Simon Johnson – Sydney’s self-professed purveyor of fine foods – chooses his friends well. I caught up with him following his return from a ‘research trip’ and a tip that his passport had recently been stamped everywhere – from Milan to Puglia – eager to unearth his most amazing food moment while abroad.
Naively, I anticipated a tantalising narrative of Yannick Alleno’s duck foie gras at Parisian uber-eatery Restaurant Le Maurice or perhaps an account of an extravagant hunt through Italy’s Piedmont region for white truffles.
Not so. Johnson modestly recalled an evening spent in the UK where he is now setting up a distribution outlet. The setting, simple: a home-cooked dinner with friends.
“On my last night in London I had plans to go out to dinner with Antonio Carluccio, however he had been mushrooming and suggested I just come over for risotto,” he recalls.
“It’s all about simplicity. We just sat down and he made this beautiful mushroom risotto, around the kitchen table with some friends. It was driven by beautiful mushrooms, great stock, carnaroli rice. Stirring for 20 mins and we had this beautiful dinner. So delicious and it delivers so much.”
Despite the fact that Carluccio happens to be an Italian-born chef, restaurenteur and a BBC TV food presenter, Johnson’s anecdote points to a burgeoning trend towards simple, seasonal comfort food, prepared ‘improv’, without fuss. It’s the epicurean way to say, “Oh this old thing? I just threw it on.”
While seasonality has been in favour for quite some time – driven by the Tuscan food fad that seems to have dominated for almost a decade – food influencers appear to be paring things back further and getting back to absolute basics. And in terms of execution, a prepared dinner party sounds all so very premeditated.
“The impromptu entertaining thing is starting to happen in Australia,” says Johnson, acknowledging spontaneity is the recipe of the day.
“I think people are realising that by having key ingredients in your pantry, good vinegars and good olive oils, you can be a hero in the kitchen with very little fuss. The key is to concentrate on flavour.”
It’s a message echoed in most of the cookbooks we found under the tree this Christmas. Open My Table: Food for Entertaining by TV chef Pete Evans of Melbourne restaurant Pantry fame and he agrees.
“The wow factor is simply how good the food tastes and how easy it is to make it happen,” he writes. “That’s what I strive for in my home cooking: simplicity with great flavour.”
Home from New York for the holidays, an in-the-know friend of mine claims the back to basics approach isn’t confined to the home front – with humble Roman food taking the city’s restaurant scene by storm.
True Roman food – despite the ancient capital’s reputation of a more-is-more mentality – actually relies on economical cuts of meat and simply dressed pastas. So while temperatures plummeted in the Big Apple over the festive season, locals were feasting on peasant fare such as crisp porchetta (a whole roast pig) and salted oxtail. It’s a method the Italians refer to as alla vaccinara, translated as ‘in the butcher’s style’ and it personifies the chaste nature of this new attitude.
Need proof? Restaurateur Danny Meyer, responsible for the legendary quality burger chain, Shake Shack, recently opened a downtown restaurant called Maialino replicating a Roman trattoria complete with authentic blue-check tablecloths and a mode New York Magazine calls “a casual-dining ethos of recession-era New York”.
For those of us who don’t spend our days out mushrooming, the good news is that the off-the-cuff trend doesn’t require Michelin training. In fact, according to Johnson, it can be as easy as well-informed shopping list. He advises stocking up on good quality basics such as Ortiz anchovies, a big chunk of reggiano, jars of tomato and basil sugo, some really good sourdough bread and a few of your favourite antipasto style things – like jamon.
His eponymous Peroni semi-dried tomatoes from the south of Italy – new in store – are a good start.
Simon says: “If friends pop in, you can throw the bread on the grill, brush it with some olive oil and perhaps a little garlic, throw an anchovy down and server a glass of champagne and you could be anywhere.”
Rome perhaps? It sounds so easy: my only concern is that my friends may be too often knocking at my door.
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