What a fantastic time to be a chef-obsessed stalker. In the Old World (RIP) you had to pay a lot of money to sit at a chef's table and marvel at the people behind the magic. But now, chefs are trapped in their homes, and like us, they're turning to cooking and the internet for comfort.
Day or night you can be teleported right into the kitchens, and living rooms, of chefs such as David Chang, Alice Waters, Massimo Bottura, and Neil Perry (who is deeply committed to sandwiches, it turns out). They're cooking spaghetti and noodles like nobody's watching, and while there are a lot of horrible things happening in the world right now, this isn't one of them. I love it.
The dilemma is, all the free ogling isn't helping anyone in hospitality. And we know they need help right now. But over the past two weeks my need to support restaurants has been in conflict with my desire to cook. Thankfully entrepreneurial chefs have found the happy middle ground.
Chef-restaurateur Scott Pickett, of Estelle and Matilda fame, has styled himself as something of a Japanese TV show host. You might see him talking pasta, resplendent in a suit jacket and board shorts. One afternoon, he demonstrated the key to a perfect pork roast wearing what appeared to be just an apron. Behind him, chefs are making the dish in bulk that you can then order online for delivery – the COVID-19 answer to dinner and a show.
Others, such as Khanh Nguyen of Melbourne's Sunda are showing you how to work with some of the high-end ingredients now available to buy from their provedore at the Hotel Windsor.
And then there's the tech-savvy wunderkind Charlie Carrington of Atlas Dining. Carrington has managed to keep his whole team on board by taking the globe-trotting concept of his South Yarra restaurant, which focuses on a new cuisine every three months, and releasing ingredient boxes with cook-along videos, switching countries every week.
First cab off the rank: Vietnamese. I signed up, and it turns out this is essentially a hatted restaurant's version of Marley Spoon or HelloFresh. It's incredible how quickly businesses have adapted. One week into the restaurant closures and Atlas already had a slick website up. You can now buy a box weeks in advance. Next week is Korean, then Mexican for week four.
Boxes can cater for singles ($49) through to a group of six ($139), for three meals each. Orders must be placed by Monday, with pick-up or delivery on Tuesday and video lessons released on YouTube from Wednesday. At 5.30pm each night, Carrington jumps on Instagram live to troubleshoot as you cook.
Tuesday comes and I get my delivery call. I ask the driver to put my box on the ground then back away, like a ransom drop. Prize acquired, I hustle it into the kitchen for a thorough decontamination because life is a movie now.
Day one is turmeric fishcakes served with cucumber salad, doused in vibrant nuoc mam. Then it's mushroom pho and grilled lemongrass chicken with pickled daikon salad for the big finish.
For waste reduction and a bit of restaurant flourish, the spice blends, curry pastes, dressings and even a concentrated mushroom pho stock have been made by Carrington's crew.
The result is an easy fridge-to-table prep time of 15 minutes, but full recipes are included if you get hooked and want to do it from scratch.
Hot tip: follow the videos rather than the written instructions. It's like MasterChef in 3D, without the tears (unless you stuff it up). The video also gives you the instructions organically (the written version is a little light on detail) and is the whole point of the cook-along.
Carrington starts out with an impassioned thank you for keeping the whole Atlas team employed, then goes in for a thorough hand washing. Out come the tips (Wash your rice to make it fluffy! Let residual heat finish your fishcakes!).
I boil rice, form my fishcakes and chop up a salad. It's paint-by-numbers easy but at the finish there is an incredibly vivid and fresh dinner that blurs the reality of "I made this!" and knowing you mightn't have so skilfully balanced the electric and fishy nuoc mam.
The finish-at-home restaurant box is being offered by a few Italian restaurants (ragus and fresh pastas, and half-cooked pizzas), and it's brilliant. This takes it a step further.
Pho never travels well – the containers are too many, the noodles go soft and so do the herbs. Here, you're ladling a fresh anise-fragrant mushroom broth over just-cooked noodles with fistfuls of crisp herbs and enoki mushrooms.
For the couple, each meal cost $13. For groups it's $7.70. Your "I don't know how to cook" partner can cook it. After the war, let's keep this going.
Address 133 Commercial Road, South Yarra, 03 9826 2621, atlasdining.com.au/masterclass
Open Order deadline Mon 5pm; pick-up or delivery Tue; cook-along Tue-Thu
Delivery? $9 flat fee or pick up.
Cost Singles $49; couples $79; family $99; group $139 (serving three meals each)
Pro tip: You can get a sommelier to pick a suitable wine for $32.