The quest for real food in Sydney

It looks as if someone has thrown an enormous bowl of black bean soup at the facade of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and it’s dripped into the shape of that iconic portrait of Che Guevara taken by Alberto Korda in 1960.

"Che (Sopa de Frijoles negros)" by Vik Muniz is the poster for an exhibition of Latin American art that’s drawing to a close at MOCA. (Image reproduction courtesy Daros Latinamerica Collection.) In his review of the show, "The Hours," Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald mentions a limited edition series of Unilever Magnum ice-creams from 2003 that riffed on the same famous portrait of Che. Cherry Guevara was among other groovy ’60s revolutionary figures and events such as John Lemon and WoodChoc. McDonald contrasts the metaphors drawn by both artworks: one links a revolutionary figure to the sustaining staple food of people of a poor, turbulent nation, the other has the revolutionary figure shilling for a luxury food of little nutritional value in a wealthy, untroubled state.

"Islands of privilege"

There’s a lot of soul searching going on in Sydney. Although food is only tangentially mentioned, there’s a divide in the city, with the very rich becoming the only people who can afford shelter and the simple luxury of pure, good food. The Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, was quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald as saying that the city is in danger of becoming a "declining, post-industrial metropolis, with islands of privilege rising amid decaying infrastructure."

There are debates about putting in place programs that over the next quarter-century will make Sydney a more inclusive, socially tolerant, vibrant city but with little sense of how they might move beyond just good ideas. There are battles with the federal government over who controls the nation’s water supply and who should maintain and pay for public transport in the nation’s capital cities. And entrenched special interests groups, for instance the Australian Hotels Association, whose member pubs gain a lot of revenue by concentrating liquor sales in places where there are gambling machines, resist change.

My Sydney is the region you’re likely to have seen on postcards and in tourist brochures, from the wharf where the Sydney Theatre Company is located (near the Southern shore pylons of the Harbour Bridge), past MOCA, around to the goofily beautiful albino batwings of the Opera House, the CBD (whose skyscrapers make me wistful for New York), and up the ski-slope incline of William Street to the inner-city suburbs of Kings Cross and Darlinghurst. The last time that I lived in Sydney was at the end of the punk rock era, when Darlinghurst was nearly derelict. My friends were mostly musicians. Many of them had been almost literally run out of town by the brutal Brisbane police force when Queensland was run in crackpot dictator fashion by Premier Joh Bjelke Peterson. The Darlinghurst terrace houses that were punk rock squats then are likely to be boutique hotels now.

Adam Gopnik rued this tendency in New York when he discovered its rough parts being gentrified after returning from five years in Paris in 2000. "By a ‘city,’ after all, we mean more than an urban amusement park; we mean a collection of classes, trades, purposes and functions that become a whole, giving us something more than rich people in their co-ops and condos staring at other rich people in their co-ops and condos," he wrote.

There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening

There’s a tender, sweetly melancholy Go Betweens song, "Darlinghurst Nights," that recalls that time, sketching the details of everyday life as an art-house movie might have. It mentions that everyone’s gathering point was the house belonging to the writer Clinton Walker. Clinton’s always been a good cook, and at his house there were always loaves of crusty bread, bowls of pasta, and salad to be found.

One of the discussions that the Lord Mayor held at the Town Hall looked at the value of artists, particularly those whose art isn’t fluffy, friendly, and with an uplifting message that can easily be marketed, and the texture and conscience they add to the life of the city. (The Go Betweens, like so many of the Australian bands of the punk-rock era, didn’t become popular in Australia until they’d become successful overseas.) With the media’s urge to flatten the coverage of life into neat lifestyle stories with marketing tie-ins and advertising synergies, much of real life is dismissed and whole cultures are rendered invisible. Clinton Walker has chronicled several cultures that are on the margins of society, or in a socio-economic group that falls below the middle-class group that lifestyle marketing is pitched to, and might only be valued — if at all — in retrospect. He gathered his impressions of the punk rock era and published them in a book called "Inner City Sound," which has been re-released by the American Verse Chorus Press. His biography of the late AC DC singer Bon Scott looks at how vulgar, raucous rock and roll was one of the few ways out of oblivion for working class immigrant youth; his book “Golden Miles” on muscle car culture, and “Buried Country” connects Aboriginal country music with the wider history of music in Australia in the way that Studs Terkel’s portraits of jazz musicians wove the social, spiritual and artistic culture of black Americans into the wider American culture.

How people really eat in the city of Sydney escapes coverage in the lifestyle magazines and newspaper sections. Celebrity chefs and artisans are profiled. The Australian Financial Review’s ultra-glossy magazine might tag a haute-organic foodstuff sold in the luxury food hall at the David Jones department store (which has all the frigid white-marble charm and fluoro-lit ambience of a duty-free shop in an airport). City bookstores and department stores display the ‘aspirational’ prettily-styled home-cooking of Marie Claire and Donna Hay books, alongside the homewares and prepared foods that tie-in with the books. There are two Coles supermarkets are in subterranean locations. Woolworths might be the "fresh food people," but their Town Hall supermarket has its ground floor entirely given over to candy, soda, and crisps.

Hidden from view in five-star hotels and corporate boardrooms is fine-dining fare that might be footnoted in a business-page story of a meeting about a merger between companies or contract negotiations gone sour. And there’s a quiet fast-food phenomenon in the "international food courts" that have formed beneficial parasitic relationships with their hosts, the huge office buildings, and they sustain the office workers and travellers staying in starless accommodation. The preparation and cooking areas of these food courts is minimal and the abbreviations of Asian, Meditteranean, and European food are unpacked, defrosted, decanted, and compiled from ready-made components rather than cooked from scratch using pure ingredients.

Sydney swan song

A truly thriving culture of small eccentric bars to join the cafes and eateries in Sydney’s city centre is being prevented by the city’s alcohol licensing laws: Restaurants seating fewer than 100 people must pay $10,500 for a licence that will allow them to allow only 30% of their customers at any one time to drink without eating. For larger restaurants, the 30% rule still applies and the cost of the licence is $15,500. The prevailing model is the big, old-fashioned Aussie pub, with sports playing on television screens, and lines of winking poker machines. They serve stodgy pre-gourmet pub fare: chicken schnitzels, steaks with mash and fish and chips.

The newspapers in Sydney have taken it as an aesthetic slap in the face that Nobu chose to open a restaurant in Melbourne rather than Sydney, but gambling is influencing fine cuisine as well. Nobu‘s new restaurant is in Melbourne’s Crown Casino complex, which is undergoing a Las Vegas kind of arty high-end retail makeover to become whale bait for the gamblers who put down a million dollars or more on a single roll of the dice. Wagyu beef is priced at $20 per 50g at Nobu, and at Sydney celebrity chef Neil Perry’s restaurant at Crown there’s a Sterling Sevruga caviar appetiser that’s $220 for 50g.

Clinton and Debbie’s house is still a gathering place for our wide circle of friends and it’s still a place where one can find good, hearty food and a cup of strong, rich coffee. Clinton has hosted a few television programs and has an idea for a "real" food show that links the music of a region with its food. They don’t live in Darlinghurst any more; many years ago they bought a house in Dulwich Hill and live there with their two children and two dogs.

Dulwich Hill was praised in a New York Times article in January this year:

Dulwich Hill, part of the so-called Outer Inner West, is just 10 minutes southwest of Newtown, yet it retains a charming Old World simplicity and sense of community long since gone from nearby Sydney neighborhoods. Among its 12,000 or so residents are Greeks, Italians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Portuguese, Vietnamese and their Australian-born offspring. “All the cultures get on; no single group dominates,” says Con Kazanzitidis, the Greek-born owner of the Last Drop Cafe. Artists, writers and academics are moving in, he says, but not the trendy types. “Newtown draws tourists,” he says, “Dulwich Hill is for locals.”

I spent a few days at their house when I arrived in Sydney and shopped in real butcher shops where everything was laid out on a counter behind glass, not marinated and packaged on styrofoam trays; at fruit and veg shops where the produce all came from New South Wales; and bought freshly baked bread that wasn’t just sugar and air. And I made the best value-for-money food purchase I’ve ever made, $1.50 for a bag of dog bones so big and heavy that I had to take the bus five blocks back to the house rather than walk.


One Responseto “The quest for real food in Sydney”

  1. H T says:

    Everything that seems to written about Sydney tend to be CBD-centric, it white and touristy. The heart of Sydney is its suburbs.

    There are many more Dulwich Hills. Auburn, Ashfield, Cabramatta etc.