In Food + Drink

What Does ‘Contemporary Australian Cuisine’ Actually Mean?

What exactly is Australian cuisine? If you’re a fan of classic Aussie television shows, you may think our culinary contributions are limited to lamingtons and meat pies. In reality, though, we’ve left those clichés in the 1980s where they belong and ushered in a new, infinitely more exciting era of creativity.

At its core, contemporary Australian cuisine is about freedom and experimentation.

Though loosely defined and always evolving, it’s underpinned by a desire to celebrate local produce, to look beyond the traditions of the past, and approach cooking from a fresh perspective.

contemporary Australian cuisine

Image: Trippas White / Daniel Boud

Local chef, author and television presenter Karen Martini, a familiar face in Australian homes thanks to roles on Channel Seven’s Better Homes and Gardens and My Kitchen Rules, says the term is so broad it’s practically limitless – and therein lies the fun.

“It’s an exciting, broad strokes of a cuisine and you can’t easily sum it up in one sentence.” Martini says. “It’s like an unlimited flavour profile.

“I think the main reasons for that is we’re such a cultural melting pot, we can grow all this amazing produce, and diners are increasingly inquisitive about food and insatiable for the new.”

Embracing experimentation

contemporary Australian cuisine

Image: Trippas White / Daniel Boud

Though classic French and Italian restaurants were once regarded as the upper tier of Australia’s dining scene, Martini says the next big chef or restaurant could now be anyone or anywhere.

“I think it’s because you can be rewarded in the industry,” she says. “We’re receiving a lot of support from people who are just so passionate about moving our culinary identity forward.

“Chefs around the world now see Australia as a visionary food culture because we’re passionate about produce, we’re not limited by history and tradition, and we also have the skills and expertise to back up what we’re doing.”

Martini praises chefs who are travelling the world, adopting techniques from other cultures, and then applying them to different ingredients as being key drivers in our foodie evolution.

“We’re also seeing people study under the likes of Kylie Kwong, Neil Perry or Dan Hong. Taking on knowledge from the cuisines they’re very good at, and then going out and experimenting using those same techniques and applying them to different produce.”

Our new national obsession

contemporary Australian cuisine

Image: Trippas White / Daniel Boud

Television programs like Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules, as well as the continued rise of social media, are also having a huge impact on Australian dining habits, Martini believes. And you only need to look to the changing products on our supermarket shelves to see this in practice.

“There’s a new curiosity at a basic level at home, but then it continues through to those who really love pushing the boundaries and dining out and chasing new experiences. People want to try what they’ve seen on TV, they want to taste it, to experiment with it.”

Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne, regularly named among the world’s top restaurants; Dan Hunter of Brae in the Otway Ranges of Victoria; and Peter Gilmore of the iconic Quay at Sydney’s Overseas Passenger Terminal are just a few of the visionary chefs Martini says are driving Australia forward.

Then there’s Josh Niland, often lauded as one of Australia’s up-and-coming guns in the kitchen. “He’s making crackers from eyeballs, goddammit,” Martini jokes.

“I’ve eaten his food several times and he’s really found his strap with seafood at his restaurant Saint Peter. He’s pushing and proudly exploring seafood like we’ve never seen before – that real nose-to-tail approach.

“Championing that sort of investigative cookery is just amazing, jaw-dropping.”

An iconic menu for an iconic setting

contemporary Australian cuisine

Image: Trippas White / Daniel Boud

As a recently-appointed Ambassador Chef for the Sydney Opera House, joining Peter Gilmore and Matt Moran as residents in the city’s most iconic landmark, Martini has drawn upon her years of expertise to design menus for the Opera House’s new Yallamundi Rooms function space.

“The Sydney Opera House is such a cultural icon, but now it’s also got this amazing dining space too – with views to match. I really want my food to feel natural, and flavoursome, and bright and bold. To do justice to the incredible setting, but at the same time still be quite down-to-earth.

“I’ve drawn on my own heritage and curiosity, and also woven indigenous ingredients through the menu so there’s nothing jarring, it’s just complementary. I’m really looking forward to it hitting its strap. I love that I can now be part of so many gatherings and celebrations of life and love.

“There’s an eye-fillet dish on the menu, I was channelling the classic Aussie meat pie and how much we’ve changed. I did an oxtail and kangaroo ragout for the sauce on the steak, served with a bush tomato sauce and a beautiful butter pastry cap that sits on the plate as well. It’s a French-inspired dish with Australian ingredients, and that, to me, really embodies contemporary Australian.

“The techniques can still be classic, but we’re applying them in new and unexpected ways.”

(Lead image: Trippas White / Daniel Boud) 

Published 20 May, 2019