Introduction

Introduction

By
Aaron Turner
Contains
1 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781743792650
Photographer
Julian Kingma

The End

It all started with a restaurant called Loam, down the end of a dirt road, behind a small town, nestled on an olive grove overlooking the bay. It was simple, thirty or so seats, a small team, and a network of farmers to work with. We were happy, and if only ten people came a day, that was ten people we could share our story with.

There wasn’t a menu, just a list of ingredients we were working with—fifty or so seasonal fruits, vegetables, plants, fish and meats from small suppliers, gardeners and growers, and what we could find in the wild. Every day we would produce somewhere between eighteen to twenty-five dishes, and there were always another twenty or so more in various stages of completion.

We had produced a pantry of dried wild leaves and flowers, cured meats, dried fish, oils, vinegars, pickles and ferments that were always on hand to help push us forward and keep us creative.

Our guests simply had to answer questions about dietary restrictions, tell us whether or not they wanted matching wines and decide on their number of courses—four, seven or nine. From there we would go about creating a menu especially for them based on the produce we had available on that particular day. Every dish served to our guests was a surprise. For them and for us. It was a conversation, an intimate exchange between strangers. We asked for their trust and in return we would create an experience just for them.

It was up to us to go above and beyond their expectations, to make them feel as though the trust they had given us had been rewarded.

Day in and day out it was a huge task. New dishes, new ingredients, new guests and repeat guests who came to expect completely new courses. We always had to create, always had to deliver. Push, push, push and keep pushing. I would tell myself over and over, ‘We don’t fail. We can do better.’

More often than not the day would start at about 6 am when, with blurry eyes, I would set off picking various plants along the train tracks. Or I would set the alarm for low tide to gather fresh sea lettuce and seawater for making cheese or brining, my head swimming with ideas of new dishes and flavours for the day’s menu.

The day would wind up somewhere between 1 or 2 am because the workload demanded it. No one complained; with tired eyes and fatigued bodies we just got on with it. Before the reviews, before the media storm, we had all the time in the world—we just didn’t know it yet.

It hits

Six months in and we had our first review, from Larissa Dubecki in The Age’s food liftout, Epicure. I remember the service being horrible—we were so behind I was butchering raw suckling pig to roast to order as we just hadn’t had time to break it down that morning. We were flying blind, as we often did then, not knowing what was needed. Despite all that, the piece was titled ‘When the food speaks for itself’. We got a 16/20 and were labelled ‘a confident newcomer’. I was over the moon.

The day after that, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing, with front of house having to work full-time just to take reservations. By the end of the day we were booked solid, but that was just the beginning. Later that week I heard Drew, one of our waiters, reading from The Weekend Australian—‘Salt of the earth’, the review by food writer and critic John Lethlean. It was the second major review in one week and it couldn’t have been better for us. I mean, it can always be better, but we received four out of five ‘Australians’ and some very kind words, including the summary that we were ‘raising the bar for regional Victoria’.

I was thrilled that we were being written about in such a positive way, it was so unexpected. But it was also a great opportunity to let go of our boundaries, to unleash all the little things I’d been too nervous to try and see where it would take us. In the following years Loam would go on to win numerous state and national awards including Regional Restaurant of the Year 2012 for Gourmet Traveller, along with a ranking of nineteenth best restaurant in Australia. We were awarded two hats, Best New Regional Restaurant and Dish of the Year for our ‘suckling pig, cantaloupe and goat’s curd’ in The Age Good Food Guide. I was nominated for Chef of the Year, and named one of the ‘100 most influential people in Melbourne’. We had been featured in every magazine we could imagine. We were on cloud nine and our little restaurant was now on the national stage.

Booking requests intensified and our dining room was full every service. We were turning away more people than we could seat, and every service was thirty-five guests doing an average of seven courses. That was 245 plates of food per service, plus snacks and petits fours, all varying to some degree to meet the diners’ expectations or dietaries. The pressure was on and all we had to cook with was a broken oven, a six-top stove with four working burners, two chefs, an eighteenhour work day, sleep deprivation, and the constant drive to be better.

I should have seen it coming. Something was always going to break.

12.12.2012

Today. Fucking today. Today is the day I get to find out my marriage is over. I discovered it in a message, a goddamn text message clearly not intended for me. What could be worse, you ask? Christ—I can’t even scribble this down I’m shaking so badly—it’s with a staff member, and that staff member is the only other chef I have. I don’t believe it, but there it is right in front of me. I’m blindsided. Angry, hurt and betrayed. The rug’s been pulled out from under me along with my restaurant, my career, my home, my partner, my staff. In one fucking text message my whole life has imploded. I feel like I’ve just had my throat cut, been left to bleed out on the floor and, as my breath weakens, they’re plotting where to hide my body. This can’t be happening. Can it?

Just close the fucking thing

Loam was closed for eight weeks over the period it took for me to find my feet and gather enough strength to open the doors and finish out the last five months we had on the lease. These were the months it would take to wind down the restaurant and execute a financial exit plan, and they left me emotionally and physically exhausted. During these months of working in an environment that had caused me so much pain I simply fell out of love with cooking. In fact, I began to loathe it. I began to really fucking hate it.

The produce I had once coveted so much—the tomatoes from farmer Bruce Robinson I’d previously nurtured from farm to table, all the things I had spent years raising—suddenly I didn’t care if they were left to rot in the dry store. The wild plants I’d picked carefully during quiet mornings alone I now let wilt and die in the corner of the cool room. All the charcuterie I had spent the previous year making I gave away to anyone I could hand it to. I just couldn’t stand looking at it.

I had fallen out of love with food, with cooking, with Loam and the land around it. I was ready to give up. All the things that had given me so much joy and pleasure for years were now things I wanted so badly to remove from my life. I couldn’t stomach any of them anymore. In my eyes, cooking was the reason all this was happening. I had just lost my best friend and wife, the business would soon be closed and I would be out of a job. I would have to sell my home. In one fell swoop I had lost it all—cooking had given me everything, and just as quickly taken it all away.

And yet every day I had to stand in that kitchen, the place where all this had happened. As far as I could see, cooking—food, the restaurant—had caused this to happen. It had stripped me bare and left me exposed and alone. I hated it all so much that I simply stopped existing. I stopped eating; I was rapidly losing weight from an already lanky frame. I became a ghost in a world that I had created and once loved so much, I began to drink and sleep too much to mask the pain of having to exist within it. I knew people were suspicious of why the restaurant had closed for those eight weeks and it kept me awake most nights. I could feel it from guests’ covert looks and questions left unasked but hanging in the air anyway. I retreated into myself, pretended I had nothing to hide, smiled as if nothing had happened, and answered their questions with dead tones and scripted lines.

10.03.2013

It’s a cold morning and there’s a blue eye cod on the bench, just kinda lying there looking at me. I’m a thousand miles away inside my own head; the cod is bright-eyed and still in rigor, scales bright and sharp. I feel guilty because I just can’t be bothered doing anything with it. I feel guilty the cod has ended up in this kitchen with me.

I wrestle with the idea of just throwing it in the bin and pretending it was never here, a thought that would have never crossed my mind before all of this. Or, maybe it would have—I can’t remember much about who I was before all of this.

I decide to smoke the fish whole: a method that I don’t really need to pay attention to, one that I can start and then leave to its own devices. I wipe it down, light a fire in the bottom of the smoker and hang it up to let the proteins slowly set. I don’t need to think too much about it, I just need it done, somehow. There is no romance to this process. I have chosen it simply because it seems like the easiest way.

The last service

On the 28th of June, 2013, Loam closed, a day earlier than originally planned, and that evening I found myself standing in the cold, damp air of a Victorian winter, staring blankly into the shadows of the olive grove, depleted of all energy. Exhausted from a ninety-hour week and drinking far too much (to quiet all the emotional bullshit I was going through—well, that was what I was telling myself), I barely noticed that it had started to rain. Tired and numb, I didn’t feel human anymore; emptied out to zero.

The restaurant behind me was still full of the last guests we ever served—friends and regulars, growers and suppliers, the people with whom over the few short years of our existence we had shared birthdays, anniversaries and milestones. They sounded happy and carefree, full of drunken excitement as they shared stories of their own past experiences at Loam. It’s a world I truly wished I could be a part of that night, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t face it and it made me so sad.

At that point I found myself starting to cry and I couldn’t stop. I told myself I’d had enough, that I was letting go and that the end had finally arrived. That the restaurant was over and that now was the time to disappear.

Four weeks later and I would do exactly that. I would leave for America, flick the switch and self-destruct. Fuck cooking—fuck everything.

Nashville

Nashville, the City of Lost and Broken Souls. That’s what I called it anyway. Most call it Music City. Either way, no one I met during my time in this town was really from here. Instead it was a place people had just escaped to, gathered together and created something new. Some were in need of respite, others running from past lives, some still chasing youthful dreams—singers, songwriters, artists, people all in various states of repair or disrepair. It’s exactly where I needed to be after Loam, foreign and alone, far away from cooking and anything familiar. The perfect place to lose myself, to not be me for a little while and to forget the shitstorm my life had turned into. A place where I could disappear from myself and everyone else.

A friend had offered me a couch to sleep on, that’s how I ended up here. I’d gone from owning a successful restaurant and a house on the beach to sleeping on an undersized two-seat couch with a t-shirt for a pillow, everything I owned packed into a travel pack, a life condensed. I couldn’t help looking down at my belongings, wondering how this had happened and where the fuck it had all gone wrong.

I wasn’t really sleeping much either, aside from an hour or so here and there, but nothing that ever put my mind to rest. To fill the hours, I walked every day. Another form of escape—mainly from myself—doing something and nothing at the same time. I covered most of Nashville on foot, walking and thinking, crossing back and forth over the Cumberland River in the oppressive heat until it was finally time for happy hour at Puckett’s, where I would drink pints of beer for $2 and eat BBQ chicken wings for less than 20 cents each until I passed out, then wake up and do it all again.

It’s funny; I used to be a successful chef—right? Just a month earlier I had been listed in the Swedish magazine Fool as one of the 100 most underrated chefs in the world. Now I was on my own in a foreign city for the first time in I can’t remember how long. I had nowhere to be, no obligations, nothing. It was such an odd feeling compared to the nonstop work and eighteen-hour days of the last eight years.

I couldn’t ever remember being that idle, being alone with no responsibility and no accountability. It didn’t really suit me, I was slowly beginning to realise. I needed something to focus on, something to obsess over, something to wake me the fuck up!

Nashville hot chicken

I still remember my first bite of Nashville hot chicken. I remember where I was sitting (third table on the left), I remember the music—a scratchy country song lamenting the plight of the South—and I remember the smell, ah the smell, a mixture of sweet paprika and fiery chilli. It’s a picture that is burnt into my memory.

I was wearing a white t-shirt, which turned out to be a rookie mistake. It’s hot out, about 90 degrees with 85 per cent humidity, and we were all dripping with sweat just from walking through the parking lot. I was with Brian, a chef who had just moved to Nashville from L.A., and my friend Trisha, who was in town visiting from Australia. We had set off across town to try this chicken we’d all heard about but not yet tasted.

I ordered the dark meat, hot, with blue cheese sauce and fries. I remember it exactly. The crunch, the sweetness, the smell of spices and the heat, that addictive heat… What the fuck had just happened to me? Something as simple as fried chicken had roused something in me I hadn’t felt since what seemed like a lifetime ago, at Loam. It was a sense of surprise, excitement, curiosity. Something so simple but so disarming. It was the feeling that I needed to figure it out; I needed to work out how to cook it. For the first time in a very long time I found myself at the edge of something I couldn’t understand but actually wanted to.

From there that chicken became a sort of obsession or addiction. I had to have it. And if I wasn’t already thinking about it, all it would take was a mention and I’d need a fix.

It was better than drugs, I guess.

Existing

It didn’t take me long to make plans to eat at every hot chicken restaurant in Nashville. In fact, fried chicken pretty much became my entire diet. Shockingly, I talked to friends who had lived there for years who had never had it. It made me wonder if I should know them at all.

I’d started to work in town. I needed the money—I’d been burning through most of my savings just existing in limbo and, having rented an apartment downtown, I had to figure out how to pay for it. It was a small kitchen with a small crew not at all interested in the industry or even doing a good job–paycheque kids with somewhere better to be. The menu was simple, perhaps a little too simple. Shared plates, very Melbourne, and in that sense a concept pretty foreign for Nashville.

The owner was an over-the-top, seemingly lovely Southern lady who greeted everyone with a ‘Hey y’all’ and ‘Well, ain’t that peachy’ attitude. Southern charm, they told me, before adding the ominous warning that you also charm snakes. I wasn’t really sure what she wanted from me, but I knew that she needed some help; the menu was terrible, the staff questionable, the drinks good, the place failing. Nothing about the job made me want to cook and I knew the place couldn’t be saved but it was money, plus something I could do, for now, something to replace the fatigue of living in purgatory existing to exist, walking and walking, waiting for something, anything.

And it meant I could go and eat that chicken. The plan was to start with Prince’s, out on Nolensville Pike, the originators and spiritual home of hot chicken, and end up at the new kids on the block, Hattie B’s, over near Vanderbilt. In between we’d hit Pepperfire, representing East Nashville, and Bolton’s, an old school shack on Gallatin Pike. All different restaurants honouring the tradition and recipes of Nashville hot chicken. Each interpreting this delicacy in their own way. I wanted to taste them all.

23.12.2014

I can’t believe I’m about to board this plane. About to drink my last Miller High Life and eat my last bologna sandwich, to say goodbye to the few thrift shop belongings I’ve accumulated this year and placed as talismans in my light-filled apartment that looks out over downtown, and from where, with the windows open, the shouts and shrieks of drunks have kept me company all through the night. I’ve grown to like Nashville and the way nothing seems real here—the façade the city throws up seems to help bury the everyday reality of life. Nashville feels like home to me because I don’t feel real myself, so why am I about to board this plane?

Whatever the reason, I’ve decided to go back, but I’m stronger now, I think. I know I have unfinished business at home, and I want my career back. I thought I could work for someone else, cooking food I don’t care about for people who don’t care either, but it turns out I was wrong. There is a voice telling me not to do it, but there’s another, stronger, louder voice telling me I have to.

The problem I’ve found here isn’t my inability to escape and become invisible, it’s that no matter how hard I try to outrun my demons they always follow. No matter where I go, or which shadowy bar I try and drown them in, they always reappear.

I argue with myself the whole time, debating whether to actually get on the plane—thinking about the cons of going home, not the pros of hopefully starting a new restaurant, which don’t come into play. I board anyway—I’ve paid for the ticket—order a gin, and double drop Temazepam (a pre-flight ritual that helps curb the hostilities of a longhaul flight) before falling into ten hours of sleep.

Recipes in this Chapter

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