Wednesday, 7 February 2007

the f word comes to sydney

What a night! I just got back from an evening at Australia’s very own version of The F Word, modelled on Gordon Ramsay’s TV show that screened here on Foxtel.

The premise for this Channel 7 show is that Matt Moran (of Aria fame) leads three amateur cooks (lawyers, doctors, lifesavers etc) to produce a high quality meal for 50 people in a pseudo restaurant. For each dish you decided whether the quality was up to scratch and if you enjoyed it you agree to pay for it.

I got an email invitation from a work colleague (thanks Toni!) explaining how to be part of the show and then I passed the good news on to many Sydney food bloggers. I spotted Julia and Emily there tonight (in fact the chance seating arrangments meant we had a "bloggers corner"). Be sure to check out their reviews as well, since there was certainly controversy over the food.

I spent my night there with Nicki, Slinky Minx and Paul (who isn’t a Yankee but is a Yank).

We arrived early so the security guard directed us to a nearby pub to kill some time. After ordering our drinks (I’m sorry to say I ordered a shandy – with VB!) we were approached by two gentlemen who had spied Paul drinking a James Squire (much more civilised than me). It turned out to be Master Brewer Chuck Hahn! I was so excited since Jonas loves James Squire beers and this guy was their creator. Any Aussie would understand that this chance meeting was stellar stuff!

Once seated in the restaurant it was weird being filmed. At the beginning they had everyone stand and give a massive round of applause about nothing. Then they filmed us all clapping and smiling and looking like fools. Once we were in good spirits they introduced Matt Moran and we all cheered him as he made his way to the kitchen. We then watched as he and three butchers went about cooking for 50 hungry mouths.

While we were eating, boom mics would hover erratically over our heads, following the conversation from one person to another like an angry wasp. From a distance a camera man would inconspicuously zoom in on our filled mouths. Once they were done listening to our awkward attempts at sounding like gastronomic geniuses, they moved on or used our table to film other groups of unsuspecting diners. It was both ridiculous and exhilarating all at once and I found it hard not to giggle.

At one exciting moment I heard one of the crew whisper urgently to another that some “argy bargy” was taking place in the kitchen between Moran and someone else? Hmm, could this turn into a Gordon Ramsay moment afterall? Yelling and swearing? Were we about to learn why Ramsay called it The F Word?

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Moran didn’t spit the dummy during this episode of The F Word.

My sister worked on The F Word in London with Gordon Ramsay and while she said he was like a shar-pei puppy that needed a good ironing out, she also said his fierce and arrogant persona was caricatured for TV. In fact he warned the waitstaff that he would turn into Lucifer once the cameras were rolling, but even this didn’t prepare many of them from ending the night in tears. Lucky my sister isn’t phased by much and her water-off-a-duck’s-back attitude put her in the good books. I enjoyed their high opinion of her when we visited Claridges together last March and was well taken care of by Jean-Baptiste Requien (former maitre d' at Claridges and now Restaurant Director at Ramsay’s The London in NYC).

The other aspect from Ramsay’s version of The F Word that I’m hoping they don’t replicate in the Australian version is the celebrity factor. Let’s face it, Australia pulls some pretty lame celebrities for these kinds of events. Tonight we had Australian Idol runner up, Anthony Callea, and two former My Restaurant Rules competitors, Evan and Bella. This hardly competes with Joan Collins, Cliff Richard and Sharon Osbourne who appeared in the UK series? Or are they the equivalent to B grade celebs in the UK?

I just hope the show turns out to be more than poor Matt Moran being forced to fawn over randoms! (Although, having said all this I sat right next to Anthony Callea and managed to eavesdrop on as much of his conversation as I know he and his friend eavesdropped on ours. He turned out to be quite a sweet little fellow and I won’t think of him as the devil’s peanut shelf anymore.)

Service was sporadic as well. They mixed sparkling and still water and we spotted them accidently pouring Anthony Callea the rest of our bottle of sauvignon blanc then just never bothering to inform us about it. Oh well, it's a TV show. What do we expect?!?

Throughout filming, one thing the production team kept emphasising is that they wanted everyone to be honest and they wanted to hear some real feedback. Controversy makes great TV.

Our dishes were:
Salt & Chilli Squid w Bok Choy
Pork w Kifler Potatoes, Pear, Broccolini & Caper Butter
White Chocolate Pannacotta w Citrus Salad

The squid was cooked perfectly and was doused in a very sweet sauce, flavoured heavily with ginger. The sauce was much too sweet and took on the slightly artificial flavour that heavily preserved sauces do. Fortunately the ginger added significant zing and the bok choy was refreshing. I enjoyed the flavour and would have been happy to pay AUD$10 in a mid-range restaurant or pub, but wouldn’t be impressed in a fine dining establishment.

The pork was wonderful and was easily worth $20. I would never order pork in a restaurant so I was very pleased with the quality of pork that I was served. Cutting the pork with the cutlery was a little tough, but my teeth sliced through it like butter and it was moist in my mouth. It was pink and succulent and the fat to meat ratio was divine (I later discovered it was Kurobuta pork).

The accompaniments, while flavoursome in their own right, probably weren’t a great match. The tiny honey pears seemed somewhat under ripe so they didn’t provide that burst of sweet, juiciness that Moran had probably aimed for. The broccolini was perfectly toothsome although I wasn’t so keen on the caper butter. A lot of the brininess had been washed away and all that remained was a slight hint of caper. The kipfler potatoes were crushed with some fruity olive oil and black pepper, which were tasty in their own right but weren’t a great match to the juicy pork.

My only real criticism was that some portions of the crackling was undercooked and this meant it was ridiculously chewy and impossible to eat. Mine was fine, but three out of four at my table were not.

After the main course, Matt Moran came out to admonish the crowd. Only 20 out of 50 patrons agreed to pay for the pork. What a terrible verdict! I was somewhat shocked by this because mine had been surprisingly good. Four of the 20 people who agreed to pay were at my own table. What had happened elsewhere?

Moran explained that the butchers had cooked the meat perfectly. He addressed some of the criticisms:

The fat on the pork added flavour during the cooking process. Customers could cut around it, as they would a chop bone, should they not want to eat it. I agree that fat often adds flavour and moisture to the meat, although I’m not sure whether people should have to cut around it. Isn’t that part of the kitchen’s job? Having said that, my piece of meat had such an insignificant strip of fat that I happily ate it with the flesh.

The kipfler potatoes were not meant to be served as a mash. It shocked me a little to hear that people expected the potatoes to be a mash. As we had previously discussed at our table, and as Moran almost identically explained afterwards, kipflers are waxy potatoes and are therefore not suitable for mashing. In this instance they were simply crushed with a little olive oil so we could enjoy them in a natural state.

But I noticed Moran provided no excuses for the undercooked crackling.

While I agreed completely with Moran’s comments and felt (perhaps very arrogantly) that some of the audience needed some food education, I also felt that the show was supposed to be about what people were prepared to eat and prepared to pay for. And it seemed they honestly didn’t like the main course.

Maybe that said more about pork than it did about the butchers’ skills? After a vote with my dining companions, we all agreed that we never order pork from a menu. It’s just not a meat of choice. So perhaps our poor butchers suffered because of the humble piggy rather than their cooking abilities?

Onto the dessert.
The white chocolate pannacotta had successfully taken on the buttery flavours of white chocolate, but had an unfortunate gritty texture. I believe the white chocolate had been melted at too high a temperature because this is the kind of texture chocolate takes on when it is burnt. And it doesn’t take much to burn chocolate! It was a real shame because the pannacotta had the perfect balance between jelly wobble and custard flow. The citrus salad of orange and ruby grapefruit had been doused in rosewater, providing a gorgeous fragrance and flavour. Wonderfully salty-sweet pistachio nuts had been roasted to crunchiness and added excellent texture and an earthy palate. Nicki was quick to pick oregano as the tiny green leaves in the salad. A strange choice that seemed to work well. Had the chocolate not been chalky, the dessert would have been a triumph because the flavours were wonderful.

In the end I thought people were very harsh judges, although the instruction kit on our table did say we should judge whether the food was of the “highest restaurant quality”. This seemed to indicate the level of a three or two hat restaurant, but after chatting with the production team they really meant a mid-range establishment. If that’s the case then I think a three course meal for $40 is more than reasonable and that the quality we received was certainly worth the $40. We weren’t at Aria but we were on a reality TV show and we walked out full, satisfied and more than a little tipsy . . . well, at least I was.

If you want info on how to be part of the show, it’s filmed Tuesday nights in Sydney (through February 2007) and all you need to do is call the Production team on 02 9357 1706.

Go the butchers!!!

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8 comments:

  1. That sounds like an interesting experience, I wish I could be there!

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  2. what a super fast post!! and so much detail! Thanks so much for the invite. Do you know where that Will guy who was sitting behind me was from?

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  3. What a super overview. Again thanks for the heads up, it was great to see you and Emily. Yes, I'd like to know who Will is too!

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  4. Lovely to meet you yesterday evening. What a fabulous overview! I believe the main may have been a little inconsistent across the restaurant, which may account for the poor scores. My accompaniments were lukewarm, bordering on cold - but the pork cut...divine.

    For those wondering about Wil - check out this link...I think it may be who you're referring to??

    http://au.blogs.yahoo.com/all-saints/2/dr-jack-quade

    Again - great work on the blog. Love it.

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  5. Thanks for that Steve...there was no way that I would find that link by myself.

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  6. What a fantastic night it sounds like you all had. And I love that you guys were all serendipitously seated so close together :)

    Loved your write-up. Can't wait to watch the ep!

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  7. What a great review ! It's great to read a review in its entirety and honesty.
    The way you describe the dishes makes my mouth water *drools*. Great stuff !!!
    Love it.
    Now to watch the episode on 7. =)

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  8. Very interesting to hear about all this behind-the-scenes kind of stuff. Can't wait to watch the series when it starts on tv!

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Thanks for saying hello. It's great to know there are people out there in cyberspace!

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