The Saturday Paper
The potato eaters
Potatoes are nothing short of perfect. There is nothing they cannot do, no way they can’t be cooked, and each way is best. A perfectly boiled too-young potato, straight from the ground, is one of the sweetest things I have ever eaten. A crispy hot chip is a siren call that sings to me regularly.
My earliest potato memory is the game I played with my pa: roasted potatoes stolen from his plate while he wasn’t looking. The perfect roast potato thereafter became the holy grail. The ones at Vulcan’s in Blackheath, cooked by Phillip Searle, never disappointed. My Aunty Mariette’s were also good, scraped at with a fork to get more crunch. The ultimate, though, are the hasselbacks at Ester in Chippendale, magic with smoke from the woodfire.
Before that, there was a teenage boy, Nick, who showed me his after-school snack of hot chips with grated cheddar, which I still eat, although with the addition of black pepper and tabasco. A similar combination reached its pinnacle a few years back in a dish of boiled potatoes and squacquerone dressed with balsamic at a wine bar in Milan.
Mashed potatoes were another early favourite. My mum’s initially and then the version at Bistro Moncur in Woollahra, where I worked early in my career, with a little nutmeg and a hint of white pepper. The aim was to get the texture so silky smooth then when you whooshed it onto a plate it formed an elegant wave.
Also there: hot chips dipped in wine merchant sauce, learning the surprisingly good combination of hot chips and paté, and discovering the beauty of the kipfler, boiled, crushed and pan-fried, as it appeared on most menus in Sydney in the early 2000s.
Then to Billy Kwong in Surry Hills and the discovery of the Chinese dish of potatoes cut into straws, briefly blanched and tossed in the wok to make a salad with chilli flakes and vinegar. The potatoes had bite and were just on the edge of not being cooked enough.
Behind the scenes in the kitchen we were snacking on what I still believe is one of my finest inventions: the chip boy bao. It was iceberg cups set with herbs and chilli sauce, piled with chips from our fryer, which was used solely to cook ducks and therefore laden with fat.
There also was much debate about the perfect size of chip, the conclusion being, it’s not the size of the chip, it’s how you cook it. About this time, too, I discovered the potato gem. I was 27 and it was a year of many good things.