A few months ago while sat in Lima’s Plaza Mayor, a group of school children approached to ask some questions for their English Class. After the standard name, age, location questions came “what do you miss about home?”. The kids were clearly expecting me to answer friends and family. I should have answered friends and family. But oh no, on this occasion I chose the great British pub. With every word I could see their growing looks of disgust and before I could my finish my ode, they had all run off.
Shortly after the above incident I started planning my time in Oz. I wanted to work somewhere quintessentially Australian that didn’t necessarily involve a re-enactment of I’m a Celebrity, or eating the animals on their country crest (although after our whooping in the cricket I certainly wouldn’t mind a decent kangaroo steak as retribution). So when fellow food writer Lara Dunston, of the excellent Grantourismo, informed me pub grub was a huge part of the Sydney eating experience I couldn’t have been happier to get stuck in behind the scenes of a home from home. On her recommendation I contacted Four in Hand, a Paddington based boozer, where I had heard executive chef Colin Fassnidge serves the best pub food in town.
As far as grand entrances go, Colin arrived in manner befitting of his recent GQ man of the year award (an accolade which has of course formed the centre of many jokes in the kitchen – after all which head chef wouldn’t get some stick for being described as “good-looking and effusive with a cheeky, almost girlish giggle”)? I was delicately taking the skin off some skate with my filleting knife when Colin walked in, made a little incision and ripped the skin off in one swift tug. Like. A. Boss.
Admittedly I was a little nervous about working with Colin. I had heard tempers can get quite heated in the kitchen and service began with shouts of “when I ring the service bell four f**king times, you f**king run”. But I always got the impression this was a dose of tough love. Colin also went out of his way to get me involved in the Four in Hand kitchen, making sure that I didn’t just stand there taking notes, but actually picked up some culinary skills. It wasn’t long before he had me butchering pigs and making black pudding.
At this stage I would normally offer some background about the restaurant and chef. I probably would have talked about the influence of St John’s nose to nail cuisine. Or about dishes steeped in French technique (Colin after all did spend several years at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir). Or perhaps make some generalised comment about Colin’s Irish roots appearing like culinary leitmotifs in his mod-Brit menu. But that would probably be reading too much into the situation or ‘talking bulls**t as Colin may call it. I asked Colin what inspired his menu. “Red wine” he responded.
Four in Hand operates two kitchens, one serving casual pub grub (think steak and chips) and another more formal dining room with an à la carte menu with the option of a 5 or 8 course degustation menu. Food for food’s sake. Seasonal, fresh and unpretentious. For example diners start their meal with ‘chips and dips’ a plate consisting of smoked potato mayo, battered chard leafs, and a fried beef tendon. If you’re lucky you may also get a slab of crackling and something foraged for that day by Colin.
One dish that really stood out was the crab, fennel and hazelnut course. It had it all. Chilled fresh crab, rich creamy fennel custard, texture from the nuts, and little daps of sweet confit fennel. There are few things better to eat on a hot Sydney evening.
Other dishes included smoked eel, beet and dashi jelly; corned beef, bresola and horseradish, and liver and onions.
After my time in the kitchens of Latin America, this was my first experience for some time where the language barrier was not an issue and the ‘colourful’ conversations of the chefs certainly served as a baptism of fire to kitchen language. In fact, the team brought a whole new meaning to ‘a story best saved for the pub’. This of course meant plenty of ridicule and I’m pretty sure that the only thing worse than being a celebrity chef in professional kitchens is being a food blogger. On my last day I tweeted a picture of myself in the kitchen. Within seconds Colin, ever the wind up merchant had responded…”you look like a chef”. Thanks to Colin and the team there I was starting to feel like one.