Whoever wrote the script for this endlessly unpredictable year is hopefully now taking a well-deserved break, leaving us to reflect on the year that was. And here's the thing. It was rocky and devastating for the hospitality industry. But it was unquestionably one of the most innovative and delicious years on record.
If I told you last year that Everleigh bartenders would be dropping their cocktails at your door, lobster prices would be down, Ben Shewry might make your birthday cake, and you were about to discover some of the best Sumatran and Rajasthani dishes you've ever had, 2020 would have sounded like a dream come true.
Sure, there was a pretty big catch, but there were some minor and monumental moments in food this year. From stellar sandwiches to surprise cocktails, these ones stood out.
The Year of the Sandwich
I declare every year the year of the sandwich, but 2020 delivered a bumper crop of hand-torpedoes. Chefs with some serious credentials turned to the bread game: Anchovy's Thi Le was stuffing banh mi with smoky fermented sausage; Omnia's Stephen Nairn was gently smoking salmon and chicken for some very serious bagels, while Gimlet chef Raphael Exton-Perry previewed the chicken rolls and stacked salad sambos he will serve (one day) at Jolly Good Sandwiches, his dream sandwich wine bar featuring small producers and a big counter.
Between this, there were braided challahs stuffed with schnitzel and eggplant from the Left Handed Chef in South Melbourne and the fluffy shokupan swaddling the karaage chicken, or boiled egg, stracciatella and pickled veg creations of private-dinner party chef Romuald Oudeyer. Demand for these was so high, you had to book ahead.
Hummus with a heart of gold
It's not new, but this chickpea whip from Bar Saracen deserves a shout out. The nutty, buttery well of great repute is top-shelf, the result of chef Tom Sarafian's quest for the perfect recipe. Chickpea skins are rubbed off for maximum silk, and the well is loaded with crab and prawn and slashed with fiery racing stripes of paprika.
Opening the steam-filled pita pockets to dip into the mass with the Good Food team IRL (along with gildas, sour plums, and an impossibly fluffy lemon yoghurt cake – all equal stars) was, without question, better than laughing and sometimes weeping hysterically at each other over Zoom.
Plus, this is hummus with a heart of gold. Sarafian and some friends raised $20,000 for the Lebanese Red Cross selling it. That's good dip.
A party in your pie
Brazil's party pie, the empadao, is the antithesis of our snack-sized wonders. These big-bootied, lard-based crowd-pleasers often weigh in at a couple of kilograms. The pandemic led a slightly hesitant Thiago Mateus to become a pie-trepeneur, making and delivering perfectly cross-hatched, hefty golden wheels (using butter pastry instead of lard for extra strength) filled with either gently spiced shredded chicken and corn, Brazilian seafood stew moqueca, or the dark horse winner of creamy leek and crunchy palm heart.
The 24-piece nigiri box from Minamishima. Photo: Supplied
All-star home sessions
So many top restaurants' signatures are accessible only by buying in for the whole ride. That's not always been easy at $280-a-head three-hat venues. So the fact you could access Attica's legendary smoky, waxy potato cooked in the earth in which it was grown with that sparkle of goat's curd and saltbush as part of a $60 three-course menu, and the truly mind-bending art of Koichi Minamishima's sushi (silky squid, cured King George whiting and fatty tuna belly nigiri, made to order then rushed from Richmond's Minamishima to each customer in a custom wooden box) for $120, was a moment in time.
Talay by Thai Tide's black pepper mud crab. Photo: Justin McManus
Bad year for everything else; great year for getting your hands on pristine Australian crustaceans. You might have noticed your Instagram feed was unusually crimson-shelled this year, and while the reason (trade wars) remains economically worrying, having our best seafood kept on home shores has been a wildly good time.
The best? Talay by Thai Tide's double serve of black pepper spanner crab was right up there with the Stokehouse's meticulously dressed carapace as part of chef Jason Staudt's lavish seafood bounty. Having Flower Drum's signature creamy turmeric mud crab, served in a blue swimmer carapace, was a stupid amount of luxury for home.
Dial-a-pineapple pina coladas
A text came one day from Leonardo's Pizza Palace saying they were trialling a system whereby if you responded with a number of pineapple emojis, they would deliver the reciprocal number of pina coladas to your house. So I did, and an hour later a gentleman showed up bearing two tall frosty and fruit-crusted rum demons. At that moment, 2020 became the best year of my adult life.
This particular service has stopped now, but ordering wines directly to your picnic (via Park Wines) and stocking your fridge with ready-made Everleigh-quality French 75s, is a lasting legacy.
Undoubtedly one of the best parts of 2020 was discovering some of the hidden talent in our kitchens as they came out swinging with side hustles. Chef Nicole (no last name) has runs on the board at Grossi Florentino and started Mangan Yuk, selling dishes drawing on her Bataknese and Sumatran heritage. Her rendang padang was blinding, featuring silverside wearing a thick, sweet spice-encrusted jacket.
And here's to all the sugar bandits, including Catherine Chan (ex-Lune), who started incredible couture cake hustle Kitty Bakes, and Carley Scheidegger, whose Good Pudd cheesecakes and flans (made in the kitchens at Etta) were responsible for many a COVID kilo.
A produce box from Brae's kitchen garden. Photo: Jason South
Cooking the top shelf
You might have been sick of your own cooking by the end of lockdown, but it was a glorious time for it. With restaurants shuttered, premium products were on the move.
Robert Perrone of Premier Foods became a door-to-door truffle salesman, rocking up to do a COVID-safe deal on your doorstep for black gold at $1.50 a gram. Sashimi-grade tuna hit Coles, and Sydney company East 33 delivered taster sacks of live Sydney rock oysters to your house.
From plump Great Ocean ducks to the best farm produce from restaurants such as O. My and Brae, shopping local was shopping like a king.
A schnitzel at the Lincoln Hotel was a golden moment. Photo: Eddie Jim
That first pub schnitzel
Something happened during Lockdown 1.0 that had us all jonesing for the pub. Was it the need for a schnitty crumb and crisp chip that would destroy someone else's kitchen, or the need for a fresh-pulled frothy? I like to hope we missed seeing the cross-section of our community that we tend to find mostly in our many glorious boozers.
Feeling the need, I beelined for Iain Ling's Hotel Lincoln after lockdown, where the golden schnitzels, thick chips (best eaten stuck in a Scotch egg) and fresh fennel slaw come with top-shelf local beers, Kingston biscuit ice-cream sandwiches and a classic tiled room that couldn't offend anyone.
Calere Coffee on Gertrude Street, opened late in 2019 by former St. Ali star Alicia Feng, has become a trip-worthy hole-in-the-wall. Beans are from the flavour-chasing Canberra roasters Ona (who also have new digs in Brunswick), milk is Riverina, ceramics are tactile earthenware, and snacks run from basque cheesecake with a Taiwanese pineapple twist, to stuffed mantou buns and shokupan sandwiches.
Coffee meant a lot more than usual this year. I'm lucky that this new star is my local, but this entry goes out to every Melbourne barista on the frontline who kept us caffeinated and saved our sanity by providing a face that wasn't our cellmate's. calerecoffee.square.site.