BEST EASTER (EVER)
Home cooking is the most primal form of the art, says chef Mark Best. But a little technology goes a long way
It’s those little tips you get from chefs that make all the difference, isn’t it? Those sneaky little cooking secrets you’ll never see on MasterChef. Mark Best, chef, author and possessor of a book publisher’s dream surname, is standing in his home kitchen in Sydney’s Pyrmont with his hand up a goose’s bottom. Being a very large goose — and expensive: $120 from Victor Churchill, if you don’t mind — it’s taking up quite a few handfuls of freshly made mandarin-paste stuffing.
Just like duck, goose is a fatty bird that rewards a certain knack. Before cooking it, says Best, “it helps if you bash it with a dog brush”. He glances over at Chowder the french bulldog, confined for now behind a doggie gate at some distance from the kitchen. “A clean dog brush,” he adds.
“It perforates the skin perfectly”, thereby helping drain off excess fat during the roasting — done, of course, on a rack set over an oven tray to catch the drippings, after an initial blast in a separate steam oven to “set” the skin.
So now my shopping list, in pursuit of the Best Easter ever, reads: 1x goose; 1 x dog brush; 1 x steam oven. Bloody chefs. Unlike most chefs, however, Best loves cooking at home. A couple of times a week, he says. It shows in the way he moves around his kitchen, in the way he talks about cooking, in the way he writes about it in his just-released Best Kitchen Basics — quite the most persuasive and articulate cookbook from a name chef you’re likely to read for some time. And it’s really why I’m here, for this one-on-one Easter cooking demo, because you don’t need to schlep all the way from Melbourne just to see some rock star trot out a few platitudes and recipes that ought never be set loose from a restaurant.
“The trouble with restaurants is they interfere with the pure art of cookery,” Best says. “At home you put the food on the table and say ‘it’s ready’; at a restaurant the customers arrive and you say ‘ we’re ready for you’ — it’s a completely different dynamic.
“Home cooking is more primal, more fundamen- tal. It’s closer to that caveman thing of hunting, gathering, putting something on a spit …”
Not that a spit is anywhere in evidence. On the surface, the one-time electrician is more Harold McGee than Rohan Anderson, his kitchen a temple of new technology. With the exception of the Thermomix, all the main appliances are AEG: for the past few years, Best has been chief poster boy for the brand. So there are two ovens here, one a standard (I can’t bring myself to call it a SMART oven), the other the latest iteration of steam oven; a sous-vide vacuum sealer drawer that works in tandem with the steam oven; an induction cooktop plus induction teppanyaki grill; and a combo microwave and convection oven.
I didn’t think real chefs used microwaves, but with Best it’s the other way round. “I actually don’t use the convection part,” he admits.
The protocols of his spruiker’s gig notwithstanding, the chef makes it clear the technology is there to serve him, not vice versa.
And therein lies the paradox: it’s easier, in Best’s world, to achieve artisanal results with technology than without; as much in his restaurants, Marque and Pei Modern, as at home. And it all comes down to the simple science of temperature control.
He defends the use of sous-vide against the naysayers on the basis of its ability to deliver long, slow cooking in a controlled environment.
“It cops flak because people don’t understand what it’s for,” he says. “It’s not cooking’s silver bullet. If you use it on steak it will come out like a cadaver’s liver. But sous-vide can take a third-class meat and turn it into a first-class meat.
“So you don’t have to just use meats like brisket, shanks and cheeks for braises, and not everything has to end up brown and grey — so long as you keep the temperature under 65C. And of course you still want the caramelisation, the flavour, so you finish the meat in a hot pan or on the grill.”
Those super-sealed little plastic bags double as a storage device. Best opens his fridge to show off the rows and rows of dinners-in-waiting. One of them contains cooked-in-verjuice red onion and capers cooked sous-vide in the steam oven at 70C. Best opens the bag and throws the capers away — well, sets them aside, at least. It’s only the light brine he wants, to set off the first course of the Easter feast, Murray cod with pink onions, caper brine and lemon balm.
Murray cod is sentimental for him, Best explains as he takes a Japanese knife to the job of filleting the 2kg freshwater fish, farmed in Murrumbidgee. “All we did when I was growing up in Murray Bridge was fish,” he says. Childhood memories loom large in his book, too: the taste of his nanna’s honey biscuits, mushrooming with his poppa in the Barossa Valley, sucking sherbet from a licorice straw.
He pops the fillet into the sous-vide bag with a few grains of salt, then slots it in the sous-vide machine — in a drawer underneath the microwave — for a quick 100 per cent vacuum. It makes a gentle humming noise. “That sucks all the air out, you’re creating a micro-environment for the fish to cook in its own juices,” he says. Then it’s into the steam oven for 12 minutes at 85C. No hotter, unless you want to ruin that lovely, glistening, gelatinous quality that results from getting the timing and temperature just right. Or if you don’t have a steam oven, a water bath.
The spices for the roast goose — or duck, since the original recipe is for crispy roast duck — go into the Thermomix for grinding. So thumbs up to that, too? “Actually I don’t use it all that conventionally,” he says. “There are better ways of cooking risotto or baking bread than a Thermomix. But it’s a good combo of speed and heat, and you can control the temperature.”
If he likes the steam oven, likes the Thermomix, it’s fair to say Best loves his induction technology. Initially he had a gas cooktop too, but never used it, so now it’s induction all the way. “It gives such an even, stable heat,” he says. “You can throw away your double boilers, you don’t need your rice cooker. You can melt chocolate in a pan straight on the cooktop. The temperature control is that precise.”
He offers proof, browning the blinis for the starter on the induction teppanyaki grill. They come off looking ridiculously perfect. I make like a 1960s housewife, my eyes popping at the newfangled dream machine threatening to supplant a cast iron pan as the object of my affections.
For the blinis — a Thomas Keller recipe — Best uses a creme fraiche he makes at Marque from a culture sourced in Normandy. Rather unachievable at home, but he does supply a recipe for homemade creme fraiche in his book. Another tip: he washes the ocean trout roe in Japanese whisky, rather than the more usual sake, to lend a smoky, peaty flavour to the finished dish.
Then, while the goose is roasting, Best preps the potatoes. Unconventionally, of course. First, he microwaves them at 100C for about 10 minutes. “You want the heat to be over 90C to pop the starch granules,” he explains — and that translates to soft, lump-free spuds. After cooking, you drain off any water, dry the potatoes and add them to the hot fat in the roasting pan.
It’s all coming together. Best hands over a cooled blini (“they have to be cool, otherwise the topping will just slide off”) with creme fraiche and ocean trout roe, plus a shot glass of Hijiki whisky.
Perhaps the drink is a consolation prize. The goose is sending out its siren song from the oven, but I can’t hang around long enough to try it.
Bad timing, hey. I’d never make a chef. Best Kitchen Basics by Mark Best (Hardie Grant Books, $59.95) is out now. Necia Wilden visited Sydney with the assistance of AEG.
Mark Best with goose, main picture; Murray cod, above; far right, from top, ocean trout roe, perfect blini and stuffing the goose