The diary-clogging confluence of the World's 50 Best, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and Tasmania's Great Chefs series left restaurant obsessives and chef-watchers buzzing, tired and grateful for elasticised waistbands.
But it wasn't so much the red carpet rah-rah, the 50-to-one countdown or the steady diet of canapes and Berocca that got me excited. It was the talent on tap, the know-how pow-wow, the many hands around me who could fillet a fish as quick as look at it and – who knows? – julienne a carrot at 50 paces. With so many of the world's great chefs in easy reach, my big question was "What can I learn from you? Can you spill the beans so my beans may be more delicious?" And so I asked them…
A tomato is not a tomato
Virgilio Martinez from Central restaurant in Lima seeks new ingredients in diverse Peruvian landscapes. His dishes are explorations and expressions of his country's terrain as much as they are dinner. He encourages home cooks to be similarly brave when stocking their pantries. "Don't overuse the same ingredients," he says. "Try new things. Also, be aware that ingredients can be different from day to day and place to place. That's about the seasons but also about the growing conditions, where it comes from and who is behind it. Today's tomato is not the same as tomorrow's tomato. A carrot is not always the same carrot. The more you know about your ingredients, the tastier your food becomes." So taste the ingredients you are working with, because the produce will change and you may need to adjust your recipes accordingly – or simply let those amazing tomatoes, in season now, shine.
Be sceptical about recipes
Almost all chefs agreed that recipes could be interesting and inspiring but they should never be followed slavishly. "A recipe is a good place to start but the exciting bit is making it your own, going on that journey yourself," says Jock Zonfrillo from Adelaide's Orana. "You're never going to be able to recreate that recipe anyway. You're not buying the same flour or the same sugar, your raspberries might not be as sweet as they were when the chef wrote the recipe." But it's not a bad thing. "I think that's what's exciting about cooking," he says.
Zonfrillo's family's bolognese recipe is even up for grabs. "I was making it with my 11-year-old the other day and she questioned every step," he says. "I probably changed a few things from the recipe that was handed down to me and I can already see she's going to change a couple more. And that's OK. That's what it's about."
So should I stop collecting cookbooks? "If you buy a book and see a recipe and you want to have a crack at it, that's fine," he says. "But don't expect it to turn out like the picture. Forget about the picture. Chuck that whole idea out the window and just have fun." Make it your own.
Use more salt
Alinea chef Grant Achatz spent most of his Melbourne Food and Wine Festival masterclass making apple-flavoured helium balloons and passing them to soon-to-be-sticky audience members. But his cooking advice is much more prosaic and practical. "In the professional kitchen, we season food very aggressively," he says. "Most people cooking at home don't realise that." He knows that the recipe dictum "season to taste" means different things to home cooks and chefs. "A professional knows you need to push that envelope really, really hard to coax that flavour out. A home cook might not realise that." But success lies with sodium. "You can't be afraid of salt," he says. "It's one of the building blocks of flavour. if you want to make something taste good you have to season it properly." Obviously you do not want every meal to be full of salt: be wary of processed food, which is often full of it, but use it wisely and well in cooking.
Love your mistakes
"I've made many mistakes," says Virgilio Martinez. "That's when you use your intuition. Let's say you're cooking for 100, 200 people and your bread doesn't work. Suddenly you have flat bread. You have to be creative. Your intuition is going to tell you, I can change to something else, I can make croutons." You have to be ready to adapt and change course if things are not working for you. Be creative.
One recipe, many applications
You might have a lovely little base recipe that can be used in myriad ways. Mexican chef Jorge Vallejo waxed long and lyrical about a carrot puree he makes at his mod-Mex restaurant Quintonil. "One preparation can be endless," he says. "We could serve our carrot puree as a starter or a side dish. We might marinate fish or chicken in it then grill it. Perhaps we add it into a dough and make a carrot bread, or turn it into a nice soup, or a pasta sauce. We've even mixed it with eggs and steamed it to make a kind of flavoured custard."
Steamed carrot custard might be a bit out there for many home cooks but the same principle applies. A curry paste can be used as a marinade, in a soup or sauce, or it can spark up a braise. A flavoured oil might be drizzled over steak, shaken up with a salad dressing, massaged into kale or added to mayonnaise. Salsa verde could be whizzed up with cream cheese, cashews or tofu to make a dip, or thinned out with olive oil to make a marinade or dressing. Caramelised onions can be slapped on a burger, baked into a tart shell, turned into a dip or stuffed into an omelette or quiche.
Mix it longer
Biscuit queen Christina Tosi is the brains and butter behind Milk Bar, the Momofuku spin-off that brought us "cereal milk" as a flavour and a tart called Crack Pie because its caramel filling is ridiculously addictive. Tosi thinks we're not mixing our sweet batters long enough. "When people make cookies or cake, they are under-creaming their sugar and butter, and also not mixing in their eggs for long enough," she laments. "Butter, sugar and eggs are the three most important ingredients in cookies and cakes. You want to mix them for a really long time because the more homogenous that mixture is, the better the bond between your butter, sugar and eggs before you add flour and nuts and whatever else you're adding." As a guide, Tosi generally mixes butter and sugar for 2-3 minutes, then mixes in the eggs for a further three minutes.
Speaking of butter, Tosi has some advice. "Do not skimp on butter," she says with a serious look in her eyes. "If you can make one choice in the store choose unsalted butter so you can control the salt level later on. It may seem counterintuitive to add salt to a sweet dish but salt helps balance the flavours. Also, choose European-style cultured butter if you can. It's going to give any baked goods more depth of flavour."
Sean Connolly has restaurants in Sydney, Byron Bay, Adelaide and Auckland and is about to open another in Dubai. He has one key piece of advice for home cooks. "Whatever the cooking time on the packet of pasta says, do it for one minute less," he says. "That's all you need to know: if it says cook it for eight minutes then only do it for seven." Pasta should be eaten al dente, packet instructions do not guarantee that.
Joan Roca lives above his much-feted restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, so he's in a good position to think about the relationship between cooking at home and in the professional kitchen. But it's not techniques or recipes that he most wants to share – and anyway, good luck making highly conceptual and complex Roca dishes at home (green olive ice-cream hanging from a bonsai olive tree, for example).
"We can give you recipes we can teach you some little tricks but the most important thing is that we make people actually want to cook," he says. "We should incentivise them. Cooking at home is a way of transmitting affection for the people in your family, the people you love. And the most important part is eating together. It seems obvious but it doesn't always happen. So if we chefs can just encourage people to eat together again, to cook together again that would be fantastic."
There's one key message Colin Fassnidge hammers home to the young chefs working for him and he believes it's equally important for home cooks. "Taste!" he says. "And taste again. Keep tasting," he says. "Even chefs forget to taste sometimes."
Keep it simple, keep it seasonal
Legendary French chef Alain Passard sent his sous chef to pick up Arpege restaurant's 50 Best gong (it climbed from 19th place to 12th). Passard chose instead to spend his Australian trip in Tasmania, mentoring star-struck apprentice chefs. He believes his sensitive, sensory approach to cooking is just as applicable to home cooks as restaurant chefs. "There are two rules, two bases for my cooking," he says, while acidulating baby vegetables at Launceston's Josef Chromy Winery. "One, use produce in season," he says. "And two, keep it simple." How simple? His answer has the quality of an incantation. "Use good produce." He pauses. "Put it in a pot." Another breath. "Put the pot on the fire." He smiles. That simple.
Try new combinations
Alain Passard is inspired by colours and arranges vegetables and fruits of similar hue in a raw "bouquet", almost willing them to tell him what to do with them. Virgilio Martinez pairs ingredients found at the same altitude, finding unlikely relationships and resonances. Joan Roca tries combination after combination, sometimes plain weird, and occasionally strikes gold: cherries with eel, sardines with grapes. "We often try things that shouldn't really combine well but every now and again they do," he says. "That's what can happen when you cook every day with everything that you've got around you. We don't always follow the norms, we sometimes break the rules and that's when you can discover the magic."
Pat yourself on the back
Many chefs acknowledge the challenges of cooking at home, not least the daily grind and the added pressure of considering health (see salt entry!) when planning and cooking. Third-generation Spanish chef Elena Arzak may spend her workdays injecting apple with beetroot and creating red "space eggs" but she admires home cooks immensely. "For me, cooking at home is very difficult," she says. "In the restaurant, we are many chefs, the garlic is chopped, the parsley is chopped but at home it is day by day, all the work. Also, at home you need to be very varied, to have many different dishes and to think about nutrition, to balance everything. I really believe cooking at home is more important – and more difficult – than people think."