Adrenaline. Restaurant kitchens run on it and the hours of service each evening is often a frenetic experience where every nerve is sparked with electricity and muscles strain and fingers delicately plate up meals. But what if a chef added another element to a busy evening's proceedings? What if chefs cooked freestyle without menus? What if no two tables ate alike and your meal was a complete surprise until the moment it was set down in front of you?
Chef Peter Kuruvita is now gone and Flying Fish's executive chef Stephen Seckold is busy at the pass and we watch his of concentration as he directs the chefs in front of him. Part of the 10 year anniversary celebrations, this freestyle dinner was the final event of the month long celebrations.
Stephen's time as a Chef de Partie at Michelin starred La Noisette in London imprinted him with the idea of cooking freestyle. There are 42 diners in this evening and the freestyle dinner is $100 a head for food. I ask him if buying stock was difficult given the pressured task ahead. "I just went down to the markets on Saturday morning and just grabbed two of everything. I sort of felt like Noah in the ark! The hardest thing about writing a menu for Flying Fish is that you have to write it knowing that you can get that ingredient consistently because you don't want to be telling guests that this and that isn't available and the ocean is not a place that you can control," he explains.
Indeed there is a certain atmosphere in the restaurant this evening. Looking around I mainly see couples but there are also a couple of solo diners and a few groups. Whilst most look out to the sparkling midnight blue view necks are also craned to see what other diners are eating every time a new dish is brought out to a table.
The evening is a challenge not just for the chefs but for the staff who learn the names and descriptions of each new dish only when they pick it up from the pass. It's especially challenging for Flying Fish sommelier Paolo Saccone who has not tasted the dishes and yet has to make wine recommendations.
Our first bite comes out and it is brought out by Stephen. It's a soft boiled quail's egg with yuzu creme and black salt. We pick up an egg with our hands, dip it in the yuzu creme and then the salt and pop it in our mouths. The first flavour is the citrus and salt and then the soft yolk melts on our tongue. Bliss.
Our next course follows shortly after and it's dish with two roasted carrots. We each pick up a carrot and spread the tip in the soft nori seaweed butter. It's a great combination with the still crunchy carrots and the richly flavoured butter.
The next course also has a nori seaweed theme. It is a paper thin, crispy piece of trout skin dusted in the finest nori powder. It reminds Mr NQN of a prawn cracker, albeit an upmarket one.
Two teaspoons are set down on the table and they bring us our next course. It's a liquidy soft egg yolk with sherry and chives. The sherry and chives provides a piquant counterpoint to the rich egg yolk and I find myself digging into the egg shell for the last remnants of the egg.
Caviar and macadamia milk
There are about twenty dishes on the night that are completely new and had not served here before and this dish is one of them. Stephen brings this over and he explains later that it was a dish inspired by Studio in Copenhagen where they serve fish roe with an almond milk. This is his Australian-ised version of the dish. There is a centre of Osciestra caviar and he pours the macadamia milk that has been split with macadamia nut oil around it. I take a spoonful of the chilled soup and it's wonderful with a beautiful balance of saltiness and richness. It's both of our favourite course that evening and it has us lamenting the fact that this is a one off event.
The next course is a raw diced scallop served with a cabbage dashi broth. Served in a shell it's an interesting way of serving the scallop although the cabbage broth dominated.
The sommelier Paolo serves Mr NQN an Evoi 2011 Margaret River Chardonnay telling him that it will go well with the marron before covering his mouth at having spilled the next surprise ingredient. The West Australian marron is served as a tender, plump morsel of marron tail with a browned butter and aged balsamic cream and charred cos lettuce leaves. The sensation of the nutty browned butter, tangy and sweet aged balsamic, perfectly cooked marron and crispy cos leaves is wonderful and this along with the caviar dish are our favourite dishes. And this is where we use the bread to mop up every trace of the delectable sauce.
By now I'm noticing another table hasn't had a course for a short while and we overhear staff communicating about dish numbers. I suppose that is the challenge of these freestyle dinners. Then there is a small frisson of excitement as another table receives a big bowl of black pepper mud crab. The woman looks absolutely delighted and cannot stop smiling as she and her dining partner strap on cloth bibs and get cracking with their crab. And during the night we have noticed that apart from the mud crab, the tables around us truly do get very different dishes and we see items like sushi, lamb cutlets and raspberry sorbet being served to other tables.
Our next course is a seafood course with a fillet of Glacier 51 Patagonian Toothfish. It is served with a crunchy, crispy skin on top with a nettle butter and tiny bunches of sea grapes. The sauce is strong in lemon and garlic and we wish we had a spoon to scoop it all up with.
There is a little confusion as we were told that for our next course we would each be getting a different dish. However it turns out that we are getting the same dish - duck breast with zucchini, blueberries and raspberries with a duck jus. The duck is tender and the berries and zucchini are a good match to the duck.
It's now time for dessert and there are two dessert courses. Dessert chef Marzio Lanzini works upstairs where Stephen has adjourned to watch his creations.
Rice, pandan and lime
Our first dessert course is actually different for each of us. Mr NQN receives a rice, pandan and lime dessert with coriander sauce. Pandan is such an intoxicatingly gorgeous fragrance and the lime and coriander balance it well although the puffed rice isn't really needed as it becomes soft in the sauce.
Coconut, lime and licorice
My dessert is a dramatic black and white dish with a quennelle of lime sorbet, a coconut cream with slippery little pieces of coconut and a fragrant licorice dust that is surprisingly mild in flavour but strong in aroma. I really like the combination of lime and licorice and adding coconut gives it a good creaminess and mouthfeel.
Earl Grey tea ice cream
The last course, the last dessert is a matching one for both of us. It features a quennelle of Earl Grey tea ice cream with fragments of freeze dried raspberry and finely chopped lychees. The fruit is refreshing and the tea ice cream uplifting.
Speaking to Stephen after the dinner I asked him how did he manage the night with staff that had never cooked "freestyle" before? "The guys knew that we were going to do a bit of a back catalog of old dishes. I've had the same team for four years so we know each other well. It was a bit scary, I think everyone was a bit nervous not knowing what was going to happen."
"When we did it in London we had a much bigger team. We had twenty waiters on the floor and twenty chefs in the kitchen and we'd only do 25 people whereas we had half the staff and double the guests. In London it was £300. It's not a money making exercise it's more a night for us to get passionate and have a bit of fun."
So tell me Dear Reader, would you enjoy dining freestyle or do you want to see the menu ahead of time and choose items yourself?
NQN and Mr NQN dined as guests of Flying Fish
Flying Fish ##
Jones Bay Wharf, Lower Deck
19-21 Pirrama Road, Pyrmont NSW 2009
Tel: +61 (02) 9518 6677
Lunch Tuesday - Sunday 12 noon - 2.30pm
Dinner Monday - Saturday 6.00pm - 10.30pm