Food Writing in Australia

Big Murray Cod at Swan Hill. Photograph by Ozjimbob

Justin North was asked by the New York Times to write an Op-ed piece [subscription required] on the effect the prolonged drought is having on food production and agriculture in Australia from his perspective as one of Australia’s finest chefs. It was published on July 29. He wrote a measured and thoughtful account of his growing awareness of considering sustainable agricultural practices as the bedrock of his decision making when buying produce.

Justin North, centre, at Becasse. Photograph by Xiaohan Shen

At my restaurant, Bécasse, we’ve had to become more flexible — quickly adjusting dishes depending on what’s available, and creating interesting dishes using unexpected cuts of meat. And while we’ve been adapting dishes, we’ve also been adapting ourselves. I was taught, and have encouraged other chefs, to seek out the best-looking produce from the most dedicated farmers and growers. But unfortunately, until recently, I made my choices with little regard for sustainability. In researching and writing my book I spent two years traveling around Australia talking to producers, and I could see first-hand the devastating effects of the water shortage.

So what can and should chefs not just in Australia but around the world do to help ease the food crisis, and to protect our land and produce? We must consider sustainability.

My restaurant’s menu takes into consideration particular farming practices and how they affect the environment. We understand more about our produce: where it is from, how it is farmed, raised or caught. Rather than buying from aquaculture farms that dredge their scallops from the ocean floor, for instance, I buy from ones where divers collect the scallops by hand.

Thinking this way is vital if chefs want to avoid a future where all of the best and most interesting produce are protected species. This means changing our practices and demanding that our suppliers change as well.

Between the time the article was commissioned and when it was published enough rain had fallen in and around Sydney — where Becasse is located — to alleviate the panic about the city’s water supply running out in a matter of months. But the New York Times wanted to lead with something more immediately dramatic, and so Justin opened with an account of going to the fish market one day and not being able to buy Murray Cod because the water level in the River Murray had fallen too low for the fish farmers to raise them. Almost nobody travels within the country in the way that he has, and the city and rural areas feel as if they’re on different planets. In the city we only think of the country in moments of crisis, or when what’s happening there is sufficiently alarming for us in the city to feel threatened. Like the New York Times we require drama before we take notice.

What Justin’s book has done is put his modern French cuisine in an Australian context by focusing each section around a particular food (lamb, beef, pork, game, citrus, seafood, mushrooms, cheese) by chronicling a farmer or producer. He puts food into a cultural, historical and scientific context, and subtly draws attention to the environmental challenges facing the farmers — the pretty, colourful salts that are at the beginning of the book exist partly because of the problem of the creeping salination of the land. Citrus farmers are seeing more severe winters. It’s a beautiful book and there’s a melancholy surrounding it, this is near-perfection, and stands as a quiet warning of what we stand to lose if we don’t protect the environment.


On May 29 the Sydney Morning Herald featured a lunch that Justin had cooked for environmentalist and zoologist, Tim Flannery, one of the most insistent voices in Australia on imminent danger of climate change and Margaret Fulton, a writer whose books have taught generations of Australians a respect for fine ingredients and cooking techniques. A big picture was drawn. “Flannery and Fulton chatted away about everything from food and climate change to illegal logging in PNG,” wrote Keith Austin, “the poetry of Robert Burns, the need to interest children in science and what “little people”, as Fulton calls them, can do to make a difference to the world.”

Tim Flannery mentioned Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, which he’d reviewed for the New York Review of Books.

“Reading Pollan’s book, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the food industry has confined many Americans to their own urban feedlots, in which they have grown obese, ill, and uncurious about the source or nutritional quality of their food. In this system, human appetites are simply another bottleneck to be overcome in the search for greater sales. Hence the “supersizing” now so prevalent at fast-food outlets. A segment of the American population, however, is making a break for food freedom. They can often be found haunting the organic section of the supermarket.” – Tim Flannery

What we dont’ have in Australia is the kind of attitude to towards food journalism that Michael Pollan has developed through his articles in the New York Times that are grounded in popular science writing, that have led to his books, and that he also teaches in journalism classes at Berkeley.

It might be hard to see what transpires between a child and Big Mac as an ecological event, but of course that’s exactly what it is. Like every other creature, we are a species connected to other species, as well as to the earth and the sun, by a food chain—albeit a very special sort of food chain, one that’s been shaped by political and economic decisions as much as by biology. This course aims to develop the intellectual context in which to understand, and connect, the many food stories now finding their way to the front page: GMOs, the obesity epidemic, factory farming, animal rights and welfare, antibiotic resistance, agricultural pollution, agricultural subsidies, third world hunger, and the rise of alternatives to the industrial food system, such as organic agriculture and “slow food.” Expect to do lots of reading (from Upton Sinclair and Rachel Carson to Wendell Berry and Eric Schlosser) and writing.

Syllabus notes from Michael Pollan’s science writing class at Berkeley.


The food sections of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age and the glossy shelter and lifestyle magazines published mostly from Sydney draw a donut shape with their coverage, circling around from the artisan and celebrity chefs to the domestic cook, leaving a gaping hole in the middle. What’s invisible are the government, business and scientific decisions that affect our food supply that aren’t put into context, the effect of convenience food in food courts, at school, corporate and university canteens which is often bottled and packaged because of the economics of labour and fresh food costs, and the fine food in boardrooms and five-star hotels which isolates the high-level government and financial decision makers and has them grazing from a different, deluxe food chain that doesn’t have the genetically modified foods or highly processed “brand’ products they’re recommending to their constituents and customers.

The financial decisions made by newspapers to lure in readers with glossy lifestyle magazines, and to leverage their content by pulling together restaurant and travel guides from their reviewing apparatus unfortunately shackles the editors. The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age’s Food sections touch on important food issues: food miles and fuel sources in the Sydney Morning Herald, the challenge of eating locally in the Age, but the format visually implies a fluffiness, and alighting on the surface rather than going deep and staying with the big issues.

A recent Sydney Morning Herald Good Living” section cover story [August 28 “Terrific Scientific” (subscription only)] focused on the radical re-arranging of the covalent bonds in food into goofy new dishes that’s been called ‘molecular gastronomy’ (a term disowned in an op-ed piece in The Guardian by the chefs who are most often tagged with it). The story is required to look for evidence of the trend appearing in Australia and culturally isn’t able to range widely enough to note that Spanish chef Ferran Adria who is the earliest and best known experimenter, is from a nation that has a long tradition of classicism tending towards a strange re-imagining of the rituals and tools of daily life: Pablo Picasso and Jean Miro in art in the pre-WWII era, and, closer to Adria’s own generation, the post-Franco exuberance of Pedro Almodovar’s movies, Sybilla Sorondo’s clothing and the industrial designs of Javier Mariscal (that included the Barcelona Olympics mascot dog, Cobi).

Mentioned only glancingly are the Chicago chefs Homaro Cantu of Moto and Grant Achatz of Alinea. Both draw their inspirations and tools from the global convenience food companies headquartered in and around Chicago. Cantu is the chef most often likened to a mad scientist, and is seemingly profiled more often in science and technology sections of newspapers and magazines than the food pages (This story from M.I.T.’s Technology Review is an excellent background piece on Cantu and Achatz.) Cantu grandly imagines his edible paper dishes as being adapted for space travellers or as emergency relief food for refugees. Last year Gourmet magazine named Alinea the best restaurant in America. The quiet, if deeply unusual beauty of Achatz’s food, the decor at his restaurant, and the implements and serving dishes designed around the novel properties and character of his food is sensual, even spiritual. It reminds me of another Chicago-based suggestion for a new approach to living based around the invention and manufacturing of new materials from corporations in the region: Mies van der Rohe’s apartments on Lakeshore Drive and the Farnsworth house from the 1940’s.

PBJ (peanut butter & jelly sandwich) at Alinea

The structure and texture of lamb, for instance, might be re-imagined so radically that it’s utterly unrecognisable and so Achatz may attach a stand to the diner’s plate and attach a sprig of rosemary, smouldering as a stick of incense might, to invoke associations of lamb. Food requires a context and experimentation for its own sake is incoherent. The more sinister face of scientific experimentation with food is being done by agribusinesses and the global convenience food companies and is sinking into the molecular structure of the produce itself. Genetic modifications are being advanced as making crops “drought resistant” in Australia, adding vitamins and the FlavrSavr tomato that resists rotting. Many of the genetic interventions are couplings and blendings that couldn’t possibly happen alone in the natural world, serve no purpose in the natural world, and the context is financial or political rather than culinary.

Physicists in the post-WWII era trying to explain the nature and behaviour of sub-atomic particles that was really goofy and difficult to connect to life at the scale of a human relied on “mathematical beauty” something that belongs also to the world of poetry and music. One equation may be right rather than another because it appeals to a sense of elegance and economy that’s inexplicable, and the wrong one convoluted, taking too many twists. The eventual point of it all remains the natural world. Richard Feynman, one of the greatest scientists of that era, was awakened to the beauty and functioning of the natural world by his father and then drew inspiration (as best he could) from daily life. A spinning plate in the student canteen was a spur for explaining the movement within sub-atomic particles. And he’s famous for applying science simply. On a panel to try and ascertain the cause of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger he dropped a ring of rubber into a glass of ice-water to show that an O-ring contracted in sub-zero temperatures and weakened the whole craft.

It’s hard to find mathematical beauty in an ice-cream (however luxurious) with a segment of the genetic material of a deep-sea fish dropped into it to provide the properties of anti-freeze and give the ice-cream a longer shelf-life. The emotional response it evokes is disgust. “It’s not science-conscious at all,” Achatz has said of his food. “It’s emotional, artistic driven. Science is a tool. It’s not the emphasis on any of the dishes. From an aesthetic standpoint, any art should evoke emotion. With certain things we do, like burning leaves, the main purpose is to create an emotional experience, not necessarily flavoring food. When food is suspended on an antenna and you eat hands-free, it may have the same flavor off a spoon, but we’ve created an emotional reaction. You might laugh. It’s absolutely absurd. Or be intimidated, which is also a valuable emotion. But you take notice of the moment. Emotional triggers provide a rich experience. With peaks and valleys we create emotion, entertainment, and deliciousness in three to four hours.”

While Achatz uses the tools and techniques of the convenience food industry the produce he begins with is pure and he seeks to intensify, not mask, the fine qualities of the produce he begins with. “We know we can get awesome shrimp,” Achatz told Food & Wine magazine in 2005. “That’s not good enough for us anymore. How can we manipulate it? We’re still dealing with the same ingredients, but we sit down and say,’ what’s a shrimp?'”


The danger in not widening out the context for food writing in Australia is that the decisions that are made, particularly economic decisions, that seem to have little to do with food may wind up having a huge bearing on food production and agriculture without us seeing it happen. The news is being reported,but it’s being published in business sections, on science radio, or even in arts magazines and the stories aren’t being related to one another. The recent outbreak of equine flu in Australia has shown how deeply the gambling industry has its tentacles into Australia’s economy. In Sydney the Australian Hotels Association is blocking a change to liquor licenses that would allow small eateries to serve alcohol without food because it’s set on protecting the profits it makes from having the consumption of liquor tied to barn-like old fashioned pubs with poker machines. Fine restaurants are being lured to Melbourne, Nobu is the latest, as the Crown Casino goes in the luxury food and retail direction set by Las Vegas. And while there are stringent quarantine laws and checks in place for foodstuffs and domestic pets in Australia equine flu may have come about through the easy international travel undertaken by thoroughbred horses for breeding. The quarantine has caught up police horses in Sydney.

One of the best sources for news in Australia that connects farming, business, political, science and cultural news is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Rural news broadcasts on radio and television, which are unfortunately marginalised and directed mostly to rural viewers and listeners. Back in 2004 reporter Brigid Glanville covered a meeting during which Sydney chefs expressed their concerns about genetically mofidied food.

Some of the nations top chefs gathered at a GM-free morning tea, urging consumers to lobby against genetically modified crops.

The chefs’ concern is that not enough is known about genetically engineered food and how it will effect the industry.

Tony Bilson, from ‘Bilson’s’ restaurant, said genetically modified food maybe OK to use, but if not enough is known, they don’t want to risk losing the good produce farmers currently grow.