Upping Australia's food rep in London
Brisbane chef now working in London, Rachel O'Sullivan, says it's taken a while to convince her UK chef counterparts of the strength of Australian food.
Brace yourself. Foreigners think our food and wine sucks.
Even in the UK this is true, even in London where Australians number among the city's best chefs, or are patiently demonstrating the right way to serve coffee and a decent brunch, or are helping to popularise a casual 'third way' of dining in between the sensational but wallet-draining Michelin-stars and the oily, identikit gastropubs.
Something has to be done – not just for national pride, but because it's putting people off coming here.
Tourism Australia recently surveyed overseas opinions, and found that less than a quarter of those who had not visited Australia associated us with "good food and wine".
Only after they had visited they ranked us much higher, behind only France and Italy.
This bias from afar isn't helped in the UK by the fact our wines are typically found in the budget aisles of supermarkets.
And this is why, in just over a week's time, a thousand Mail on Sunday readers are going to be treated to a slap up meal in the heart of London, in the hope they'll get the message, and pass it on. It's part of Tourism Australia's Restaurant Australia campaign, spruiking our culinary offerings around the globe.
In London, the readers are paying £100 ($177) a head for six state-themed dinners at Australia House by chefs including Maggie Beer, Matt Stone and Shannon Bennett.
The chef invited to plan the Northern Territory night is Rachel O'Sullivan, a Brisbane-raised, self-taught quiet achiever who learned to love professional cooking while living in Melbourne and watching River Cafe.
O'Sullivan said she took a 'cultural melting pot' approach to her menu – one of the ingredients is tardivo, an Italian vegetable.
"We do have access to all these different ingredients," she said."I think that's a very Australian way of cooking using fresh ingredients, marrying them together well in a simple yet hopefully delicious way," she said.
But there will be plenty of local flavour. The main course will have barramundi, there will be mangoes in the dessert, a hint of bush food in the lemon-myrtle infused ice cream and some scorched marshmallows to add a campfire touch.
She took a trip to the Northern Territory, to Darwin, Kakadu, Alice Springs and Uluru to look for inspiration, and discovered ingredients such as the myrtle and saltbush (she also ate some big green ants – they won't feature on the menu).
In London, O'Sullivan was head chef at Spuntino, the third restaurant by the team which created the much-loved Polpo and Polpetto.
O'Sullivan worked at both before going to Spuntino – which The Guardian called "London's best Brooklyn diner", praising it as a "shameless act of cultural larceny, executed with love".
O'Sullivan told the Evening Standard it "gave me what I missed about dining in Melbourne – that kind of casual, fun, festival sort of dining."
She is now at the super-trendy Italian-themed Lardo in Hackney (and its rooftop pop-up bar Coppa, one of the hits of summer 2013 and now almost impossible to book a table for).
When she was in New York researching for Spuntino "I felt an affinity with the way they approached cooking," she said.
It reminded her of the effortlessly cosmopolitan nature of Australian dining – which London until recently turned its nose up at.
And she took this New York, Melbourne feel to Spuntino and Lardo.
"There is less 'occasion' dining, it's more a neighbourhood restaurant, you can come for a pizza and house wine and it's not so expensive or you can have some charcuterie and an interesting bottle of wine and make a night of it," O'Sullivan says.
"I do feel London is changing. When I first moved here it was 'you're ignorant, you don't know what you're talking about'. I've had derogatory comments, 'fusion, it's confusion'.
"But most of the gastropubs here are dreadful. The thing with Australia is we have a very high standard of what we deem acceptable for fresh produce, food in a restaurant, a cafe, a coffee. You can go anywhere in Australia and find a really good cafe.
"Across London all the great cafes that popped up are antipodean, with nice salads, simple toasted sandwiches. Good coffee."
It's helping change perception, O'Sullivan says. And gradually you are finding in London more affordable, casual but good quality dining options.
One pop-up at a time. One Australian at a time.