Chef Mark Best is a great portrait photographer. He can cook too.

I have been spending a lot of time looking at Australian Restaurant food lately, trying to get to the bottom of what has happened back home in the 13 years I have been away.

Recently we headed back to Sydney for a quick catch up with family and friends, so it seemed like a good opportunity to spend some time exploring this further through some Zeiss glass. The great thing about having a camera and being able to use it well is it can act as a skeleton key to the back stage of every-day life.

So, with a few emails, Mark Best kindly opened his tiny but highly acclaimed kitchen to me for one morning – for a flash of insight into his creativity – Josephine Pignolet award winning Lauren Eldridge Award cooked a range of dishes whilst Mark and I compared notes on food and photography.

Mark said “Australian cuisine is as unique as its environment. It is an amalgam of many cultures on a very large and isolated island just south of Indonesia. It is continuing to evolve as those cultures interweave. As a chef I get to use the products of those cultures & express my personal idea of what Australian cuisine is.”

‘Big Water’ Murray Cod with Pumpkin and Botany Bay Spinach

“Murray cod from the Murrumbidgee river, steamed. It is a fresh water fish but actually related to a true tropical cod. The skin is gelatinous and delicious, a clarified pumpkin juice is cooked down and gives sweet support to the earthy fish, Botany Bay Spinach is an indigenous coastal succulent and provides crunch and the sharpness of oxalic acid (like sorrel).”

Bull Kelp harvested off Manly Beach, Sydney

“ A young guy harvests this for us. We pressure cook it for two hours until soft then dry it out and add it to sauces, where it releases viscosity and umami.”

Quail Eggs with Broccolini Mole, Roast Avocado and Tamari

The mole is inspired by Enrique Olvera after a dinner we did together. This is a green mole and is mostly sesame & coriander with the tops of the broccolini adding to the incredible umami. We blanch, dry and fry the stem which renders it crisp and delicious. Roast avocado tastes like egg so connects to the quail eggs with the tamari drawing the elements together.

Crispy Beetroot with Beetroot Oil and Ocean Trout Roe

Beetroot is lime soaked, roasted, dried and fried, some of the insides put back in with ocean trout roe. The ‘beetroot oil’ is mucho beetroot juiced, clarified and reduced, then cold smoked. It is about playing with the textures & amplifying flavour – I like to focus on the one ingredient.

Honeycomb and Cultured Cream

A dish inspired by the millefeuille of Alain Passard. We make a traditional honeycomb recipe but are careful with the process to get that very open cell structure. We then remove the hard crust to leave the incredible texture – the faint bitterness is a perfect foil for the lactic sourness of our cultured organic cream.

“I’ve said that 50 per cent of the diners think I’m a genius and 50 per cent think I’m an idiot, and I think that’s a good place to be, but it’s a bit of a reductive position. But, then again, I enjoy that space. I enjoy my version of what Australian food is, and I don’t like to be defined by anyone or pushed into corners. I like to do my own thing.”

So there it is – impossible to pin down – to try and begin to pigeon-hole the food culture of Australia is a mistake. When I was at school in Australia, the country was always referred to as a cultural melting pot; the more I now look, the more unclear the Australian identity become – a concurrence of geographies, cultures, convicts, pioneers, and embedded with a historically abused and disregarded indigenous population.

I have since met with Mark in Toronto for the Terrior Symposium, where we were presenting at the AGO, exploring and sharing ideas with like-minded food industry professionals.

Mark has just recently announced the upcoming closure of his multi-award winning restaurant ‘Marque’ in Surry Hills, NSW, citing that this is not a reflection on any misconceptions in the media about a dwindling fine-dining scene in Australia, but a personal business decision. For my money, I bet he is off to do something explorative, adventurous and genuinely unique. Can’t wait.