It was Christmas 1980 and I was seven.
We'd towed our boat all the way from Melbourne to Mallacoota and, devastatingly, most of the presents (stored in the back of the boat) had been badly damaged by pongy battery acid.
But a few days later we caught prawns. A whole bucketload. With the boat engine switched off we stalked them in the night, picking out their red eyes with a spotlight, scooping them up with a long-handled prawn net. The next day we cooked them and my dad made his prawn cocktail sauce. Not counting frying fish in butter and boiling potatoes, it's pretty much his one and only recipe. There are no measurements, just ingredients: cream, tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce and a touch of Tabasco. Experience tells you whether you've got the colour and flavour right (more cream is dad's only tip); accompany with fresh bread. Nearly 35 years later, whenever we have prawns at home, I always whip up a bowl of dad's prawn cocktail sauce, just like he taught me.
To celebrate fathers and their sometimes-eccentric culinary ways, here are a few recipes, techniques, and food lessons that have been passed down the patriarchal line, in some cases for many generations. Happy Father's Day.
The whole hog
Growing up in the mediaeval village of Cuiseaux in Burgundy, France, Jacques Reymond remembers being in his parents' kitchen from an early age. The Reymonds kept chickens, two cows and always a couple of pigs, who fed extremely well on restaurant scraps, thanks to the family's busy 25-room l'hôtel du Nord. ''At least once a year we would kill the pigs,'' recalls Reymond, who says he was as young as six when he first started helping his father, Bernard.
''That was a very important ceremony because these pigs used to provide us a lot of food. It was a big event and a big celebration.''
A man called Arsene would kill the pig and then, under Bernard's watchful direction, the three of them would harvest and use every part of the animal. They siphoned blood to make boudin noir (black pudding), boiled the head with the trotters to make a jellied delicacy known as fromage de tête, washed and fermented the intestines to make the traditional French sausage andouillette and layered the other cuts in salted porcelain vats in the hotel cellar for later.
Everyone drank wine. "It was a feast day and it took all day to do things like the fromage de tête. By the end we were completely drunk." And, like most dads, Bernard had one particular job that he was known for. "My father was the king of the black pudding," says Reymond, who uses the same recipe today.
At the age of 14 Reymond left home, eventually settling in Australia and raising a family with wife Kathy. Nathalie, Joanna, Edouard and Antoine are adults now but when they were young the family would decamp each year for a week in the snow and a week at the beach. Before leaving, Reymond would buy a whole processed pig and teach the children how to make black pudding, fromage de têˆte and hams.
"We used to take to the snow some of the five-to-10-kilogram hams with us and everybody used to pinch (them) because it was so good. What my father taught me I've transmitted to my children."
Reymond, 61, has a grandson now (Nathalie has a four-year-old son, Xingu, with another child on the way) and he hopes his children will remember him as a hard-working and caring father. "The rest - they've got to make their own lives, you know?"
- Recipe: Reymond family ham
- How to cook like the French: Tips from Jacques Reymond and Guillaume Brahimi
Guy Grossi's father Pietro was a chef but occasionally he cooked at home. When he did, it was either tripe or suckling lamb, dishes Guy's mother, Marissa, would avoid. Pietro passed both dishes on to Guy, who in turn taught them to his adult son, Carlo.
To make the suckling lamb, he starts by boning the animal out in joints, taking the meat entirely off the shoulders and back legs and slitting the ribs into chops, so you get a mix of bony bits and meaty bits when you serve. Trim, leaving some fat on for flavour and covering, then pop into a large tray or several small trays. Add chopped onion, chopped tomato, crushed garlic, salt, pepper, rosemary, sage, chopped parsley and some olive oil; then some white wine and water (or stock) but not so the meat is entirely covered. Mix with your hands, then sprinkle a thin layer of breadcrumbs and grated parmesan on top, giving it a quick "move around" with your fingers but without disturbing the top layer.
It goes in an oven at 180C for about an hour, and Grossi starts checking it after 45 minutes.
"It comes out really beautiful and tasty and really soft and starting to fall apart," he says, adding that his father would have it with a polenta or you could try peperonata (a braised red capsicum dish).
"I would have been 14 or 15 when he showed me but he didn't make a big thing of it," says Grossi. "We cooked it together many times and I've cooked it with Carlo a few times at home now."
Anthony and Jason Lui
Cooking at home
When Jason Lui's mother passed away he was seven years old and his brother was three. Their father, Anthony, was busy at the time cooking at the Flower Drum, which was moving from its old digs in Little Bourke Street to its current home in Market Lane.
''My brother and I had to grow up quickly," says Jason, now the restaurant's operations manager. "This meant cleaning, studying and cooking on our own. Only in hindsight do we realise how hard it must've been for [my father] to put his faith in us at that age to look after ourselves the way we did.''
Anthony Lui taught his boys everything, from how to use the washing machine to getting around the kitchen.
''Most nights after work he would have prepared some dishes for us for the next day, such as a Hakka-style steamed pork mince with salted egg, so we had to learn how to steam and how long it should take,'' says Jason. ''He would make a lean pork and vegetable soup, which he would leave us to season ourselves at the end of cooking and also teach us that we needed to use a toothpick to keep the lid ajar while cooking for long periods so that it doesn't spill out when boiling.''
He also taught them how to wash rice and add the correct proportion of water for steaming, how to cook stir-fried rice from leftovers and which order to cook things: rice first, then egg, spring onion, meats, and finally, dark soy and seasoning. ''There's no particular recipe that really springs to mind when I think back on those days, more just techniques on how to cook what he had prepared for us. I owe my work ethic to the way my dad goes about things … you will still find him working away in the kitchen six days a week.''
Somewhere in France cheese importer Will Studd picked up a nifty little recipe for making baked camembert. ''Dad is an incredible cook. He cooks very instinctively and never uses a recipe,'' says daughter Fleur, who has taken to hovering over her father's shoulder when he cooks so she can keep track of all his ingredients. The baked cheese dish is simple, though. Take a round of good camembert (Studd uses a Le Conquerant Camembert, which he imports from Normandy) and heat the oven to 200C. Then insert three halved and blanched cloves of garlic into the rind, pour over two tablespoons of red wine, and sprinkle thyme on top. Bake on an oven tray for 10-15 minutes and you're done. ''The camembert will become deliciously gooey. Grind some fresh pepper over the top and enjoy it with fresh crusty bread and a glass of red.''
It's foolproof, says Fleur, and the perfect thing for when people come over.
Barbecued octopus tentacles
It's 40 years since Peter Xynas' popular family-run Albert Park Deli opened. Xynas, 53, was born in Australia but in the 1970s he and his parents moved back to a Greek coastal town for three years. ''Dad would fish for octopus,'' recalls Xynas of his father Bill, who passed away in 2000.
''I wasn't too interested at the time but the more I saw him fish, the more I liked the idea of catching and eating the octopus.''
Bill laid clay pots in the shallows early in the morning and octopus would hide in them to escape the midday sun. Once the animal had been killed, skinned and beaten (to tenderise), Bill marinated the tentacles overnight in a bucket of lemon, pepper, rock salt, fresh oregano, and some good olive oil. He'd hang them out on a clothesline the next day to draw out the excess moisture, then cook them on a grate over very hot coals for a few minutes, cutting them diagonally before serving. It's a tradition Peter has continued in Australia and one his three young adult daughters have (almost) fully embraced.
''If it's on the barbecue they will turn it over a couple of times to help it cook so they can start eating,'' says Peter, ''but otherwise they won't touch it.''
The ultimate prawn cocktail sauce
When Industry Beans barista Trevor Simmons was growing up his father, John, worked for a string of upmarket hotels. ''Which would lead you to think that he's got a good background in food and beverage,'' says Simmons. ''Unfortunately, he came from the marketing department.''
The only real recipe Simmons' father passed on to him was, by coincidence, a prawn cocktail sauce similar to the one mentioned in the introduction. ''It was mayonnaise, tomato sauce (which dad thought was the secret ingredient), Worcestershire, a bit of Tabasco or cayenne pepper, some lemon, a little bit of oil and some pepper. Just whip it up and serve it in a jar,'' says Simmons.
''He buys the pre-cooked prawns, puts it on the table and he eats most of it himself.''
The perfect Lebanese barbecue
Owner-chef at the Moor's Head and Rumi, Joseph Abboud, 36, and his brothers and sister are used to watching father Jacob, 66, prepare the Sunday barbecue.
It's a complicated, precise - some might say eccentric - ritual that involves lighting kindling in a metal keg (to save on firelighters), ''cooking'' the coals on a grill (for even heating) and then pouring the hot coals back into the barbecue by lifting the heated keg with two specially improvised sticks, which are then poked into the ground in order to stop them from burning.
Joseph has three boys of his own (aged six, five and three) and doubts he'll be passing his dad's fire-lighting technique down the line. ''But I'll be enjoying it as long as I can.''
Potatoes and eggs
In Anglesea, A La Grecque's Kosta Talimanidis remembers the times he spent with his late father, Strato, in their rural home, just north of Thessaloniki, Greece. Strato was a farmer who grew tobacco, wheat, figs and grapes and when Kosta's mother went out the men were left to their own devices in the kitchen.
''We used to go out into the garden, pick a few potatoes together, clean them and cut them into chips, fry them in a shallow pan,'' recalls Kosta. ''We always had chooks in the house so then he'd break a few eggs into the pan, stir them up and that was my favourite dish. It's not a great recipe but it's beautiful.''
Ben Portet, 33, is part of a 10-generation winemaking family, originally from France. His father, Dominique, has taught him the techniques of assemblage - blending wines together at various stages of maturation - just as he was taught by his father, Andre (who was the vineyard and winery manager of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, in Pauillac).
It's a time-consuming, nuanced science, better carried out in the morning when the saliva glands are ''hungry'' and the mind is alert, says Ben. Apart from the importance of ''selling the stuff'', Ben has learnt from his father that good winemaking is about a holistic approach.
''He's given me the ability to back my own ability. We're in fashion at the end of the day so it's about being true to your own style, what we're known for, and putting your head down, working hard and continuing that legacy.''
Buy a whole leg of pork from a good butcher. Ask for it to be divided into three pieces: topside, silverside and hock. The finished ham will not be bright pink as it is not treated with preservatives such as sodium nitrite, but it will keep for several weeks in the fridge.
For the brine
5 litres water
6 juniper berries
1 tbsp black peppercorns
5 star anise
4 bay leaves
For the spice mix
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp mustard seeds
1 tsp green cardamom pods
1 tsp juniper berries
4 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tbsp Sichuan pepper
4 large whole carrots, peeled
4 celery sticks, leaves trimmed
4 leeks, cleaned and washed
1. For the brine, bring the water, sugar, salt, juniper berries, peppercorns, star anise, bay leaves and cloves to the boil, then allow to cool completely.
2. Place the pork portions into the brine for 36 hours. Ensure the water level is kept up.
3. Remove the pork from the brine and soak it in cold water for five hours. Wrap the pork pieces in cheesecloth and tie up with string.
4. Prepare a bag with a piece of muslin cloth and fill with the black pepper, mustard seeds, cardamom pods, juniper berries, star anise, cinnamon sticks and Sichuan pepper.
5. Peel the onions and spike each one with five cloves.
6. Place the pork and spice mix in a large pot with the carrot, celery, leek and onion. Cover with cold water and cook at 80C for a minimum of six hours (or until the pork gets very soft when you spike it). Cooking time will depend on the size of the pork. Let it cool in the liquid overnight and then refrigerate.
Enjoy with pickles, cornichons, or a nice horseradish mayonnaise.
What's the recipe passed down to you by your dad? Or what secret tips will you pass on? Log in to comment below.