If the cooking styles of Sydney's best chefs are anything to go by, Asian flavours have firmly won over Australian palates.
From Phil Wood's lobster congee at Rockpool on George, to Ross Lusted's raw wagyu with robata-smoked enoki mushroom at The Bridge Room, top chefs are reinventing standard Australian fare one Asian ingredient at a time.
Wood and Lusted, along with head chefs Dan Hong at Mr Wong, Martin Benn at Sepia, and Ben Greeno at Momofuku Seiobo, are bound by their fondness for the complex flavours of Asia, and now by their nominations for Chef of the Year at the Good Food Guide Awards on Monday September 2.
“They all have inquiring minds, a contemporary touch, a light hand and adroit technique, and all call upon Asian influences to various degrees,” said Terry Durack, the Herald's restaurant critic and Good Food Guide chief reviewer.
“There's a general loosening up as our top chefs realise they don't have to follow anyone's rules any more," he said
"That may have a Japanese influence, or be straight off a charcoal grill, or be a refined version of street food. But it's more honest, more direct, and infinitely more enjoyable."
Joanna Savill, editor of the guide, said the keen adoption of Asian flavours and techniques by top chefs showed Sydney dining was heading in a new direction.
Hong exuded easy familiarity with Cantonese classics through to modern Asian fusion, while Benn revealed his mastery of the charcoal yakitori grill.
"It's about the seasonings too. The use of hoisin and miso, soy and chilli, fermentation techniques with kimchi and pickles plus the aromatics of South East Asia," she said
Two of the finalists are lieutenants to the industry's most influential identities, here and abroad. Greeno works under David Chang, the Korean-American creator of Momofuku restaurants.
"But he [Greeno] is the one implementing the vision on a nightly basis and adding his own creative flair,” said Savill.
"Phil works for Neil Perry, but he's been able to take Neil's vision, particularly with Asian influences, and turn that into something uniquely Australian.”
Standing around the Momofuku Seiobo bar in the quiet hours before dinner service, Greeno, Lusted and Wood shared a sense of surprise by their nominations.
“When I was told, I was thinking: For me? Are you sure? Do you want to speak with David?” recalled Greeno. “I feel like I'm really young, just starting out.”
Wood echoed his sentiments. “I'm been in the industry for 10 years but I feel like I'm just at the beginning."
Lusted launched The Bridge Room three years ago after working overeas in hotel development. “I did a lot of travelling, and ate more street level than fine dining, each time thinking about what I could incorporate in a restaurant I would run.”
Finalists for the 2014 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide awards:
CHEF OF THE YEAR
Martin Benn (Sepia), Phil Wood (Rockpool), Ross Lusted (The Bridge Room), Ben Greeno (Momofuku Seiobo), Dan Hong (Mr Wong, Ms G's)
Quay, Mr Wong, Sepia, The Bridge Room, Momofuku Seiobo
BEST NEW RESTAURANT
Monopole, Mr Wong, MoVida, Gowings, Kepos Street Kitchen
Aubergine (Canberra), subo (Newcastle), Wharf Rd (Nowra), Biota Dining (Bowral), Muse (Hunter Valley)
The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2014 will be available for $10 with the paper on Saturday September 7, from participating newsagents, Coles and Woolworths, while stocks last. It will also be available in bookshops and online at smhshop.com.au for $24.99 from Tuesday, September 3.