Melbourne Food Blogger’s Dinner – post mortem (post partum?)

Last Monday heralded probably the most momentous event of my short food blogging career. If you could call eating food and ranting about it a career. Some people do.

I was part of a crack team of food bloggers who took over the kitchen of Miss Jackson cafe, to cook for an audience of 45 paying guests. I guess the aim was to experience what chefs go through in running a busy kitchen every day. Flipping the coin, if you will.

Taking the lead from the Sydney Food Blogger’s Dinner, Penny had approached the kind folk at Miss Jackson to see if they’d be interested in hosting the same sort of event. They said yes, and the roller-coaster ride began!

Initially I was going to be responsible for designing the pre-dessert, which felt like a manageable and fun challenge. After another blogger was forced to pull out, I eventually ponied up and agreed to take on main course. Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid, right?

Thus began my great porcine experiments of 2010. I embarked on a heavily pork-laden diet about a month, which surprisingly didn’t result in massive weight gain. During this month, I would learn how to properly tie a rolled pork loin, then render that technique redundant with the discovery of transglutaminase (thanks to Penny), as well as learning how to produce Dong Po-like gelatinous pork skin. I also taught myself to ‘turn’ vegetables, though I remain still something of a hack. My intention in participating in this venture was always to push myself and learn new things, so I was already ahead. Yet the biggest lessons were still to come!

A couple of weeks into my porcine studies, we had our team trial dinner. We each produced the ‘draft’ version of our dishes, and critiqued one another. It was such a helpful experience, and I only wish I had a team of tasters and a dry run before every dinner party I hosted! With notes made, and adjustments planned, we all went our separate ways, and honed our recipes in isolation again for the next two weeks.

I think it was a couple of days later that I started re-purposing pork into other meals. Congee became the default go-to when faced with a cooked loin of pork I didn’t know what to do with. When all else fails, double-cook it, right? Another week later, I started giving away my experimental pork, as I couldn’t face eating yet another meal of pork.

It was about this point that I thought I had the project in hand. Of course, this was a naive and foolish notion. Because although I may have perfected my recipes, cooking at home is spectacularly different from catering for a crowd of 45 in a commercial kitchen. I use the word catering here because in hindsight, the event was more like a catering event than running a restaurant kitchen. And while I think I’ve gained something of an insight into what’s involved in running a restaurant or cafe, I’ve learned a lot more about the logistics of event catering through this adventure.

The Sunday night before the dinner, the team turns up to start the prep work; stocks are prepared, meat is marinated, and about a thousand shallots are peeled. Three hours in, I have a diva meltdown moment when I realise the pork loins that the butchers have butterflied for me have been cut too thick. It was really the stuff of reality TV, though I’m really glad it wasn’t captured on video! It was completely my own fault when passing on instructions to the butchers, but a jarring setback nonetheless. But the show must go on, and I continued to roll the pork loins anyway. They ended up about double the size of the ones I’d been making at home, so cooking time was about to become a guessing game.

After a night of fitful sleep, I headed back in on Monday morning – the main event was about to begin. Having the most prep work left to do, I was the first to arrive, and was extremely grateful and relieved to find that we’d have some help from the kitchen hands at Miss Jackson. So I set to searing my pork belly and beginning the braising process, while palming off the task of peeling carrots.

The team turned up as the day rolled on, and the kitchen became quite the bustling hive of activity. We definitely gave the stove and ovens quite a workout! And at the behest of Miss Jackson’s chef Sarah (with much hearty agreement from Jess and myself, but utter disdain from Mat) the kitchen’s work anthem quickly became Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair. Think what you will, ‘cos we don’t let haters keep us off our grind.

The afternoon quickly disappeared, and before we knew it, it was 6:30 and guests had started arriving. Mat and Jess kicked into high gear, knocking out platter after platter of awesome canapés. Canapés so awesome that people were quite obviously too busy eating to take photos of, as I haven’t been able to track down any! Though I’m sure Henry (our official photographer) has some, because he took over 2000 shots over one and a half days. In any case, I think my favourite thing I ate all night was still those sage and white anchovy fritters. There was also a pea veloute with slow-cooked quail egg and crackling crumbs, and bresaola with goat’s cheese and cornichons on sourdough.

Good reviews started rolling in, and the pressure was on. As soon as they were done serving, Penny set up to lead the team in plating the entrée course. Ox tongue was sliced, sauces were brought to temperature, polenta was vigorously – and unendingly – stirred in shifts, and the assembly line kicked into gear. It was really quite a marvel to see everyone working together as a team, and it still fills me with pride to think back on how well we rallied together when it came to crunch time.

Penny’s entrée was a double braised ox tongue with polenta, parsley puree and apple and sourdough crumbs. It truly was a memorable dish, and I’m fairly sure it would convert many an offal-averse punter.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

Once the last plate of Penny’s entrée was sent out, the team swiftly moved to clean up and get my main course ready to go. My adrenalin was pumping, and the stress level just hit an eight. The Jurassic pork loins came out of the oven, which had somehow crept up from the 150 degrees where it was supposed to be to 180 degrees in the fifteen minutes since I had last checked on it! Yeah, commercial ovens don’t have thermostats. Stress level nine.

I started the beets and carrots glazing, and left them in the capable hands of Mat and Ed. I moved to slicing up the pork belly, while the rest of the team had a last minute pow-wow about how to plate the dish. Evidently, I don’t deal well with stress level nine. My ability to multi-task goes out the window, and a wall of silent grumpiness raises itself around me, partly to shield myself from further anxiety, but I think mostly because otherwise I’d likely explode. And I don’t really do the exploding thing.

Somehow, while I was intently portioning pork belly, everything else started to come together. Remember those mighty forces? They manifested in the form of my fellow food bloggers. Swiftly executing the (overly ambitious?) boldness that was the main course I had devised. Penny, Ed and Mat managed to portion and plate the side dishes, without me needing to do any more than to check the portion sizes. Penny then set to slicing the loin. It was very much the moment of truth, and I breathed a massive sigh of relief when Penny announced that they weren’t overdone. Though in truth, I think she was just being supportive, and I would have preferred them a little less well done. Sarah and Jess started composing the plates, and they started disappearing out into the dining room.

Pork two ways: Roast pork loin with a miso panko crust with a pickled ginger aioli and cider-braised pork belly, served with baby beetroot and carrots.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

From rear, clockwise: Radish and cucumber slaw, rosemary and duck fat roasted potatoes, asparagus with anchovy butter.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

Was I happy with what went out? Maybe 75% happy. There was a lot of room for improvement, and of course now with hindsight, there are many things I would have done differently. They say you’re your own worst critic, and that might be true.

But I digress, because there were still two courses to be served. Most of us set to cleaning up the tornado-struck kitchen after the last main course left the kitchen, and Ed moved to prepare his avant-dessert: a green tea and mint granita soused with gin.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

Not having sampled this before it went out to the customers, I was really impressed with how refreshing this little shot of granita was. It really was a great palate cleanser after all of the flavours I’d managed to pack into my main course.

At this point, we were encouraged to actually leave the kitchen and face the music, though none of us were really that eager to. It was a little daunting to meet the people you’ve just fed. When we finally did go out into the dining room, there was nothing but praise – some more muted than others – but when you’re cooking for such a supportive audience, I wonder if we could really have expected candid feedback. I for one welcome it, so if you’re reading this and you were complimentary on the night, but perhaps had some suggestions to make, please make them (anonymously if you feel the need) below. Like I said, this was meant to be a learning experience for us all.

Sarah started composing her epic three-piece desserts, comprising a trifle with strawberry liqueur and white chocolate mousse, a creme brulee tart, and a strawberries and cream semi-freddo sandwich.

 Photo courtesy of @mutemonkey (Melbourne Gastronome).

I think many people struggled to fit the desserts in, because we’d fed them a lot of food up to this point. Which was a shame, because each of those desserts was delicious.

I’d like to thank everyone who came and supported our crazy cooking experiments, especially those who didn’t even know us before the event, and were brave enough to take a punt on a team of culinary unknowns. I’d also like to thank my fellow bloggers for being such an awesome crew to work with, and especially for steering me through my moments of incapacity and self-doubt. Finally, I’d like to thank the team at Miss Jackson for all of their support, patience and guidance throughout the whole process. It may have come together in a single night, but there was a lot of work leading up to that point, and it wouldn’t have happened without a lot of courage, diligence and faith from everyone involved.

If you’ve made it through this far, then you’ll probably be interested to know that Miss Jackson are planning on running this event on an annual basis after the amazingly positive response. I look forward to seeing what the next crop of food bloggers comes up with, and it’ll certainly be a much more relaxed night next year in the dining room. Because I’ll definitely be there!

So what have others had to say about the night?

Penny’s take
Bryan’s recollection

Melbourne Food Blogger’s Dinner

So after just over a year of this food blogging business, a year of judging others, the time has come for me to let others judge me. Along with a few other local food bloggers, I’m part of a rag tag team who will be putting our food where our mouths (? that mixed metaphor didn’t really work) are. We’re getting our cook on, and inviting the public to test our mettle in the kitchen.

We’ve dreamed up a five course menu, and we’ll see if we’re able to bring that dream to life on the night. Here’s hoping! The menu will include ox tongue, pork belly, anchovies, gin and strawberries, and there will not be any variations – no, there are no vegetarian options – so if you have any food intolerances, please mention them in your email when booking, so we can make sure we won’t be poisoning you!  

The team:
Penny (aka @jeroxie
Ed (aka @tomatom)
Jess (aka @thatjessho)
Mat (aka @cookinwithgoths)
and myself, with a bit of help from the crew at Miss Jackson, of course.

So, the details:

Where:            Miss Jackson
                         2/19 Grey Street St. Kilda (enter via Jackson Street)
When:              6:30pm Monday 8th November
Price:               $100 for 5 courses with matched wines

The fine print:

Please note that bookings will be taken by email only, for a maximum of four per booking. Payment will be by direct deposit, required within 1 week of confirmation, and will be non-refundable.

So come along and support and/or heckle us – seats are limited, so get in quick!

Collins Kitchen – Nuffnang Foodbloggers Dinner

Collins Kitchen @ The Grand Hyatt, 123 Collins St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9653 4831

I was the guest of Nuffnang and Collins Kitchen.

Last week, the good folk at nuffnang worked with the generous people at the Grand Hyatt put on an event for Melbourne foodbloggers. I was lucky enough to score an invitation (although it still feels a bit funny to think of myself as a bona fide foodblogger).

After a quick drink in the adjoining RU-CO bar – which is a hidden gem for those of us who prefer a bar on Friday evenings that isn’t fully packed, and you can almost always find a seat – we were given a tour of the kitchen from which we were about to sample food by Chef Jason Camillo.

The Hyatt’s Collins Kitchen restaurant is powered by an open kitchen, roughly broken up into five specialty stations. There’s a sushi and sashimi section, where all the fish looked amazingly fresh, and the sushi chef adeptly worked his craft as we were told about the restaurant’s ethic of sourcing, wherever possible, local produce. Everyone got rather excited when the fresh wasabi from Tasmania was spotted. Apparently it’ll only set you back $180 a kilo!

Next, there were grill and deli sections, the grill with an impressive ‘crustacean bowl’, and the deli with a good array of cured meats – to be honest, I got a little distracted by the sushi chef working and fell behind the group at this point in the tour. Hence I have no pictures of the meats, and just a quick snap of some yabbies.

Then we moved around to the ‘wok’ section of the kitchen, which was a pretty standard (if somewhat immaculately clean) Chinese kitchen set up. Woks, steamers and noodle pots, all fired by turbo gas burners which roared like jet engines when cranked up to full power. There were also the requisite roasted meats (ducks, chicken and pork) hanging on racks, ready to be carved up on demand.

Finally, there is a patisserie/desserts section, but at this stage of the tour, I also neglected to take photos. Don’t worry though, plenty of dessert photos to come below!

The Feasting
Once the tour was complete, we sat down and were promptly presented with freshly baked sourdough rolls, which were closely followed by an amazing sushi and sashimi platter, an equally impressive antipasto plate, and a freshly baked foccacia-style pizza, simply topped with tomato, basil and mozzarella. The speed of the service was dulled a little, however, because with a table full of foodbloggers, there was a longer than usual pause for photography before we could dig in!

Everyone was excited to sample the freshly grated wasabi, to the point where impromptu fusion occurred on the plate – the liverwurst from the antipasto was adventurously paired with the fresh wasabi, with pleasing results!

For me, the highlight of this course would be the lightly seared scallops on the sashimi platter – so sweet and fresh! – and I was also a big fan of the liverwurst. The tricky thing about foods like sashimi and antipasto – essentially raw (or cured) dishes, is the quality of the produce is immediately apparent. It was immediately apparent all of the produce in front of us was exceptionally good.

Next on the menu was a Cantonese style BBQ platter – roast belly pork, soya chicken, roast duck, and char siu (I secretly sniggered inside when the waiter pronounced it “char shui” but that’s just me being a bilingual elitist – shame on me!). The platter was presented with pretty traditional dipping sauces – plum sauce, sambal, and my favourite since I was a child, a ginger and spring onion oil. It was also accompanied by choy sum and fried rice.

Now I will happily admit to being somewhat of a snob when it comes to Cantonese cuisine. So please take what I say here with a grain of salt, because this course was still a cut above most restaurants. That being said, most restaurants would probably charge about a third of what Collins Kitchen would for this fare. Still, I wasn’t paying, so that didn’t necessarily factor in my appraisal.

The roast duck was beautifully succulent, and the skin was remarkably crisp, though I found it a touch on the salty side. I really like to taste the gaminess of duck when I eat it. The roast pork was again perfectly cooked, though the crackling was a little chewy, and not quite crunchy enough on the slice I had. The soya chicken was stunning. Beautifully tender, and a nicely balanced soy marinade which had just penetrated the unbelievably thin chicken skin – this was a quality chook! I was a little disappointed with the choy sum and fried rice, both were a bit pedestrian, and suffered from too much oil. The rice was interesting in that it was a medium grain, instead of the usual long grain jasmine rice.

Next up was a grilled fruits de mer (seafood) platter, and a gargantuan grilled porterhouse for two (weighing in at 900gm on the bone). Luckily this was being shared between five of us. These came with a inspired side of sauteed mushrooms with hazelnuts, wilted broccolini and a deliciously creamy potato mash.

The seafood was all spectacular – again, scallops were a standout for me – I think I may be biased – and the salmon was cooked to perfection. The tuna, however, was a bit of a mystery. It was cooked all the way through, which seems something of a cruel way to treat tuna. We had to ask twice what fish it was! We thought it might be swordfish? Because surely a restaurant like Collin Kitchen wouldn’t serve tuna this way.

The porterhouse was beautifully juicy, though leaning on the medium-rare edge for me (I prefer my steak blue-rare). It came with a choice of green peppercorn sauce or a red wine jus. The peppercorn sauce was better, in my opinion.

And then there was dessert. Or should I say, desserts. A sharing platter of five desserts came out, much to the delight (and yet trepidation) of us all.

In order of tasting, there was a selection of mixed sorbets and ice cream (the pistachio was clearly the stand-out for me); a banana mille feuille (wonderfully delicate pastry, and I love cooked bananas in anything); a devilishly rich and gooey chocolate fondant; a strawberry and rhubarb crumble (I’m not a fan of rhubarb, but I WAS a fan of the crumble – I think almond meal was the special ingredient? – that tasted somewhat like the fresh almond cookies you get in the streets of Macau); and finally an apricot melba which was incorrectly identified as a pannacotta, and then roundly criticised as so, until we checked against the menu what the dessert actually was! It was actually quite nice though, just not a pannacotta. But then it never claimed to be a pannacotta!

Props must be given to Adrian of Food Rehab for ‘taking one for the team’ and polishing off the desserts after everyone had tasted to their satisfaction.

Thanks go out to nuffnang and Collins Kitchen for organising the event, a great way to get a better insight into one of these ritzy restaurants, and to meet up with more like-minded foodbloggers.
Here’s a list of the other foodbloggers who were there on the night:

Penny from Jeroxie
Joyce from Jetsetting Joyce
Suzanne from EssJay Eats
Adrian from Food Rehab
Melissa and Danny from Tummy Rumbles
Maria from The Gourmet Challenge
Shellie from Iron Chef Shellie
from Off the Spork
Sarah from Sarah Cooks
Thanh from I Eat Therefore I Am
Neil from At My Table

There were more, but I didn’t get to meet everyone, and I don’t have everybody’s blog URLs. *sadface*

And Nuffnang’s post about the night.

Collins Kitchen on Urbanspoon