This recap of Sydney Table 2017 includes a nailgun accident, edible gold and clay and a 30-metre floating herb installation. And, of course, chefs getting up to creative mischief with artists. The combined wattage of these pairings was what gave this event such star power.
It’s the second year that Carriageworks has staged this series (previously Mitch Orr had teamed up with dancer Amrita Hepi, while the Pinbone crew and Good Food, Crap Drawing creator Anna Vu not only gave diners illustrated previews of their dishes, but handed out textas to guests at the end of the night). I was lucky enough to be asked to be MC this year, so it was great fun to introduce each collaboration and interview the co-conspirators each evening.
The first dinner featured the food of O Tama Carey (Berta, Lankan Filling Station) and the sculptural work of Tracey Deep. Their chosen theme was herbs, so Tracey got up shockingly early (4am!) to start prepping her spectacular, 30-metre-long “floating herb wonderland”. She wove through native parsley, wild weeds, lemon myrtle, bay leaf, dried native flora, rosemary and even mandarins straight from her mother’s garden. (During the Q&A session that night, she called out council workers who turn up at markets to impose fines on people selling weeds – punishing the producers who make Tracey’s work possible and sellers who creatively repurpose something that would otherwise go to waste; she even asked the audience to write to their local council to protest such action.)
Tama, who currently doesn’t have a physical restaurant, went to amazing lengths to pull off a menu where herbs were the rock stars of the menu (and not just an afterthought or teeth-ruining garnish). So she scavenged for and even dried herbs in her spare room – near the socks, sure, but they were clean, waiting-to-dry pairs, so it was OK! So if herbs are usually used as low-level accessory for a dish (like actors who recede into a bit-part role), then Tama really elevated them as the headliners of each course that night.
I really enjoyed interviewing both of them during the dinner and learning how far back the pair went. Tama used to hide behind Tracey’s floral installation, back in the chef’s Billy Kwong days. She even pegged dockets to it! And Tracey used to bring her children to Billy Kwong for dinner.
Palisa Anderson (Boon Cafe, Chat Thai) was an intern of Tracey’s, and I got to ask Tracey about the time Palisa was fired because she had dropped a battery acid jar during a consultation – a major deal, as it was the unicorn of vases, priced at $600. (Palisa can laugh about the incident now, by the way, and said it was fine for me to quiz Tracey about this, in case you’re wondering!).
Rosemary and sage were thrown into burning flames outside the venue, which unlocked these strong green scents throughout the event – and reinforced the power of ingredients that can be seen as just background extras.
Also, once everything was over, I loved that Tracey encouraged people to dismantle all the parts of her installation that they could carry – I snuck off with a haul of kale, rosemary and the aforementioned mandarins from her mum.
The second night showcased the creativity of Clayton Wells – the menu played like a greatest hits of his dishes from Automata, but the space itself had been decorated to evoke the industrial look of his restaurant. (This angular, machinery-hinting style definitely conjured up the style of the radial-engine chandelier and piston lamps that adorn the OG space.) You could think of the event as Automata at Carriageworks, with Sydney Table creative director Tony Assness teleporting the feel of Clayton’s restaurant in a very inspired way: the hard-edged lines of Dion Horstmans’ sculpture greeted guests at the entrance, while the table was lined with floral arrangements by Grandiflora’s Saskia Havekes. She had worked with her Australian native grower to secure pressiana from Western Australia – a move which echoed the native ingredients that often headline or play support roles in Clayton’s food.
The Sydney Table event happened the day after one of the best food critics in the world – Pete Wells of The New York Times – had given Automata a glowing write-up, saying Clayton’s restaurant deserved world-wide recognition. So I had to ask Clayton what that experience was like. He said Pete Wells was like any other customer; but my favourite part of his story was the way Clayton warned staff that this majorly important critic could be coming into his restaurant at any moment – and then 10 minutes later, Wells happened to step inside.
The third Sydney Table night was a collaboration between Biota Dining’s James Viles and artist Craig Waddell. The pair are friends, they’re both boys from the country, Craig’s work actually appears in James’ restaurant and they both have a similar creativity when it comes to maximising every resource at their disposal. Just as James likes to use every aspect of an ingredient – and diners got to try dishes that were flavoured with fish scraps, leftover whey and veal tails that night – Craig also makes art out of things that people might overlook: he forms sculptures out of recycled paint or art out of taxidermy offcuts or the canvas you might drop on the floor to protect the ground from paint.
I remember in April 2011, when James’s extraordinary restaurant Biota Dining opened in Bowral, leaving Sydney at 4pm to get there at 6pm for a dinner reservation 220 kilometres away. So it was a great treat that we didn’t have to zoom all the way to Bowral to get the Biota Dining experience that night and it was even more amazing that James Viles was cooking for the event, as he just endured a nailgun accident that involved his knee (“chefs and DIY don’t mix”, he joked), so James truly went above and beyond for Sydney Table. When I went to find him for the Q&A session, he was sitting in the kitchen with a gel-pack on his knee, playing down the pain levels he was experiencing.
I asked James about how his experience cooking in Dubai – where any ingredient could be express-sent to the 500-room hotel complex he was working in – had made him question that way of feeding people. Biota Dining is the complete opposite, with fresh-grown ingredients bordering the restaurant, and a mentality that is far from presenting food as a designer luxury product. To be resourceful, he uses fruit that’s already fallen from trees and would otherwise go to waste, or saves lettuce leaves that would fail the audition for salads – and he turns them into pickles for his menu.
Craig Waddell mentioned to me how impressed he was with James’ knowledge of the land and water – how the chef would pluck seaweed from the beach and present them to the artist, describing them as salt and vinegar chips of the sea. Veal tails and fish scraps were as important to the dishes he prepped that night – just as scrappy recycled paint was a tactile part of Craig’s animal sculptures. Craig had been worried about the Mexican platters that he’d sculpted would explode in the kiln before the event – but joked that he even considered a way of appropriating the potential shards into new work, just as James worked leftover whey into his stunning dessert that night.
Both their approaches highlight impermanence and how perishable everything is – and it was fantastic to see how their collaboration felt like a pop-up art gallery colliding with a restaurant.
The final night of Sydney Table threw the spotlight on Ben Sears’ cooking and the creativity of ceramicist Keiko Matsui. Her work tonight beautifully tied in with the name of Ben’s new restaurant – Paper Bird – as she endured marathon-origami-making sessions that week (sometimes until midnight or later) to finish fashioning the paper animals that decorated the the room that night. She also included her ceramic work as decorations – as well as giant piano rolls that ran the length of the table and curved from the ceiling. This dramatic move was soundtracked by piano music picked by her friend Akio, who played DJ that night.
Ben paid tribute to Keiko’s food throughout his menu – one entree involved a broth poured from her tableware, while a dessert featured clay and gold. (So gold-leaf isn’t new to me, but I had no idea that you could really eat clay; Ben mentioned that it’s famously used in a dish at Mugaritz in Spain, where potatoes are enveloped in clay to resemble these smooth-looking stones.)
Like all the other Sydney Table events, the effort everyone had gone to was stunning – each night had been a spectacular one-of-a-kind dinner and I felt very lucky that I had been there for all of them. Hopefully these flashbacks might convey how magical they were.
Thanks to Carriageworks for asking me to be involved, the crew that made it possible and to all the chefs and artists who created something that’ll live on in people’s memory banks for a very long time. And thanks to the friends who turned up to cheer me on during these gigs – your encouraging faces made it a lot easier to talk in front of everyone!
Top photographs of O Tama Carey/Tracey Deep and Clayton Wells/Saskia Havekes collaborations by Jacquie Manning. All other photos by Will Reichelt.