First published on 12 Apr 2011. Updated on 12 Apr 2011.
Zen, congratulations on winning the Time Out Taste Test. What was the thinking behind the dish you created?
I wanted to have a protein as the star of the dish and as we only had a very tight budget I thought of using a cheaper cut of meat and treating it in a way that would make it tender and also leave it with a crisp skin and good flavour. I was able to confit my pork belly for 14+ hours in a 77-degree water bath. I then wanted to pair it with something a little sweeter to balance the saltiness so I made a fresh sweet corn puree by just cooking out the juice of fresh corn. After that I added the Tegan Blue plums pickled in a blood plum vinegar pickle, very much in season at the moment. The reason for pickling was to use the acidity to cut through the richness of the pork and have the balance of sweet and sour. Adding the smoked salt popcorn was a bit of fun to the dish and also adding another texture and flavour with the smokiness to the meal. I then added baby coriander to add freshness to the dish, a reduction of the pickle juice to add more of the acidity and then also some native edible flowers I picked from the bush behind the restaurant – more for aesthetics.
What is your favourite restaurant in Sydney apart from your own?
There are two, for completely different reasons. First, I haven't eaten there yet but Bentley Restaurant and Bar would have to be one of my favourites, from what I have seen and read. Their food is what I would like to be doing. I would drive over an hour to get to Kingsford Chinese Restaurant – it's one of the only places where I crave their salt and pepper squid and their wok-tossed beans.
Who is your culinary hero and why?
At the moment it's Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago. His whole view on entertaining the customers with food and giving them have a memorable experience is like nowhere else. He does things like come out personally to the table on the final dessert course, lay down a fresh table cloth and plate up the dessert in front of the customers. And also the fact that in 2007, not too long after the restaurant opened, he was diagnosed with a stage four cancer on his tongue. During that time, over a hundred services since the open day, he only missed 14. And that was when he was going through chemotherapy. As soon as he was done he was straight back in the kitchen and coming up with new dishes.
What is your least favourite job in the kitchen and why?
Chef Dietmar Sawyere's "salted grapes" – try picking the individual grapes, scoring the top of each one in a criss-cross fashion, then blanching it, then refreshing it, then peeling it, then coating it in a mix of sugar salt and oil, then dehydrating the grape for up to three hours, then packing them away, storing them so that not too many stick together once cooled down. Then you are left with a lovely sweet, salty, sour-tasting fruit which is great with fish and poultry. But then it's about the time when he will tell you that he wants three per serve on a dish that every customer receives. So 250 covers for the weekend means you have to peel in excess of 770 grapes in order to account for waste.
Anything you can't/won't eat?
I can't think of anything edible I wouldn't try. If I didn't like it the first time I would like to learn how to cook it the best way possible.
What would your death row meal be?
Mi goreng with blanched green beans tossed in garlic and soy, and a fried egg on top, well-seasoned and runny as hell, served in a light shallow bowl with wooden chopsticks and a Knappstein beer, eaten around a small table in front of the TV with my girlfriend and my mum.
Best food tip for Sydney diners?
Take a plane trip to Berowra Waters Inn on a sunny lunch on either Friday or Saturday. Having the full degustation. The whole experience is second to none.
Time Out Taste Test 2011: The Verdict