

The day after my meal at Attica, I returned to talk with Shewry, an affable and humble man who comes across as supremely focused on what he does without taking himself too seriously. “There’s too much emphasis on chefs,” he said. “I wish we could celebrate the guys who catch fish or find mushrooms. They’re as important or more important than me in making the food.” Shewry grew up in rural New Zealand, and much of what he knows about foraging comes from his youth. He told me about a dish he made that yielded a taste of the sea, inspired by a childhood experience of being struck by a wave and thrown against the coral.

I asked Shewry where he takes chefs to eat when they visit from out of town. He said that Redzepi visited in 2013 and, upon Shewry’s recommendation, went to Rumi and ate Joseph Abboud’s Lebanese food—Redzepi loved it. Maybe one of the reasons that restaurants like Shewry’s, Abboud’s, and Redzepi’s have resonated with diners is that they give us the feeling we’re eating food that comes from this place. In Shewry’s case, though, he isn’t native to the place. “My childhood home in New Zealand was nothing like here,” Shewry said. “I’ve had to learn about what we can find here.” In Melbourne, after some initial hard times, he found a clientele receptive to his cooking, “a group of people who were willing to take a chance and spend money on food they’d never tried before.”

Near the end of my stay in Melbourne, I returned to eat lunch with Joost Bakker, the owner of Silo by Joost, where my trip had begun. Behind me, the chefs labored at the convection oven. Chef Flo recommended roast chicken over a bed of macadamia puree, and asparagus with a brown butter emulsion. Just after I cut off a bright asparagus tip and was about to dip it, Bakker started telling me about his dreams for the restaurant. “One of our challenges is urine,” he said. I paused, put down my fork. “Eventually I want to create a system where we can use all the urine we collect in the café to fertilize the mustard fields we use to produce oil.”

I nodded solemnly, and then picked up my fork of asparagus again. I was about to go in for a dip of brown butter when the conversation shifted to number two.

“Feces, that’s the other problem,” Bakker said. “We need a way to collect feces from here, dry it, and use it for fertilizer.”

When I finally got to eat my asparagus and roast chicken, I had to give Bakker credit. Despite the unappetizing conversation topics, he had created a superb restaurant inside his little café. The asparagus was crunchy and fresh, the brown butter rich and creamy, the chicken cooked just right. Every one of these elements adhered to his vision.

“When we first opened,” he said, “the chefs would always ask me why we couldn’t use something that wasn’t organic when it was so much cheaper. I told them, these are the rules. And they’ve made excellent food guided by our principles of sustainability and zero waste.” Joost’s goal is much bigger than Silo: His next project is a full-scale restaurant that will be located inside a rooftop urban farm and glasshouse he is designing.

Sydney Road, Melbourne

Turkish, Lebanese, Nepali, and other cuisines flourish along Sydney Road.

I asked him what he thought explained Melbourne’s blossoming food scene. “I came over here as a kid from Holland,” he said. “Where we lived in the Dutch countryside, there were only other Dutch. But even outside Melbourne, where we moved when we first got here, there were people from everywhere. What you see here in this kitchen—Japanese, French, Dutch, Canadians all working together—is just a continuation of what I experienced when I immigrated here. It’s happening all over the city, and, to me, it’s the key to why the food here is so great.”

Most recent press about Melbourne’s culinary moment has focused on the city’s celebrity chefs and their modernist experiments. But for me, the more distinctively “Melbourne” destinations are places like Silo, Rumi, and Lau’s, as well as Attica, where immigrants from disparate cultures exercise their freedom in the kitchen and cook for a public ready to embrace their tasty innovations. These may not be long-standing dining institutions of the kind you find in New York or London, but the groundwork has been laid. They embody essential qualities of the contemporary city. All we have to do is wait a hundred years to see what evolves, and Melbourne will have a culinary history of its own.

This appeared in the May 2014 issue.