Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

5.2.14

The Cult of Non-Celebrity: Four Chefs You've Never Heard Of.

Postage stamps used to depict noteworthy individuals such as queens, explorers or generals; or significant events such as the hundredth anniversary of the invention of the combine harvester.

Not any more. Australia Post has just released a new series of stamps portraying celebrity chefs, obviously having decided that these people do not get enough exposure via television, radio, newspapers, weblogs, Facebook, Twitter, and life-size cardboard cut-outs in supermarkets.

The subjects for the stamps include Neil Perry, who once franchised his name to cardboard packets of airline food, Kylie Kwong and some others whose names I forget. Octogenarian Margaret Fulton features as the token ‘retro’ food celebrity, which is like serving ironic lamingtons at your dinner party.

There is a sense of clichéd obviousness about this, as there is about most of popular culture. It would have been far more interesting to depict some of Australia’s unknown chefs. Chefs who had never been on television, signed an autobiography, had a Facebook 'like' or cooked molecules.

Here’s a few suggestions:

Cimino

Cimino was head chef during the early 1980s at the 1950s relic the Pink Pussy Cat bistro in the Carlton Club hotel. Cimino had a surname but no-one knew what it was. In his late forties, he had a red face and was bald on top. He looked like Gene Hackman. Cimino was often belligerent and sometimes hostile. The Pink Pussy Cat’s clientele was diverse, and Cimino faced great challenges, from catering for the enormous appetites of the entire Carlton football team after training on Thursday nights, to dealing with the dietary peccadilloes of pale academics from Melbourne University, who were organic vegetarian locavore fair-trade single estate aficionados decades before the rest of the world slavishly followed.

Cimino was notorious for throwing pans when given special requests from diners. When steaks were sent back as not ‘well done’ enough, he would char them to carbon and send them out again, smoking. Conversely, he famously once sent out a completely raw piece of eye fillet – straight from the refrigerator – to a diner who complained his steak was not ‘bleu’ enough, pronouncing the word ‘bleu’ to Giovanni the head waiter in a preciously correct French way. Giovanni, an expert mimic, banged through the kitchen doors and, at the top of his voice so that everyone in the place could hear him, shouted "Cimino, it is not bleu enough for ze gentleman! Please make it even more bleu!" The customer ate the raw steak.

Cimino’s legacy was bridging a no-nonsense dining epoch into a new era of culinary self-absorption which would ultimately result in the invention of the word ‘foodie’ and the practice of people taking overhead photographs of their restaurant meals.

Cimino became an alcoholic and wandered the streets of Carlton until his death in the 1990s.

Henri-Gerard LeBateau

Remaining in Australia after competing in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Henri-Gerard LeBateau became a chef on board the cruise ship Ocean Star, at a time when sea travel was the preserve of rich people with manners. LeBateau cooked what was then known as international cuisine, essentially classic French with a nod to other great world cuisines. Passengers, dressed appropriately for dinner, would sit down to chateaubriand or coq au vin with aged French wines while a palm court orchestra played soft strings. Later there would be dancing to jazz, before couples departed quietly for their rooms.

Two decades passed. LeBateau was now executive chef on the Fairsea Wanderer, a ship serving an entirely different clientele. In the galley, international cuisine had given way to the 1970s culinary concept known as the ‘buffet’, a kind of bastardised smorgasbord. This suited the new category of traveller, who no longer had to wait for a snooty waiter to serve him at table in due course, but could stand in front of the six-foot-high wall of food, pile up his plate on the spot with one of everything, slam it on the nearest table and proceed to eat exactly half of it, leaving a quarter camembert, several spicy chicken wings, a couple of cold potatoes in foil topped with sour cream and chives, two buttered mini bread rolls and a chewed piece of turkey for the waiters to collect. More food was thrown overboard than eaten during the shipboard smorgasbord era, and the shark population of the world doubled in that time. Waiters, freed from table service, were now effectively firemen, hosing down decks after the diners had staggered noisily, often in groups of more than two, back to their quarters.

Henri Gerard LeBateau had had enough by 1986, and returned to his native France, where he ran a small boutique pig farm, raising rare prized Cul Noir de Limousin pigs for their delicious flesh. "I was feeding pigs swill anyway," he said, as a sow nudged him lovingly with her big snout. "So I thought it might be nicer to feed real ones."

Henry St John

Henry St John was a little-known chef on several inland expeditions in the 1830s. He travelled variously with Charles Sturt, Ludwig Leichhardt and Edmund Kennedy. One such expedition navigated the inland rivers west of the Blue Mountains, when the region was known colloquially as the promised land.

Years of drought had made the terrain inhospitable. Minor vegetation ceased, culinary herbs were raised with difficulty and crops failed outright. St John conjured meals from sacks of flour and barrels of salt pork, towed in a broad-beamed, shallow-draughted skiff behind the major vessel. He resourcefully followed the natives’ example of smoking possums out of dead tree trunks, while being always cautious not to engulf the party in fire. Camp grounds had to be cleared because bush fire could cause the entire party to be incinerated along with much of the dry continent.

One day en route, the major vessel hit a rock and pitched, dragging the supply skiff across the same jagged underwater boulder, causing it to sink in twenty feet of murky water. The party took days to salvage what was left of the flour and pork, much unusable. St John struggled for five years to supply his crews with enough nutriments to keep their starving bodies going in the harshest of all environments. On the other hand, today’s television chef faces such perils as having to perform three takes for a precious director who thinks he is Hitchcock reincarnated.

Henry St John disappeared with a party of seven on an expedition to the Simpson Desert in 1939.

Vera

Like Cimino, Vera, a war widow, was only ever known by her first name. She was in her sixties and formidable, a large-framed woman still with jet-black hair around a friendly face that could turn to thunder in an instant. Vera was an old-school Australian cook who had ruled country hotel dining rooms with an iron fist for decades, feeding generations of farmers, shearers and farmhands.

By the late 1970s, she was in semi-retirement at a western suburbs reception centre called Goldenreagh that specialised in intimate weddings for up to 500 guests in each of two vast chambers, the ‘Opal’ and ‘Sapphire' rooms. Often both were booked, serviced by one immense kitchen. Such venues present a unique challenge for their chef, who has to turn out up to a thousand identical meals at almost exactly the same time, which is after the freeloading guests have been oiled by several pre-dinner sherries accompanying canapés; but before they start falling down drunk having drained the carafes pre-arranged on the tables while listening to the double-entendre telegrams being read out by the best man. At these functions, guests generally had two dinner choices: ‘beef’ or ‘chicken’, with vegetarians expediently catered for by being told to leave the meat on their plate and just eat the vegetables (of which there plenty), a commonsense solution since shouldered into the landfill of history by the era of entitlement and special treatment. Vera held the Australian Hotels Association award for the most covers ever cooked by one chef. It is estimated Vera cooked around seven million meals in her career, mostly 'chicken' and 'beef'.

For the really big occasions, Vera had an ingenious technique of par-cooking the steaks in the oven and then finishing them off on a flame-griller the size of a rocket launching pad. Brigades of waiters would line up at the kitchen dispatch point and troop out to the waiting throngs lined with plates like Roman armour. Vera’s arms were strong, the legacy of years of wielding a can-opener on gasometer-sized tins of Campbell’s Caterer’s Blend minestrone or Crème of Chicken soup.

One night, Goldenreagh went up in flames. They managed to get the guests out, although a bride's dress caught alight; but Vera was incinerated. "She died what she loved doing best," they orated, but I always find that rationalisation trite.

2 comments:

Melbourne Girl said...

If only KH, if only.

Dr. Alice said...

Wow. Those are some great stories.