Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Escape's Top Food Tours for 2015

Er... more than happy to be included in the Daily Telegraph's Escape travel section's top FOOD TOURS FOR 2015!!!! woo hoo!

Thank you Angela Saurine for including me. 
You can see the top destinations article HERE


And for details on my Kyoto Cuisine and Culture Tours - either take a peek at my TOUR PAGE or email me for e-brochures 

But please hurry as bookings close soon!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

ORGANUM by Peter Gilmore.

                              Nature. Texture. Intensity. Purity.


Now that Organum is about to launch  - meaning there's been a gap in time large enough for me to step back and look at this incredible project from a distance - it has reminded me once again what a wonderful experience and great honour it has been, and will always be, to work with talented individuals who inspire and challenge you to grow as a creative.

Working closely with chef Peter Gilmore over the last 5 or 6 years on both Quay books has cemented our friendship and my respect for him as a person, a loving husband and father, and an abnormally creative talent. But Peter's curiosity for what makes things tick and subsequent ability to link seemingly random aspects of an idea - gently encouraging them into a harmoniously expressive state - is some kind of freaky.

And I don't mean to gush in a silly I have a 'foodie guru' kinda way - I'm all too aware of the current trend to deify certain food 'personalities'. My life, for good or bad, is fairly food centric and I've spent more than enough time around 'celebrity chef' wankery  - which is mostly encouraged by a few irresponsible media types rather than the chefs themselves (although there can be a knock on effect..).

Where I was leading to is this.. sure food is Pete's medium - but one has to wonder - if Peter's mind and intuition were invested in another field what other applications might his talents be suited to? I'm not implying world peace here... but then again - who knows.

Pete possesses a special kind of something which is hard to put a finger on. Mainly because he's quite simply a truly lovely, decent human being who doesn't live to toot his own trumpet. Who also just happens to have an ability to focus,  analyse and create in a way most people cannot. He has just enough ego to allow him to absorb some energy from his fans and utilise it in moving forward and enough gratitude to keep him humble, grounded, fair and realistic.

Peter knows what he wants and does whatever it takes to achieve it (as long a it is not to the detriment of others - he's just not that guy) but at the same time is open to adjusting his perspective should new information, concepts or possibilities come his way. He is constantly evolving his information bank and craft  -and not necessarily seeking it in the way the rest of us might, rather it seems to find him;  often while he meditates on a tiny dew drop balanced on a blossom of an edible flower growing in his impressive home garden - more accurately - a mini food farm. From which I have tasted the buds, leaves and grass of numerous exotic species and even nicked the odd yuzu and Japanese turnip for my own culinary purposes ! Yes, it is pretty fantastic.

It is without a doubt that I have edged my way a little deeper into Peter's world and mind through the process of making Organum.  I needed to make sure that together we got down on paper exactly what he wanted to say about every aspect of the contents in a way that the everyday punter would understand. Did we lock horns from time to time? Sure you could call it that I guess - but only in the  nicest possible, bendiest-plush-toy kinda way - as you can imagine of someone of Peter's character. We are both stubborn in our own special way, which is often required in our respective lines of work and related responsibilities - but without a doubt there was a healthy give and take from both sides. A good dose of respect and trust goes a long way in this kind of working relationship and we are fortunate to share that.

Regardless, you try being the person to tell one of the world's most highly acclaimed, respected and liked chefs 'no you can't say it like that because it doesn't really make sense....' or 'the marketing team isn't into that idea...' . Of course certain things make sense to Peter in a way that they might not to other people - that's what makes him so brilliant at what he does - but it was my job to make sure that 'the masses' could connect to his thoughts and feelings throughout the text. Peter communicates so sublimely through his cuisine that it sets off a complex range of emotions in most diners  - much like a unique artwork or piece of writing might - so there was no pressure at all....

One of the beautiful things about working together with a person you regard highly as a craft person and a human is that it allows you to have a little rethink about your own ideas from time to time and develop your abilities in ways you might never have anticipated. Throughout the process we certainly inspired each other to work in ways differently than we might have if we'd been working on our own. I'm grateful for the opportunity on so many levels.

But Peter isn't the only person I am honoured to have worked with on this title. Peter himself works with a great team at Quay, from his brilliant chefs and front of house lovelies to GM Kylie Ball and owners - The Fink Group. They have all made me feel like family for the entire time I've been lurking around Quay as we pulled these two books together. They know me well enough to know what I look like in the morning when I haven't had enough sleep and how I take my coffee. It often turns up before I've had a chance to think about it. (Thank you Robert x). They'll give me a good strong 'welcome back' hug when they haven't seen me for a week, they know when to feed me something they've been testing in the kitchen that I am gonna LOVE (Sam and Rob I'm looking at you - and the pastry crew!!)  and a plate will land in front of me when staff meal is up if I'm STILL hanging (sniffing) around. Occasionally I've been known to accept a glass of champers. Not complaining. The service team also developed a knack for politely-but-urgently tell me to piss off because they really need the green room to set up for a function.. But I would expect no less from the team at Quay. Culture is top down after all.

When it comes to a book project, especially one of this calibre, depth and size,  there are a whole lot of  behind the scenes people  involved at various stages of production who are rarely acknowledged.  Having worked for many years on both sides of the fence in book publishing I know it only too well. Thank you in particular to publisher Diana Hill,  for asking me to be involved in this project and trusting me to just get on with it.  I also want to give a shout out to the various editors on the book - especially the gorgeous Melody Lord who whipped things into shape at the 12th hour and to Christine Osmond for her work on the recipe testing - again, not a job for the average recipe tester ! And she ain't no average anything!

Before I took on this rather enormous and detailed gig I knew I'd be working with a treasured mate  -the enormously talented designer Reuben Crossman - who is just as stubborn and anal as me (but in an annoyingly brilliant way).  We've worked together on many projects including the first Quay book, Ben Shewry's Origin, most of Frank Camorra and co-writer Richard Cornish's MoVida books,  Matthew Evans' Real Food Companion and several of Pete Evans' books to name a few - and he's even designed a couple of my own titles too - Snowflakes and Schnapps and Zenbu Zen - finding food, culture and balance in Kyoto. He cannot help but go above and beyond and speaks a  different language to many people, even other creatives - that's why he works so damn well with Chef Gilmore.

Add to this heady cocktail of creative juices - one of the most technically superb photographers I have had the pleasure of working with (he also shot my books Snowflakes and Schnapps and made snowy villages appear in a north shore suburb of Sydney). There was no way on earth I could NOT work on this book. At the end of every recipe shoot day for Organum we'd gather around photographer Brett Stevens' screen at the resulting collection of images and literally go 'wow' - our lower jaws hanging slack. Actually there was sometimes a little bit of sweary excitement.

When working for an extended period (about 18 months) with a bunch of perfectionists with strong ideas you could be forgiven for thinking there might have been regular clashes - but honestly - if anything there was mild frustration from one party or another for mere minutes on the odd day and that's about it!. And what we collectively understand with much experience behind us all  - is that it is absolutely part of the process in a collaborative work and what it does do, alongside all the other queries and checks,  is help to produce a result much more layered and enigmatic than the sum of its parts - which is what Organum is all about... You'll have to read the book to find out more on that ;).

Even if you don't read it - you simply must fondle its textural cover, sniff its pages and wonder at the amazing imagery. But of course you should do that in the privacy of your own home.

Yesterday the Peter Gilmore App  for i-pad went LIVE - and it, like Organum, is a thing of beauty. Yet another layer of the Peter Gilmore and Organum story with stunning food porny video to boot!. A magnificent collaboration between Peter, Reuben, Brett and the exceptional Pollen Digital   

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Gion Abbesses. Kyoto.

I had wondered about this place for some time but it wasn't until one of the readers of my blog said they'd had a great meal here that I actually decided to give it a shot. 

The restaurant space itself is on the second floor of an old machiya in Gion and holds only a small number of tables, which is fairly typical in Kyoto. Immediately I felt the restaurateur's attempt to achieve a quaintly French ambiance only made it feel pokey and more claustrophobic than it could have been. It felt a little run down and not in a good, wabi sabi kinda way.  I really didn't dig the vibe at all....But had I been on a romantic date, staring into the eyes of my beloved, I probably wouldn't have noticed. 

It is possible that I was being overly picky as I was dining with a friend who seemed to be annoyed by the service as soon as we stepped through the door and was offended by their music choice and  requested it to be changed, which it wasn't.  I would never think to ask for such a thing and thought she was pretty brave... but I had anticipated the response we might receive... 

She'd kindly booked the restaurant for us and felt there was a bit of an anti foreigner sentiment at the other end of the line so I think she was on the lookout for faults -  however I felt our hosts were pleasant enough and the food was also, for the most part, well executed, delicious and pretty good value (around $90 AUD for 8 courses including a palate refresher, bread and coffee).

I'm actually keen to return and experience Gion Abbesses again with fresh eyes as I have heard really good things from more than one source and I feel that my opinion that night might have been inadvertently tainted. 
As I did, despite a few little settling in issues with the staff,  have a great time catching up with my friend I sadly neglected to write down what we ate. I used to be able to remember every detail of every meal and I still kid myself that I can get away without jotting down the details but truth is I can't... call it menopause memory if you will.  Apologies in advance -I will do  my best to recall what I can. 

Above was a rather pleasant fish and beetroot mousse with caviar and consomme jelly.
Below is a salad including seasonal fried seafood, petals and leaves. This seems to be a signature dish that changes slightly with each season. 
Chawan mushi - steamed savoury custard with Hamo - conger eel below
A choice of donburi with roasted foie gras and seasonal mushrooms OR Lobster and eggplant with a vinegar jelly and shiso flowers
Shiso sorbet/palate refresher
                                      Local pork with apples and seasonal vegetables
Apple mille feuille with yoghurt ice cream
Petits Fours
Mini floating island, candied sweet potato, chestnut, chocolate truffles etc

By the by.... Very full, and sparkling with bubbly, we toddled off to collect my friends car. I was surprised to be shown to a waiting room with a viewing window where it took a whole two minutes for her car to emerge from the underground car park by electronic hoist and then be moved sideways to enable us to drive out of the exit. Only in Japan. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cafe Bastille

If you are feeling a little Frenchy Frenchy around lunch time in Kyoto town you can find great, simple bistro fare at Cafe Bastille for a few dollars more than a sandwich in Sydney.  I was very impressed with their lunch of the day which included a wonderful chilled pumpkin soup (perfect on a very hot day!) and chicken grilled to perfection with Dijon, salad and chips on the side. All for 1300 yen which is around $15 AUD. If I'd wanted a cold drink (which may have included a small glass of vino -can't remember)  I could have added one on for 200 yen - just over $2 AUD. I was happy with ice cold water !
I'd seen this place a million times but never been in and only did so because the restaurant I was going to a few doors up the road  - the fabulous Comme Chez Michel was not open when I tapped on the door! AND  because I was so damn hot I thought I was going to expire.  I'm so pleased I walked through that door and can't wait to return to see what it is like for dinner!
and a little touch of Oz in the facilities....

YAYOI Restaurant. Sydney.

Earlier this year I was honoured to be asked to MC the launch of Yayoi Restaurant in Sydney - the first of the famous Yayoi family to open oustide of Asia. 

It was a pretty exciting time for both the family owned company and for the Sydney market who were introduced to Teishoku style dining which loosely translates as a 'set' of dishes. That is - you order a meal which generally contains a main protein dish, and a couple of sides - usually a selection of vegetable dishes or perhaps tofu for example - plus rice, soup and pickles.  It's Japanese home cooking - nothing too tricky - just tasty, filling and feel good!  Teishoku meals are well-considered and nutritionally balanced with a range of flavours and textures  - plus, at Yayoi they are attractively presented on trays and it's bloody delicious.  While Teishoku meals are the focus at Yayoi - you can order individual dishes for yourself, or sharing, too - like we did on this occasion.

Yayoi also happen to have quite a few sakes (and boy did we taste some!) and Japanese Beers which adds to the experience of course! And the rice, which they have grown just for them, is a hybrid with the appearance of white rice but the nutrition of brown - and it is very good.  Win Win. Plus it gets cooked at your table in a mini version of a traditional rice cooker. As it takes about 20 minutes they suggest ordering it straight away so it can cook away at your table while you peruse the menu and order everything else - which comes out very quickly.
 The restaurant has been packed for lunches and dinner since it opened and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw another one popping up in Australia in the not too distant future... so keep an eye out for a Yayoi near you! 
Last week I was finally able to return to Yayoi and relax with a Japanese friend and her husband and enjoy a few old favourites. Fortunately we were all on the same wavelength with the favourites...  ie the stuff we can't usually get here, the comforting grub from our other 'home'  - the expertly fried stuff we don't normally cook for ourselves - the likes of Tonkatsu and Chicken Nanban for example, done really well.  Oh...I could do with a bite of this deliciousness right about now.
It was really nice, several months after the glamorous opening, to see first hand how well the place is running - I've never been served so quickly and seamlessly in  my life (you order by i-pad and your drinks are with you within a minute or so and your meal very shortly afterwards!) and the food we ate was so authentic that it really was like being back in Japan - rarely do I experience that here in Australia.  

Well done Yayoi! I'll be back again soon with the boy who missed out and is VERY cranky about it!

Oh and if you want to hear a little bit more here's me gasbagging about Japanese food on 2GB 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cup of Dolce

Tully's coffee is a Japanese Chain. There are plenty better places for coffee or food... plenty. But Tully's is everywhere in Kyoto and it isn't bad for a quick sandwich and a cuppa if you are in a hurry or stuck somewhere without a real cafe! And it opens earlier than real cafes so if you are catching a train in the morning it isn't a bad option. 

What I do love is seeing what concoctions they come up with each season - this pic is from around this time last year.... what will be on the 'Fall' menu this year? I was disappointed with this selection as it wasn't particularly festive  (what no chestnut latte or pumpkin frappuccino....? ) but I like the sentiment all the same!  A cup of dessert... Strawberry cheesecake, Tiramisu latte, Soy Chocolate Gateau!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ohara and Sanzen-in. October 2013.

I like to visit Ohara as regularly as I can. It's just north of Kyoto city - about an hour in the bus from Kyoto station but feels so much further away. I love the local farming atmosphere but the main reason I come here is to visit Sanzen in (temple) or one of the other smaller temples in the area. 

It is a really charming day trip - I usually head up in the morning around 8am and have a wander around one or more temples -  then I stop in somewhere for lunch, do a little shopping and then bus it back to town.  Here's a post on another of my favourite temples in the area JAKKO-IN and if you are interested they also have a morning farmers' market on Sundays
Take the number 17 Bus from Kyoto station - if you take it from here you are more likely to get a seat! If you get on further up town you may well have to stand for 45 minutes. Don't say I didn't warn you.

The bus stops at a little depot which has a small stall selling locally grown fruit vegetables, pickles and rice. If you are staying in an apartment it is worth picking up some of these wonderful items and cooking them when you get home - you might like to wait until you are leaving though as carrying a pumpkin up and down the hill can take its toll. 
Umeboshi pickled plums on the left, figs, baby eggplants and cucumbers  - all typical of end summer/beginning of autumn bounty. Below are green togarashi peppers on the right, some okra at the back and Myoga - ginger buds on the left. God that is making me homesick for Kyoto. 
Hikari rice and pumpkin below
When you walk by the stalls toward the road you will see a set of traffic lights and a crossing - you will  need to cross over here to the eastern side of the road to get to Sanzen-in (if you were going to Jakkoin you would head down to your left (west). Do wait for the lights to turn as cars and trucks tend to whizz around the corner from your left - you can't see them so take extra care. In just a moment you will see this restaurant ahead  
It is actually worth checking out for lunch when it gets to be that time -they do pretty decent tempura and various other comforting dishes.  Here is a faded old pic of the menu which shows  yudofu (simmered tofu and accompaniments), various soba noodle dishes - hot and cold, dengaku tofu (tofu grilled on sticks with various miso pastes)  - the set courses including rice, soup etc are very reasonable  - around $15 AUD except for the yudofu which is about $25. There is plenty of food. 
To get to the temple you need to follow the road that runs past the restaurant and up behind it - so you need to turn left just after the restaurant. As you walk a few metres you may note that on the second floor of the building is a rustic looking cafe  - their coffee and homemade simple cake is not bad and they also have a little ceramics/souvenir shop attached. 
This is the sign that reads SAN ZEN IN  - so you know you are heading in the correct direction!
You will walk to the right side of this field which in season is filled with bright yellow canola flowers. The rows look too perfect!
Directly opposite the field is a set of shops selling a variety of souvenirs, clothes, handbags, hats, brollies, Japanese paper, glassware, ceramics etc and a few food items.
Keep walking up the hill as the path veers around and you will see quite a few more restaurants , shops and stalls - probably a good idea to resist the urge to shop until the walk down so you don't have to lug it around all day.
Although if it is hot you may be tempted to stop for one of these shiso flavoured ice creams
This place below looks interesting - I must check it out next time - vegetable flavoured udon noodles with sesame tofu which looks like it might have been flavoured with shiso... or it could be sun affected
Once out of the shops you will look for this sign which points towards the forest behind sanzen in.
Shortly afterwards you will see this temple sign - yep still heading in the right direction
Another small group of stalls greets you before you make it to the main entrance
The local ladies 'Ohara me' wear this traditional farming garb (or similar) when they are working in the fields - there is also a festival in May which celebrates their strength and hard work and you can see all the local women dressed in this 'uniform'. 
Keep walking - not much further now. 

OK - so finally you will walk up some stone steps to your left and about 50 meters in front of you - on the right hand side is the entrance to beautiful Sanzen-in.  Take a look.

It is common for me to take quite some time to sit on the smooth deck of Sanzen-in and soak up the energy there - particularly when it is quiet - it is as if there is no one else in the world at that moment and you can really open your heart and mind - so blissful. On this particular day it was still quite hot - the end of summer hanging on for dear life - so I was grateful for the rest. 
After about 45 minutes of temple gazing I walked through this building up towards the main area of worship. 
Just look at that face. Such a serene Jizo  
Happy little cherubs
As stated, it was pretty hot so I didn't walk further up through the extensive gardens - there is plenty to see up there so I'll search from some pics from another trip and add them when I can - or just go and take more snaps - it is a great excuse to return.
The slow stroll towards the exit... just so peaceful
And we're out....  this is looking back through the exit into the serene grounds - the gates framing the scene.
A brief stroll back in the direction you originally come from takes you past souvenir shops and sweet shops before you get to the same set of stairs you walked up 
Otabe sweets below - glutinous rice wrappers (nama yatsuhashi) wrapped around fillings such as red bean, green tea and white beans, and in one of these seasonal boxes they've included ingredients such as pumpkin , chestnut and sweet potato. There's matcha and houjicha tea wrappers. There's also an eclair otabe with chocolate wrappers around fake cream and custard...hmmm.
These young ladies are taking a break with some mitarashi dango -  rice dumplings grilled and served with a sweet soy glaze - these don't look or sound particularly appetising but a good mitarashi dango is a beautiful thing
As you reach the stairs, on your right hand side you will find the restaurant Seriyou.  Here's the sign to look out for if you think you might like to try it.
I've walked past it so many times and wondered what the food was like so I finally ventured in.  It was a little expensive but I thought - hey, that probably means it is pretty decent. Even though my previous experience of the more expensive food in this area was not that great. I should have taken my own advice but I thought it might have been worth checking out for my groups. Mistake.  The cheaper places are definitely worth sticking to. The food was fine but not worth paying the extra dosh - the typical tourist trap. Having said that it is a really lovely venue and had there been a spot outside it would be the perfect place to while away an afternoon.
From the plastic food display outside it certainly looked appetising. 
I went for the tiered box for 3150 yen - abou $35 AUD.
Goma doufu -Sesame tofu
A selection of vegetables, seafood, rice
Gourd shaped rice
Dobin Mushi - fragrant matsutake mushrooms cooked in broth in a teapot - a popular autumn dish
It is a shame the food wasn't really upto scratch  - as you can see the place is quite lovely
And down the hill you go 
I was very temped by these bamboo baskets ... they have a little vase inside for you to pop a flower into - just gorgeous... but I do already have some at home. Even if they were just over $5 AUD....
The wares in the little group of shops along the road can be pretty eclectic

It is definitely worth stopping to check out some of the pickle action. On a summers day these cucumbers are definitely refreshing
I haven't quite managed to do a whole eggplant pickle on a stick yet
I love a good persimmon tree - not quite sure what it is about it.  But the orange against the blue is so stunning. 
More jizo below -dressed in their bibs. I thanked them and made my leave this day.  
Back across to the bus stop and you will note there are fairly regular departures  (about every 20 minutes or so). Stop off in town for the remainder of the afternoon and evening if you aren't too laden down with parcels. The bus stops in several key places in the main grid. 

And that's Ohara until next time. I highly recommend checking the area out if you have time when in Kyoto.

Pssst! If you are a discerning foodie traveller and would like to experience Japan with me - please check out my Kyoto Cuisine and Culture Tours.