Some good things will come out of the Fyre Festival that is 2020. We can finally join our elders in reminiscing about "the good old days". We've collectively grown enough sourdough starter to build a whole new world. And by the time this is over, we're going to appreciate restaurants a hell of a lot more.
The thing is, we'll really need to. Before COVID-19 even hit, restaurants were on the brink. Margins were growing ever slimmer, but hospitality pushed on for the love of the game. We don't know how good we had it.
So for week three of this bizarre reality TV show we live in now, I wanted to remind myself of the blood, sweat and tears meted out for my pleasure by attempting to cook a tasting menu. What could go wrong?
See, you might be fancying yourself as a whiz in your captivity kitchen, but what we've been doing at home is not what restaurants do. Sure, you made bolognese from scratch, pasta and all. Chefs put that much time and energy into a single snack among 10, each gone in a single bite.
The challenge had to be somewhat realistic. Some kitchens have big teams. But not Greasy Zoes in Hurstbridge, a one-hatted 10-seat chalet, where chef Zoe Birch and her wine-savvy husband, Lachlan Gardner, run the show as a mighty duo.
Challenge extended, Birch sends me five recipes including one that, just casually, calls for croissants to be made from scratch. The menu, as per the restaurant, is a festival of Old World technique, contemporary whimsy and a love letter to the producers of Victoria.
Birch's micro operation allows her to work with small-scale producers. Her fish comes direct from Eildon Trout Farm. She has a mushroom crew (Sugar Loaf Produce) and chicken people (Timbarra Farm) and the hottest tip I can give you is that she's selling produce boxes.
The other hot tip is this: when Greasy Zoes reopens, get in as fast as you can. Forgetting that I already have a job, I did not have the time to do her menu justice, but every part of cooking it was a joy. This is cooking so celebratory of produce it felt like I was throwing each ingredient a birthday party. Even in my hands it was delicious. In hers? Watch out.
Confession: in three days I managed to complete 3½ of the five dishes and I didn't make a croissant. It was enough.
Day one saw me de-leg and wing-clip my chicken, create aromatic salts for the cavity and set it to dry-ageing in my fridge for two days (it takes a few weeks at the restaurant).
I fillet and debone my fish, and sit it in a salt-sugar cure, which Birch says brings out incredible texture when cooking (she's right).
A medley of mushrooms goes into a pot to transform into a powerful, umami-ful brew over half a day. I kick off my red wine-poached quince, which I'm told needs 48 hours. I note that what Birch has given me to cook skips over at least four snacks you get at the restaurant.
But wait, there's pickling. I take leafy greens (I could only get kale; Birch would use warrigal greens) and put it in a fragrant apple cider vinegar-based brine. There is the charry melting of an eggplant for a sort-of baba ghanoush. I forget to remove the trout from its cure. It now has rigor mortis, but has turned a stunning deep red.
On goes rhubarb, destined for a parfait ice-cream sandwich bonanza. Out comes the chicken for a pervy treacle massage and skin-crisping oven blast that fills the house with a dark sugar and orange skin perfume.
Aside from some rusty butchering skills, I have a handle on what's being laid down. That's the beauty of the recipes: they aren't tricky, but they are inspired, and a labour of time. You can cook like this if you want to.
But would it occur to you to team that chicken, finished over a wood grill to add smoke to those caramel notes, with the sweet sharp hit of quince, invigorated by vinegar? Would you conceive of serving cured and grill-crisped trout with smoky eggplant, energetic pickled greens and a verdant oil infused with kale?
By deadline, covered in treacle, plating up in an alley, I wouldn't hat myself, but I don't hate myself. But I do hate how much restaurants struggle to make ends meet when their gifts are so great.
Do yourself a favour in isolation. Seek fine producers. Make a complicated morsel for someone you love to destroy in a trice. Measure the hours to make it and the moments to consume. Redefine your sense of value. Then, maybe we can build a brave new dining world.
Address Shop 3, 850 Heidelberg-Kinglake Road, Hurstbridge, 03 9718 0324, greasyzoes.com.au
Take-away options: Produce boxes including baked goods, fresh produce and ready-to-heat meals.
Delivery? Pick-up only.
Open Orders open Mon 9am, close Wed 7pm. Pick-up Fri and Sat noon-3pm.
Pro-tip: Curing fish before cooking (2:1 ratio of sugar to salt) is a texture game-changer.
Go-to dish: Smoky-sweet dry-aged treacle chicken with quince.