A fresh start: Skye Gyngell's win over the diners on Bondi Beach

Last month, in a bold experiment, our food writer Skye Gyngell swapped jobs with a renowned Sydney chef
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

Sitting on a plane two years ago – returning from a glorious two days in Adelaide's Barossa Valley spent with the renowned Australian chef Maggie Beer – a plan was hatched to do a restaurant swap with Sean Moran, the owner and chef of Sean's Panaroma, a lovely restaurant on Sydney's Bondi Beach. I was flying with Julie Gibbs, head of Penguin Lantern Australia (which publishes Maggie and Sean's cookbooks), and it was her idea. Flushed with a renewed love of my homeland, it seemed perfect at the time.

Sean, too, loved the idea, so we planned it for September this year and thought nothing else of it. Life was so busy in between; it felt like something far into the future. Two weeks before I was due to leave, I still hadn't booked the flights, my house was a mess, and I was suffering from my third chest infection of the year. When I finally boarded the plane with my two girls I was just relieved to be away from work and excited to go to Sydney, relax a little and spend time with family and friends.

How wrong I was. Swapping a business, I now realise, is a huge undertaking that requires a lot of hard work, thought and communication. I arrived late on Tuesday night, dumped my bags at my brother's in Bondi and started work the following morning. The food we cooked that first night was not good. The kitchen is so very different from Petersham that I felt lost and out of my depth. Three weeks later, entering my final week, I am finally getting into my stride. The seafood no longer seems so alien, nor does the running of the kitchen; I've made friends with the kitchen porters and all the enthusiastic and talented young chefs; the front-of-house team have embraced my food and encouraged their customers to do the same; and the sun has finally come out and I've swum in the sea – though just once, as it is still a little cold.

I've loved my time here and will return home with a sense of satisfaction. Here are some of the things I've enjoyed cooking at Sean's – I hope you enjoy them too.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627

Deep-fried soft-shell crab with mint and chilli dressing

It's hard to get soft-shell crab in England that is fresh – almost all that comes in is frozen, but it still tastes delicious. Deep-fried and crunchy, though, is a must – it is not conducive to any other method of cooking, so you will also need a deep-fryer and corn oil that is scrupulously clean. We cooked these the other night at Sean's. We allowed one per person as a first course, which was perfect – they are a little too rich in flavour for much more than that.

Serves 4

4 soft-shell crabs
For the mint and chilli dressing
1 red chilli, deseeded, very finely chopped
1 small bunch of mint, leaves only, finely chopped
80ml/3fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
A good pinch of salt
The juice of half a lemon

For the batter

150g/5oz plain flour
150g/5oz cornflour
150ml/5fl oz iced soda water

First make the dressing. Simply place all the ingredients in a bowl and stir well to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Fill your deep-fat fryer with corn oil and heat it to 160C/325F. Sieve both the plain flour and cornflour into a bowl and make a well in the centre. Pour in the soda water and mix together lightly with your fingertips. The batter should be lumpy – it makes it lighter in the hot oil.

When the oil is hot, dredge the crab through the batter and drop directly into the hot oil. Cook until golden-brown and crunchy – approximately two minutes.

Remove and drain on absorbent paper. Serve while piping hot with the mint and chilli dressing and a wedge of lemon. '

Slow-cooked pork belly with snake beans and garlic

I love rich, sweet, meltingly soft belly of pork whatever the weather – it is one of my favourite meats. The pork in Australia we used was a Duroc Cross and was delicious – at home we use Middle White. Ask for the meat from a female pig; it is always less strong.

Serves 5-6

2kg/4lb pork belly
1tsp fennel seeds
1 dried chilli, crumbled
1tbsp sea salt
300g/10oz snake beans (available from specialist Chinese stores), topped and tailed
2tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Using a small, sharp knife, score the skin of the pork. Rub the fennel seeds, dried chilli and salt into the scored fat. Place the pork in a baking tray and put on the middle shelf of the oven. Bake uncovered for an hour, by which time a good crackling should have formed. Remove from the oven and cover tightly with foil. Return to the oven and cook for a further two hours.

Fifteen minutes before the pork is due to come out, place a pot of water large enough to cook the beans on to boil. Add a generous pinch of salt and when the water is boiling, add the beans. Cook for three minutes, then drain and toss with the olive oil and chopped garlic. Season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Remove the pork from the oven and slice into wedges. Serve while piping hot with the beans. '

Cornucopia pasta with red peppers, chard and chilli oil

This beautiful pasta was made for us in a small shop in Bronte, the next beach on from Bondi. It was made in an old and much-loved pasta machine brought over from Emilia-Romagna in Italy. We served it at Sean's one night with braised pork belly, but mostly we just enjoyed it at home.

Serves 4

1 red pepper
5 stalks of rainbow chard
4tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic
1 small bunch of marjoram
10 little plum tomatoes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
500g/16oz of cornucopia pasta or pappardelle
60g/21/2oz freshly grated Parmesan
1 small bunch of basil, leaves only

Slice the pepper in half, remove the seeds, and slice into one-inch strips. Wash and pat dry the chard. Place the olive oil into a saucepan over a medium heat. When warm add the pepper, garlic, marjoram and whole little tomatoes; cook, stirring every so often until softened (about 20 minutes). Season with a good pinch of salt and add the chopped chilli and whole chard leaves. Stir well to combine and cook until the chard has wilted – a further 10 minutes or so. Set aside to allow the flavours to marry and deepen while you cook the pasta.

Place a large pot of boiling, well-salted water on to boil. When the water is boiling vigorously, drop in the pasta and cook – if fresh for eight minutes; if dry, follow the instructions on the packet. When soft but still a little firm to the bite, drain, reserving a tablespoon or so of the cooking liquid. Add the pasta to the cooked vegetables and toss through. Tear in the basil and finish with the Parmesan. It will probably still want a good pinch of salt. Serve at once.

Blood orange, poached rhubarb, honey and sheep's milk yoghurt

This is a lovely, simple dish that can happily be eaten any time of day. I love anything involving sheep's milk – whether it be a yoghurt or young cheese. Its flavour is clear, clean and tangy.

Serves 4

4 stems of rhubarb
100g/31/2oz caster sugar
The juice of one orange
2 blood oranges, peeled and sliced into pinwheels
160ml/5fl oz sheep's milk yoghurt
4tbsp honey
12 toasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped

Wash and pat dry the rhubarb. Cut into two-inch slices. Place into a heavy-based saucepan along with the sugar and orange juice. Place over a gentle heat and bring to a gentle simmer. Turn the heat down slightly and poach for about five minutes until the rhubarb is soft and tender. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. When completely cool, place in the fridge and chill well.

To serve, arrange the rhubarb and pinwheels of orange on to a plate (to create, peel vertically with a knife and slice horizontally to about 1/4-inch). Spoon over the yoghurt and finish by drizzling over the honey and scatter over the nuts.

The Forager by Wendy Fogarty

Petersham's food sourcer on Australia's food culture...

The "new Australian food" rose to prominence in the late-1980s/early-1990s and was the product of a flood of immigrant communities from Europe (particularly Greeks and Italians), south-east Asia, China, the Middle East and the Pacific islands. These books – by some of Australia's most influential chefs and food writers – came out of that period.

The Cook's Companion (Lantern) by Stephanie Alexander. The bible of Australian kitchens, by one of Australia's most respected chefs and restaurateurs.

Cooking with Verjuice (Viking Australia) by Maggie Beer. Credited with reviving the production and use of this ancient culinary staple.

Rockpool (New Holland Publishers) by Neil Perry. The first book by a chef credited with redefining Australian cuisine. He was one of the first to work directly with regional producers and credit them on his menus.

Thai Food (Pavilion Books) by David Thompson. Considered by many (including the royal Thai court) as the most authoritative book on the subject of this ancient cuisine, and includes more than 300 mouth-watering recipes.

New Food (Mitchell Beazley) by Jill Duplex and Yum (William Heinemann) by Terry Durack. Two of Australia's leading food writers (one of whom you might recognise as The New Review's restaurant critic) captured the spirit and flavours of the "new Australian food".

You can find these books at www.amazon.co.uk; www.booksforcooks.com; and www.cookbooks.com.au

Comments