FOOD CHEZ FRED
WHEN JUSTIN HEMMES PUT OUT THE CALL FOR A CHEZ PANISSE ALUMNUS TO RECREATE THE ‘SLOW FOOD’ ICON IN AUSTRALIA, DANIELLE ALVAREZ ANSWERED.
Danielle Alvarez has managed to both impress and annoy one of the most influential culinary figures in the world, and she has done it by opening the hottest restaurant in Sydney. It’s what happened when the young chef left the iconic Californian bistro Chez Panisse helmed by Alice Waters to start Fred’s in Paddington with restaurateur Justin Hemmes.
“I watched her cook for a long time,” Waters tells WISH from her home in Berkeley. “I appreciated her and I was very unhappy when she left Chez Panisse.” Waters is widely credited with starting the farm-to-table movement in the 1970s when she opened a restaurant modelled on a neighbourhood French bistro. She wanted to feed her friends with fresh and tasty seasonal produce and ended up having to go directly to local farmers to get it. At a time when America was known for its growing interest in fast food, this thinking was a revolution. Today farm-to-table is the guiding principle of restaurants around the world and is what inspired the establishment of Fred’s.
Alvarez, from Miami, spent four years working at Chez Panisse and learnt enormously from Waters, her staff and her philosophy of food. “All the other places I worked at taught me about restaurants,” she says. “But Chez Panisse showed me how to cook.” The 32-year-old describes the experience not only as a radical departure from her previous jobs, but as rather “magical”.
“It was a single set menu and each day was different. There was a group of four or five chefs and we would each take a course and the head chef would talk about what he envisaged the dish to be. But it was completely up to you to create whatever it was,” she says. “At 5pm we would put up a plate of food, we would all taste it together and critique it and make adjustments and by 5.30pm we would be done and start dinner service. The next day it would be a blank slate and you would start all over again. It was pretty magical to have that kind of freshness, day in and day out.”
The food was made from scratch every day using only the best local ingredients in season. If the menu had beans on it, the chefs would all shell the beans that day. “It is a food culture that is about good values,” she says of Chez Panisse. “Alice was maybe the first to recognise that it needed to be brought to the US in the 1970s. She wanted to create something wholesome and beautiful. I think the creativity in Chez Panisse is not so much doing the thing that no one has done before but using the best of what is around in that moment and making it a beautiful experience for someone.”
Waters still believes in the values of seasonal eating and sustainable farming – in fact she considers it more important than ever. “It is so vital that we do this now, it is such a politically important place for us to go because of our health and because of the health of the planet,” she says. “And it’s not anything new. Real food is so compelling to people because it is almost like we have this built-in memory of it, the feeling of food cooking over fire, fresh bread coming out of an oven, sitting at a table with a whole group of people. These have been in civilisation since the beginning of time and I think when people get back in touch with that, they want to be there and they want to do it again.”
This ethos is what prompted Hemmes, who runs an empire of pubs and restaurants in Sydney, to create something like it in Australia. He and his food and beverage director Frank Roberts put the word out they were looking for someone from Chez Panisse. Lucky for them, Alvarez had just been on a holiday to Australia and was looking for new opportunities. A few phone conversations later, she was on the plane, then at farms sourcing ingredients and cooking for Hemmes and Roberts. She made a kingfish sashimi with finger lime, lamb with spring vegetables and rhubarb crumble. “It was really simple stuff but not too far off what we are doing now at Fred’s,” she says. “From that day it took 2½ years for Fred’s to open.”
The restaurant opened on Oxford Street in October last year. At its centre is a 2.5m hearth where food is cooked over fire and a huge wooden table where Alvarez and her colleagues prepare the meals. It is an open kitchen like no other (Alvarez admits swearing is out, or maybe “just under our breath a little”) and it has attracted almost as much attention as the food. “I was worried when we opened that people would think it would be too intrusive, the kitchen and the cooking, that it would dominate the room,” she says. “But I have been pleasantly surprised to see people come in, see the kitchen and say, ‘wow, this is awesome’, but then go on with their night. They will come over to me and say
“It is almost like we have this built-in memory of food cooking over fire, fresh bread coming out of the oven.”
something and then go back to their table. It is like you are at a great dinner party and everyone is in the kitchen, like you always end up being.”
Alvarez, whose family is originally from Cuba, grew up cooking with her grandparents, who all lived within a few streets of her house. She studied art history and began her career in galleries. “I loved learning about other cultures through art. You learn about how they lived, how they ate, how they celebrated,” Alvarez tells WISH, sitting at one of the tables of Fred’s when it is closed and pleasantly quiet. But once she started working in a gallery in Miami, she figured out pretty soon it wasn’t her thing. “It wasn’t my passion,” she says of showing and selling artwork. “So then I had to ask myself, what did I want to commit my life to, and I decided cooking was the way. I had never worked in a restaurant, ever, but I just knew I loved the act of it as I had done it with my mother and grandmother. So I signed up for cooking school.”
Her first proper kitchen experience was at the threeMichelin-starred restaurant French Laundry in the Napa Valley, run by famous American chef Thomas Keller and voted the world’s best restaurant in 2003 and 2004. Alvarez audaciously wrote them a letter and scored an internship in 2006. She recalls being terrified, at just 22, walking into a kitchen that had so much prestige. “I feel like that was the first moment that set me on this path and I am really thankful for that,” she says. “Although it’s not the kind of food I do now, working with such talented people and seeing people at the top of their game from the beginning of your career can be a real motivator. Once you see and work with the best, you know how the best work.”
Alvarez has gone from an unpaid intern to a head chef at her own restaurant in a decade. “Ten years still seems pretty fast for me,” she confesses. “But I am very grateful. I still feel like I have so much to learn and I don’t feel like I am ever at a point where I can say, ‘I have this, guys’. Every day I feel like I am not ready for this but I am going to go for it anyway. For a lot of us, fear is what holds us back and if you just attempt something, hopefully you will be pleasantly surprised at the results, as I have been here.”
Alvarez has a lot to be pleasantly surprised about. You cannot get a table at Fred’s for weeks. Critics have declared it the hottest restaurant in town, praising not only the food but the stunning design of the space and its downstairs bar Charlie Parker, which was done in collaboration with Hemmes, his sister Bettina, stylist Amanda Talbot and architects Acme & Co. “They have created this really beautiful room,” says Alvarez, whose original vision guided the design of the restaurant.
It is also the atmosphere that is driving Fred’s success – it’s fine dining food but much more relaxed. “When we spoke about this place, Justin was very much on the side of wanting for people to feel completely relaxed,” she says. “When he entertains with his friends and family, he wants to laugh, he wants to feel comfortable, he wants the food to be so delicious that everyone is getting into everyone else’s plates. You are mopping the sauce up with bread. So for all of us, it was a conscious decision to try and make Fred’s feel that way.”
“[Hemmes] wants the food to be so delicious that everyone is getting into everyone else’s plates.”
The Paddington restaurant centres on a hearth where food is cooked over open fire.
Fred’s restaurant and the downstairs bar Charlie Parker was designed by architects Acme & Co, together with Justin and Bettina Hemmes, and styled by Amanda Talbot.