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



One year, a long time ago now, probably around 2012 or '13, I went to a Christmas Day lunch that was something out of a decor magazine, or maybe a foodie magazine.

It was a perfect day and long outdoor tables stretched out beneath the dappled shade of some gently swaying trees, and were covered in expensive Christmas-themed paper, with tapered candles, quality cutlery and delicate long-stemmed glassware. It was midday. Fairy lights twinkled from the trees like electric snow. Soft Christmas music drifted across the scene from some obscured speaker. Drinks came first, just to get the appetite going, and were served by a natural pool. ('By' meaning next to.) Occasional tables were scattered about the setting and bore platters of savouries that kept you from starving before the turkey came out.

There was only one small problem. Clouds were threatening. If it were to start raining, the entire scene, as big as a movie set, would have to be moved inside. The hosts kept coming in and out of the house and looking alternately at the clouds or the radar on their devices, as if one or the other were going to give a definitive answer on whether it would rain or not. This prevented them from progressing the actual lunch.

Time went by. Two o'clock came. The ceramic bowls on the occasional tables that had contained dips, including one of a deliciously tangy and garlicky skordalia*, had been wiped clean with artisanal crostini, no doubt baked by some 98-year-old grandmother in a rustic oven somewhere in Italy. The guests had also amused themselves by pulling gold-wrapped David Jones crackers ($39.99 for six, and you need about a hundred: that's - what - about $680?) to reveal one upper-class paper hat and one simpering dad-joke per cracker. Some raindrops fell.

The hosts came out again, pointed at the sky, and murmured, "The radar says it is not raining, but they are raindrops, aren't they?"

This time the guests, having eaten all the savouries, joined the discussion and stared at the sky and at the radar on their own devices, wondering why there should be raindrops when the radar said there shouldn't; and whether everyone should go inside - or not - and a kind of decision paralysis fell over the gathered crowd, except for the children, who were playing cricket.

The hosts were on the point of moving the whole shit-fight inside anyway when the raindrops suddenly stopped, so they went back in the house and re-commenced making the gravy or stirring some pot or other.

Lunch was served at four o'clock. Everyone was starving. A fine drizzle started falling about twenty minutes into the meal. It was too late to move. Dye started leaching from the upper-class paper hats onto foreheads. Very pale dye - no vulgar lurid colours at $39.99 a pack.


If you don't like the flavour of potato, change it! This garlic-flavoured, smooth-textured substance works a treat as a dip with genuine Italian crostini if you are attending an upper-class Christmas party, or you can drag a few Saladas through it or just eat it by the spoonful if you're at a barbecue in Werribee. (Just watch out for home invaders in the latter case.)

Whip several boiled potatoes until smooth with up to eight pureed garlic cloves (or chop them finely), a few tablespoons each of olive oil and lemon juice and a dash of white vinegar. Add plenty of salt and cracked pepper. I always throw in some chopped parsley as it adds a bit of crunch and eye appeal. Proportions in this recipe are deliberately vague; in general terms the more garlic the better, and the texture has to be spoonable. Adjust fluids accordingly.


The New Advertising Breakthrough. Scene Four: The Second Client.

Craven has tried to convince the creative team that two clients in one ad is a good idea. He has asked them to adapt their Buffalo Finance concept to accommodate a second client, and the creative team are nervously waiting to find out which client they have to work into their concept.

GUY: Who's the second client, Craven? Or haven't you lined one up yet?

CRAVEN: Yes, I have spoken to another major advertiser who is happy to share a spot with Buffalo Finance.

ROB: Let me guess: Fenestre Investments? Financing your next investment with Buffalo would work.

CRAVEN: No, it's not them.

GUY: The new Sniper launch? Cars and finance are always a good mix.


GUY: What about Orange Residential Development Corp?


ROB: Is it Upton Furnishings?


GUY: Well who the fuck is it then?



GUY & ROB TOGETHER: Whaaat????

CRAVEN (STILL DEADPAN): Snail-Go. Plus I've screwed extra money out of both of them so you can write a 60 instead of a 30.

ROB: You are insane, Craven.

CRAVEN: Stop telling me I'm insane, Rob. You've told me about five times this morning. Apart from working in advertising, I am quite normal. And what's wrong with Snail-Go? Buffalo Finance and Snail-Go snail bait is a perfect fit.


Well, it will be when you write a script that ties them together! I can see it now – the contrast of subject matter, the differentiated nuance in the storyline, the twist in the tail, the something unexpected.


The very fact that there are two very different industry groupings in one sixty second commercial means you have unlimited scope for scripting excitement and situational drama. In fact, it's better than having two clients from a similar industry sector.


ROB: You are a raving lunatic, Craven, do you know that?

CRAVEN: There's no need for personal insults, Rob. Although, being in account service, I'm completely impervious to it.

GUY: No, what you're impervious to is common sense, Craven. You cannot put snail-bait and superannuation plans in the same commercial. You just can't.

CRAVEN: I thought you creative people were innovative.

GUY: No, Craven, we're not innovative. 'Innovative' is a stupid word bureaucrats and boring business people use when they put two colours, five typefaces and a pie chart in the same power point frame.


'Creative' is a completely different concept. Creativity is a mindset. It's knowing how to awaken people's interest. How to engage them. How to entertain. How to hold someone's attention when the subject matter would not normally do so of itself. Creativity is taking people away to some place they thought they would never visit. Making them wonder and yearn and luxuriate and ponder and imagine. Making people smile when they wouldn't normally smile. Making them cry when they wouldn't normally cry.

CRAVEN (YAWNS): You're making me yawn when I wouldn't normally yawn, Rob, so maybe you're right. You're creative. Big fucking deal. Now go and write a script for Buffalo Finance and Snail-Go.


If you guys can't hold someone's attention with personal finance and snail bait in one spot you shouldn't be in advertising.


CRAVEN: Shit, is that the time? I thought I was getting hungry. Want some lunch? Let's go over the road to Angelo's. I feel like a Caesar salad.


ROB AND GUY TOGETHER: Lunch! Great! Let's go!



Cannelloni stuffed with two cheeses and spinach.

Cannelloni from scratch? Couldn't be easier, as long as you have a piping bag.

Fry half an onion until translucent. Boil and drain 50g frozen spinach.

Add 500g fresh ricotta, 70g of parmesan cheese, the drained spinach and a tablespoon of butter to the cooked onion. Stir to combine over low heat for about a minute.

Make besciamella: melt 60g butter in a pot, add 60g flour, a dash of nutmeg and 500ml heated milk (don't boil) and mix to blend until flour is absorbed.

Make tomato sauce: fry half an onion, add a jar of passata and a third volume again of water, add some finely chopped fresh basil and parsley, a shake of salt and a teaspoon of sugar. Simmer to reduce slightly.

Pipe cheese mixture into instant cannelloni tubes. You cannot force it in with a spoon, by suction, by gravity or any other way. I found out the hard way and then I went out and bought a pack of disposable piping bags for a couple of dollars at Mediterranean Wholesalers*.

Line a baking dish with a smear of besciamella, add the cannelloni tubes, pour over the rest of the besciamella, then pour over tomato sauce. Bake 30-40 minutes in a moderate oven.

*The store's motto 'why pay boutique prices south of the Yarra' is one of the truest advertising lines in existence. It is a no-nonsense place with a huge stock selection, a customer count that includes more Italian grandmothers than Brunswick hipsters, and a cafe serving inexpensive pastries and other treats.


The New Advertising Breakthrough. Scene Three: Buffalo Finance agrees to take part.

Craven is trying to convince the creative team that his radical plan to change the face of advertising will work. He even has some clients in mind who, he says, are prepared to share a spot in order to reduce the cost of television advertising.

GUY: Instead of jamming two clients in one thirty second spot, you could just run a fifteen second spot for each client, Craven. Have you thought of that?

CRAVEN: Well you could, of course, Guy; but then you also have the possibility of placing two clients in each fifteen-second spot as well. Bear in mind the production cost savings. Two clients, one production. Plus, we can charge each client more than half the production cost so we make extra there as well. Moreover, we feel that the longer on-screen exposure will more than compensate for the fact that two clients are sharing the time.

ROB: It's still nuts, Craven.


And you're a crook if you're using it to expand the margins.

CRAVEN: Crap, Rob. It's called making money. Whatever it takes. Why don't you take the blinkers off? Open your eyes to the possibilities.

As I mentioned, Buffalo Finance are already happy to do it. Their commercial will be the first Shared Airtime commercial off the rank. They have agreed to split the cost of both production and airtime with another company. As an edgy client, they want to dissociate themselves from normal, traditional, boring financial services advertising, and they feel that this new initiative will help them break the mould.

GUY (OFFENDED): The script we've already written for them isn't boring or traditional, Craven. Now you want to go and fuck it up by sticking another client in it. It'll be like having Jackie Chan doing kung fu in the middle of The Sound of Music. Or a bunch of orcs chasing six hobbits along a mountain pass in The Italian Job followed by Gandalf driving a Ferrari.

CRAVEN (LAUGHS UPROARIOUSLY): HA! EXACTLY! You've nailed it, Guy! That is exactly what it will be like! And people will love it! They'll sit up and take notice! They'll look for the difference! And compared to that, normal single-client commercials will all look totally boring! Like your instant soup spot – who's going to sit through that shit when you already know it's about soup and nothing else?

ROB: It's not our fault that spot was boring, Craven, as you very well know. And it wasn't boring because it only had one client in it - it was boring because Harrison Soups is the single most boring client in the world. You know we wanted to film the soup spot on Everest using that guy who lost his legs to frostbite but still scaled it on prosthetic legs. We wanted to show him drinking soup on top of the mountain and warming himself up. You know that, Craven. But nooooooo – the client rejected the idea and wanted to shoot it in someone's kitchen like every other soup commercial. They wrote that commercial, Craven, we didn't.

CRAVEN (UNFLAPPABLE): There was a certain budgetary issue involved, Guy. Helicopters and Sherpas don't come cheap, let alone airfares to Nepal. Anyway, getting back to Buffalo Finance ...

GUY: What do we do with the script we've already written for them?

CRAVEN: The Mick Jagger testimonial one? You have complete freedom to adapt it or come up with an entirely new concept.

ROB: Have you another client in mind, Craven? And has it a similar positioning in the marketplace, a shared target market, a synergy of styles? Is it going to be compatible in one commercial with the staid, sober Buffalo Finance, Craven?

CRAVEN: Yes, I do have another client in mind, Rob. And of course there will be synergies. You'll invent them! After all, you're the creative geniuses!



The Man Who Invented the Sentimental Novel.

On an unseasonally hot day in October 1965, I was taken to see a movie at the Paris Cinema in Bourke Street, Melbourne. In the film, The Sound of Music, Christopher Plummer played Captain von Trapp, and was later scathing about the movie.

Last week I saw Plummer play Ebenezer Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas, this time at Village Airport West, which was a field of thistle with Vickers Viscounts flying over it in 1965. Right now is the time of year when Christmas-themed movies hit the cinemas, but The Man Who Invented Christmas is not really about Christmas. It is about Charles Dickens' struggle to write a book following two 'failures' after several hits. It should have been titled Famous Novelist Suffers Writer's Block for 104 Gripping Minutes, but that would not have helped box office sales.

Dickens is struggling to pay the bills, his agent is getting nervous, he is continually interrupted by family members, and his destitute father comes to stay. Then he sacks the most pleasant person in the movie, the Irish maid. Stupid Charles Dickens. His characters come alive and sit around in his studio insulting him while he is trying to write about them. There are flashbacks to his childhood when he was abandoned by his father and consigned to the workhouse.

Dickens finally succeeds writing a quickie in six weeks (what writer's block?) and A Christmas Carol never goes out of print (nor do the two 'failures').

No writer should miss The Man Who Invented Christmas.


The New Advertising Breakthrough. Scene Two: Craven's TV audience rant.

Craven, the account man at advertising agency Blake Browning Burns, has been working in secret with the strategy planners to develop a new concept in advertising - two clients sharing one television commercial.

He is briefing the creative team in the small meeting room known as 'The Cupboard'. The creative team are not impressed and, after June the tea lady interrupts, the argument resumes. Language warning.

GUY: That is fucking INSANE, Craven.

ROB: Totally nuts. It can't work.

GUY: That's the stupidest idea I've heard since ... your last stupid idea.

ROB: For example, the clients would fight over owning the end frame.

GUY: Yeah. And whose typeface would you use?

ROB: And what about logos?

CRAVEN: Pfffffft! Minor details, guys. We have huge fights about all that shit now. An extra client in the ad isn't going to make a huge difference.

GUY: Apart from that, where are you going to find two clients who want to go into one commercial?


Easy. You just put the proposal to each client, ask if they'd like to be part of the biggest thing to hit advertising since broadcasting began, and they're already eating out of your hand.

GUY: Whose idea was this, Craven?

CRAVEN (A SLIGHTLY NERVOUS PAUSE): Ah, it was mine, Guy. Why?

ROB: This 'concept' could single-handedly destroy the advertising industry as we know it, Craven. You know that, don't you?

CRAVEN: That's crap. I'm not going to destroy it, Rob, I'm going to re-invent it. The advertising industry is a dinosaur at the moment. It's populated by creatives who look so cutting-edge it's not funny - primped up little fast boys dressed like edgy homies, wired to the gills with technology and spouting jargon like there's no tomorrow ... but what do they actually come up with?


Thirty second commercials for half-dead brands running on free-to-air television that nobody watches, that's what.


You know what, guys? The mantra of the thirty or sixty second television commercial being top of the hierarchy is bullshit. It's not even yesterday's thinking. It's 1960s thinking. 1950s, even. Have you seen daytime TV lately? It used to be watched by housewives in the days when they stayed home and spent their time productively making their lives better by sitting around watching TV in between drinking sherry and screwing the milkman. Now the only women at home are single mothers who haven't got any money, and if they have it's stolen, and then they just spend it all at the casino or on drugs. Goodbye, daytime packaged goods advertising. Yet you guys still come up with cheesy shit portraying cosy households sitting around drinking instant packet soup because no-one's got any time to cook any more. The mother's a lawyer and the father's an idiot and the kids are in childcare. And media still runs it on daytime TV.


That's like Ford continuing to make the Model T.


It's the same at night: everyone's either online or not home. And if they're home they haven't got the TV on. Or if they have got the TV on, they're drunk. Or if they're not drunk, they're channel surfing during the ads. And if they're not channel surfing during the ads, that means they can't move. And if they can't move, that means they're ninety-five year old patients with dementia in a nursing home ... and that dribble running down their chin onto their laps isn't because they're salivating at your instant soup commercial, it's because they can't help it.

See? The industry as we know it with cutesy little commercials on prime time TV is stuffed, Guy. Totally stuffed. There's no audience any more. So we have to think outside the square.


GUY: Thinking outside the square is one thing, Craven, but you're thinking outside the entire Venn Diagram. You're in another dimension. You're on another planet and it's not even in our solar system. Probably not even in our galaxy.



"What's that you're listening to?"

I pulled the EP record out of its cardboard sleeve, put it on the mono turntable and lowered the needle on to the record.

It hissed and crackled (the needle was worn) and then a piano introduced the song.

In the next room the adults' conversation (God knows what they were talking about) slowly dried up. Someone dropped a tea cup. The parish priest was visiting and they were having afternoon tea.

Let's spend the night together, now I need you more than ever. ... I'll satisfy your every need. Now I know you satisfy me ...

It was 1967. I was ten.

A couple of years later I put an LP album on the turntable. It was a stereo now, a speaker either side connected by wires.

Lay lady lay ... lay across my big brass bed ...

Again, the adults in the next room turned purple, metaphorically. "What are you listening to?" the adults asked me, somewhat superfluously. I didn't answer such a stupid question, I just held up the cover. It had a smiling man holding a guitar with the Nashville skyline in the background.

Another couple of years went by and the Kinks released 'Lola' which was infamous because the BBC had banned it.

I met her in a club down in North Soho
Where you drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola

It was fairly innocuous; teenage boys hardly care about the lyrics of a song, whereas adults who are normally stone-deaf will pick a contentious lyric three rooms away. For God's sake, leave me alone, it's just a friggin' song.

The early 1970s arrived and the stereo gathered dust because the household had purchased a small, heavy oblong machine. It was a Sanyo cassette recorder, model 2000G. Suddenly I could record my favourite songs directly off air. I filled dozens of cassettes with them, including voice intros or outros by DJs such as Ken Sparkes, John Scott, Laurie Bennett, Peter Hitchener, John O'Donnell, Bill Rule and many others. I played the tapes so often that, when a song from the past finishes on radio today, I go on to mentally sing what followed it on my old tapes.

You weaken my defences ... with your tender kisses ... guided missile ... bound to explode ...


Grocery items 'curated': retailer admits museum status.

The Herald Sun reports on the changing nature of food retailing, in which RMIT marketing expert Con Stavros utters this gem of wisdom:
"Food, in general, has become much more of an experience."
More than what? He doesn't say. Meanwhile, floundering dinosaur retailer David Jones spokesman Pieter De Wet puts the following hilarious spin on having a product range of only 6,000 items compared to the average supermarket's 25,000:
"If you go to a normal grocery store, you have to go through 25,000 products," he said. "We’ve got a curated collection of about 6000 products. We've chosen the best for our customers knowing what they like and expect. It's a quarter of the number of choices you have to make, we've done all the work for you."


Big tin soldiers.

I thought it was a dream, because I hadn't seen a mahogany staircase in a restaurant for twenty years, or maybe I just hadn't been to one. The staircase led up into complete darkness, until my eyes got used to it. I reached a landing, turned and kept going. At the top of the stairs it was still dark enough to trip over the brass strips at the edges of the axminster that led into the vast room. The carpet seemed to have tones of burgundy and deep violet, but who could tell in that light? It looked like the cover of The Zombies 1968 psychedelic album 'Odessey and Oracle', but it might have been forest green. I looked around. Inset into the north and west walls of the room were four giant tin soldiers, standing sentinel like armour suits in a medieval castle. I thought I had stumbled into a Victorian-era children's nursery at midnight, and had shrunk. The east wall was in almost full darkness, but voices and the flash of light on glass gave it away as a bar. Figures kept emerging like wraiths. Some of them carried trays. The trays bore drinks. In the cool darkness, tables were set in different formations, and one long table had a king's throne at one end and a chair with angel's wings at the other. Round green candles like little globes of the world sat on the tables, slowly melting down from their ice-caps.


The whole effect was completely bizarre. The street I had left a minute earlier was a 35-degree-celsius oven, the westering sun paint-stripping the buildings on the east side of the street.

I had pushed open a massive door and gone into a cool blackness that paled to a dim hallway, off which were two rooms of scattered tables and chairs, a bar at one side, and a door at the far end that led to a beer garden. Then I had seen the staircase and ascended into the place of the mahogany chairs and the axminster and the big tin soldiers.


Someone beckoned and I was shown to the long table with the throne and the angel chair. Three vacant chairs remained, and the someone pointed to one, and I sat in it. The table was already laden with appetisers/entrees/amuse bouches/crudites or whatever they are calling them this year; the kind of thing you eat when you are waiting for something to eat. Platters held long, thin breakable portions of grilled ciabatta that were piled up high like abandoned railway sleepers, and which could be broken and used as edible cutlery to scoop up the tapenades that were lined up alongside the ciabatta platters like docking satellites. Other platters held thinly-sliced prosciutto and other smallgoods rolled up into tiny flutes that you could hook with an end of ciabatta shard, and there were pots of dried olives and pickled vegetables. Someone, a waitress, appeared out of the darkness and placed a very cold and very large glass in front of me and disappeared. I didn't see her again for half an hour. She must have known we had a lot of talking to do before we wanted to eat again. We talked. We talked about history. The half hour passed. Then the waitress appeared again carrying a stack of black folders. I emerged out of the fog of the early twentieth century and reached for the folders, thinking she was bringing source material out of some archive. But they were menus.

Another half an hour went by. The she inquired if anyone wanted to eat anything. They did, and pointed to the archive/menus. I chose something and promptly forgot what it was. It didn't matter. You wouldn't starve, and there were still plenty of ciabatta battleships. I broke one and hooked some kind of red matter that tasted of a cross between how the Coral Sea brine would smell from a timber schooner at 8 a.m. on a summer morning, and a seafood beach barbecue at midnight. I think it was tarama. I finished the stick. We kept talking. Then we were back to the present and the tables were cleared of the appetiser wreckage and old glasses, and dinner arrived.

Shortly afterwards, someone asked me how was the crab; and I said good, suddenly remembering I had pointed to tagliatelle with crab and asparagus and sugar peas. It was the sea again. It even looked like the sea, or one of those diorama things we used to make at school: crabs snapping their way through asparagus seaweed and waves of ribbon pasta. Not that I could see it; the place was still lit only by green globes that had now burned down to their tropics of cancer. While talking about history I had been mesmerised by their wax oozing down like lava and pooling in the plates under the melting globes.

Someone opposite me at the table had a kind of international chicken parmigiana with taleggio and soppressa with hand cut chips that looked like the morning's work of a woodcutter. Someone else had ordered the $72 rib eye on the bone, a deep purple hatchet of meat with a side of fries rising over it like a pine forest on a mountain and some vegetables in the lee of the bone, all on a plate the size of a butcher's chopping block. I wondered if the waitress had a sprained wrist. They probably had OH&S warnings in the kitchen. Where was the kitchen? The waitresses had seemed to appear from nowhere, and it occurred to me that I hadn't heard the characteristic banging of swing doors, let alone the searing roar of a chef flinging steaks on the grill.

No-one wanted dessert.

Later, I went down the mahogany stairway, holding the rail in the dim light like a climber descending the Corno Grande at midnight. Outside, the heat hit me like a runaway train.

Woodlands Hotel
84 Sydney Rd


Well, I remember yesterday
Just drifting slowly through a crowded street
With neon darkness shimmering through the haze
A sea of faces rippling in the heat