How does culinary inspiration make its way from a chef's first thought and onto your plate? This is the theme behind Becasse Creative, a new series presented by Justin North at his Quarter Twenty One cooking school.
First things first. This isn't cheap. At $250 for a two-and-a-half-hour session, this is aimed at the serious food lover, but with only 12 people in the class it offers a unique intimate session with one of Sydney's leading restaurateurs. The session includes cooking demonstrations, discussion, substantial samplings with five matched wine/sake tastings, and the chance to delve into the mind of Justin North, no holds barred.
We start with the evolution of Becasse from its inception in Surry Hills in 2001. Back then, he says, his menu was all about rustic cuisine with a focus on regional produce. Since moving to Clarence Street and now to its current residence at Westfield Sydney, his food has moved to a lighter, fresher style that incorporates many Asian influences.
Paris, Justin explains, used to be the food mecca for many chefs, but over recent years he has found himself increasingly influenced by the cuisine of Japan. Over the last three years he has travelled to Japan five times.
Justin North with kombu seaweed
Incorporating Japanese touches into his menu requires care and discretion. As with anything new, for example molecular gastronomy or Japanese technique, Justin says he always looks for things that are common with the philosophy at Becasse that can be subtly adapted. Dashi and bouillon, for example, are both foundation stocks that have many similarities. Today Justin uses kombu dried seaweed to make dashi stocks as a base for his dishes.
Whipped smoked butter
It's hard to maintain focus on Justin when the snacks start arriving. The class starts at 6pm and with everyone's minds wandering toward dinner, the parade of nibbles is just what our stomachs ordered.
Whipped smoked butter
Perfect buds of whipped smoked butter look particularly majestic on the Iced Earth series of servingware by Blue Mountains ceramicist Simon Reece. It's a shame to destroy these delicate peaks but we relocate them onto slabs of crusty artisan breads, made at the Becasse Bakery next door.
Becasse artisan breads
Fried brioche with housemade lardo
Justin orders in whole animals which are broken down and then dry-aged in cabinets that sit at the entrance to Quarter Twenty One. Lardo is one product he is able to make as a result, pork fatback (found under the skin of the pig's back) that is cured with caraway seeds. Here it's sliced thinly and draped over lengths of deep-fried brioche dough. The lardo is delicious, soft and melting, but I find it best savoured on its own.
Fried tapioca crackers with citrus salt
Snacks with NV Pelorus Cloudy Bay, Marlborough, New Zealand
Fried tapioca crackers are the most elegant salted snack you could imagine. Made from dehydrated tapioca, the crackers are deep-fried into ethereal puffs and dusted with a housemade citrus salt that is seriously addictive.
Chilled ocean consomme with Pacific oyster, scallop and octopus
Matched with 2009 Domaine Bruno Sorg Sylvaner Veilla Vigne, Alsace, France
As we snack quietly, Justin takes us through the process of making his dashi stock, starting with a purely vegetarian version that uses kombu, charred leeks and shiitake mushrooms, and building on it with the addition of bonito and miso. The broth culminates in his chilled ocean consomme, presented in spectacular hollowed glass bowls.
The clear subtle broth provides a harmonious echo against a selection of carefully composed ingredients. Small chunks of octopus, cooked sous-vide at 75C for seven hours, are amazingly tender. They swim with slivers of raw scallop, tiny cucumber balls, strands of kombu, a whole raw oyster that is mindblowingly fresh (from Tuross Heads, I later discover) and cubes of oyster jelly made with the brine found in the shell.
Justin North with flounder
Much of the class is spent comparing differences that flavour can bring to dishes. There's the taste test between a plain grilled prawn and one with seven spice salt.
Plain grilled prawn and prawn with seven spice salt
We also note the contrast between plain grilled flounder and one doused gently with a soy and sake marinade.
Flounder cleanly filleted
Justin says many people are afraid to cook fish, but his cooking tip is simple: drizzle fillets with olive oil, season with salt and cook at 120C for about 20-25 minutes.
The flounder is incredibly moist and buttery in texture. Justin's filleting skills are phenomenal too.
Beef achilles tendon
Secondary cuts are another one of Justin's passions. He holds aloft a beef achilles tendon which he explains can yield an amazing texture if treated correctly. At Becasse the tendon is soaked for twelve hours and then vacuum packed and cooked for another twelve hours in wine until it becomes soft and gelatinous.
Justin North adding flower garnishes
Matched with Hananomai, Hana Label, Premium Ginjo Sake, Japan
The resulting dish is called Purity, a tile of soy sake flounder topped with a length of tendon, tinged to a deep mahogany hue and stickily sweet. The tendon is almost tacky in consistency, with a texture similar to abalone or sea cucumber. It's a visually beautiful dish that contrasts colours and textures, garnished with a freshly cooked surf clam and sprigs of edible flowers.
David Jouy, Becasse restaurant manager pouring sake (hello Matt!)
Slicing wagyu brisket
Marbled wagyu always generates a chorus of sighs and we can't help but drool as Justin slices David Blackmore wagyu beef brisket with a 9+ grading.
Plating the wagyu
As we savour the fatty slices that melt on the tongue, Justin talks about the problem of trying to sell grass-fed beef to the Australian public, many of whom now equate tenderness with quality. Justin is a big supporter of grass-fed beef, which has more flavour but is also slightly chewier - just as beef is meant to be. Convincing diners that chewier meat is worth better flavour is a tough sell for restaurateurs, which is why Justin dry ages his meat for 6-8 weeks.
Dry aging meat requires a good circulation of air and a controlled temperature of 0-3C. As excess moisture dissipates, the meat increases in concentration of flavour. Up to 25% of weight is lost during the aging process. This explains the higher cost per kilo of dry aged meats, not to mention considerations of time and space requirements.
Justin North with David Blackmore wagyu conical muscle
The David Blackmore wagyu conical muscle is another secondary cut that Justin works with at Becasse. The conical muscle runs along the back of the shin, a hard-working muscle that is extremely tough. Justin vacuum packs this and cooks it at 75C for a phenomenal 22 hours.
Conical muscle after 22 hours of sous vide
Plating the grilled eggplant
Wagyu and aubergine
Matched with 2006 Kochkirch Syrah, Henty, Australia
He pairs the conical muscle with strips of grilled baby eggplant. The conical muscle has a luscious texture reminiscent of beef cheek, and at $19/kg Justin considers it a great value cut of wagyu.
A tisane is a herbal tea infusion that is often served as a pre-dinner refreshment for guests at Becasse. Tonight Justin serves it as a palate cleanser after the rich serves of wagyu, hence a stronger-than-normal brew is prepared. It's a cold-infused earl grey tea flavoured with lemongrass, ginger, cucumbers, lemon verbena, pineapple sage, green apple mint and lemon mint.
Justin is a fan of Marco Polo tea, which he says has a delicate sweetness. The tisane is almost medicinal in flavour, but soothing and comforting on the stomach.
Zen Still Life
Matched with 2010 L'Armangia Moscato d'Asti, Piedmont, Italy
The Becasse Autumn Still Life dessert was inspired by Raymond Blanc's Still Life. For three years Justin worked at Blanc's two Michelin starred Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, near Oxford, England. The Autumn Still Life doesn't translate as well to spring and summer, Justin admits, leading to the evolvement of the Zen Still Life.
Zen Still Life represents a meditative state of transition, Justin explains. It has undergone several phases since it was first conceptualised. In its present form it comprises black sesame sponge from an espuma gun, red grape and shiso sorbet, dehydrated sesame oil powder, snow pea shoots and stalks of candied celery and apple crisps.
This is my kind of dessert with a playground of textures and tastes to explore at your leisure. It's a dessert that Justin says even his wife Georgia likes - "and normally she hates Asian desserts!".
We ask Justin about the process of evolving dishes from his initial idea to how it gets onto the plate. Seeking critical feedback is one of the toughest things to do, he admits. Kitchen staff tend to be agreeable with the boss, he concedes, but customers will often provide vital feedback, particularly if they're told the dish is still in testing stages. And Georgia is always honest, often brutally so, he says with a laugh.
The Zen Still Life, Justin says, was initially brainstormed with 100 different flavours. Things don't always work but twenty years of experience has given him an idea of what generally works together. However there are always surprises, and sometimes what he is convinced will be a success fails spectacularly.
Justin says he's always thinking about new ideas and combinations, constantly buzzing over a potential new dish. Sometimes, he says, he'll wake up with an idea in his head and "I can't wait to get into the kitchen to try it. I'm like a kid with a lolly, and I can't wait to unwrap it."
The Becasse Creative class is $250 and limited to 12 people. The next session will be on Tuesday 8 May 6pm-8.30pm. Further information: Quarter Twenty One
Grab Your Fork attended the first Becasse Creative session as a guest of Becasse.
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Westfield Sydney, Level 5
Corner Pitt St Mall and Market Street, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9283 4400
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3/12/2012 02:47:00 a.m.