One of the great joys of working in and around the world of food, as I have done for many years now, is that I have had the opportunity to meet, and spend time in the company of, some really awesome folks - farmers, food producers and chefs, as well as fellow cooks and food writers.
I had heard plenty of good things about chef Damian Brabender, and was looking forward to meeting him some day, when an invitation to a truffle hunt and lunch (cooked by Damian) arrived.
Damian tells me that he had an amazing beginning to what would become a lifelong career in hospitality. He started work as an apprentice and worked his way up to chef de parte and then executive sous chef in fine dining restaurants in his home town of Portland in Victoria.
Before long, he was on his way to London, where he worked as head chef at Balconies, the renowned restaurant at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. There, he worked alongside celebrity chefs, such as the 3 Michelin-star culinary legend, Pierre Kouffmann, as well as Henry Harris, the chef patron of London's Racine restaurant, who later hired Damian as his sous chef.
Back in Australia a few years on, Damian dipped his toes into the water, so to speak, as executive sous chef at the Lizard Island Resort at the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland - and was then appointed to the role of executive chef at the multi award-winning Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa in the Blue Mountains. Under his command, the property was named as the 'Best Hotel in Australia' and won the 'AHA Regional Restaurant of the Year' in 2014.
Fortunately for Canberra, Damian made the move here towards the end of 2014, and took up the position as GM and executive chef at Sage Dining Rooms. Under Damian's leadership, Sage Dining Rooms was named in Australian Gourmet Traveller's top ten ACT Restaurants; won the Restaurant and Catering Association's award for 'Contemporary Restaurant of the Year' in 2015; and also 'Best Restaurant ACT' in 2015.
Damian is about to embark on a new culinary adventure in Canberra, having spent the truffle season working closely with his friend, Jayson Mesman, at The Truffle Farm - where I first met Damian and had the opportunity to taste and enjoy his culinary creations.
We caught up again recently for a chat. Our conversation follows:
Chef Damian, thank you for your time. Tell me please, who are your food heroes?
My pleasure, Liz. I have been lucky enough to work with some of the best chefs in the world... like Pierre Kaufman, Brett Graham, Neil Perry and Michel Roux Jr. All of these experiences were amazing and had major impacts on the way I look at food. I have a huge amount of respect for real chefs who still cook using traditional techniques to create amazing food.
When it comes to cookbooks, if you use them, do you prefer to keep the pages pristine, or do you like to see them splattered and well used?
I always look after my cookbooks, I read them like other people would read a novel, I think. I hate it when someone borrows a book and folds the corners over. I love reading through older cookbooks that I find at second hand stores or fetes. They are like a time warp, and its great to see some of the old school dishes slowly making a move back into food fashion.
What fresh ingredients are always in your shopping basket?
When it comes to fresh produce I always have fresh eggs in my shopping basket, I love eggs. They are amazing, when you think about it. And the number of applications for eggs is crazy. Plus, fried eggs on anything are awesome!
I love your passion for truffles. How, when and where did you first encounter them?
When working as Head chef at the Royal Opera House in London, I was given the opportunity to work with French truffles, and teamed with Pierre Kaufman to create some really special dishes. More recently, whilst I was Executive Chef at Wolgan Valley, I travelled to a truffle farm near Canberra with the legendary Antonio Carluccio. There, I fell in love with Canberra and the amazing truffles available in the region. Recently, Jayson, a good friend of mine, purchased The Truffle Farm in Canberra and asked me to help out with the food aspect. Jayson has taught me more about truffles in the last few months than I ever thought I could know. I am very lucky to have access to such beautiful French black truffles.
What’s your absolute favourite dish with truffles?
For me, if I’m at home and cooking dinner with truffles, I will always make pasta, just a simple dish using The Truffle Farm truffles, pecorino, loads of cracked black pepper and some butter. Simple is good, and if you make the pasta fresh there isn’t anything better.
What’s next on the agenda for you (if you would like to share the news).
I am opening a new restaurant that I hope will encompass all of my hospitality philosophies, both food and beverage related. I am hoping it helps jog people memories back to a time in the industry when the customer was the one in control of their dining experience. Not everyone wants a long lunch, or to eat on the run, everyone is different, and I am really aiming to please every guest that we have. The venue will be named OTIS and we are aiming to open the doors later this month (August 2016).
I will also be focusing on training apprentices and offering work placement for young people looking to get into the industry but finding it difficult to get a real start. I will train my chefs in the classics and we will share the ‘real food’ philosophy with our diners. We will be sourcing food from farm gates, and growing some produce ourselves too. Watch this space for news!
And finally, what’s for dinner tonight?
Being a late night working on the restaurant renovations, I was lazy and went for leftover mac and cheese from last night made into a jaffle.
Postcards and morsels from The Truffle Farm degustation...
As Damian said, 'simple is good'. The first course was a scallop cooked in truffle butter, served on a bed of rock salt. Superb.
Next, breakfast for lunch: a flavoursome dish of truffle baked eggs with truffle infused cream, house-made pork and truffle sausages, and fresh asparagus.
Beef tartare on a soft but crunchy crusted sour dough baguette with truffle mayonnaise, truffle and cheese. This was, possibly, my favourite of the savoury dishes... well, almost.
Truffled chicken ballotine (or roll) with Madiera garden peas and truffle jus. Tender and so tasty!
Breakfast for dessert: truffled panna cotta with compressed pear, hazelnuts and dehydrated apple. This was absolutely yummy and not too rich, nor too sweet. A real surprise package.
I'm Liz, a.k.a Bizzy Lizzy,
the writer, cook and traveller behind
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.