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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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 Māori 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.
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.
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.
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