We find out how fresh, local food has contributed to one of Sydney’s best restaurants.
Dan Puskas and James Parry are two Sydney chefs in their mid-thirties who are killing it in the Sydney restaurant scene right now. Between them, they’ve worked at Billy Kwong, Sepia, Marque, Oscillate Wildly, Tetsuyas and a number of restaurants in the US, Spain and Copenhagen before coming back to Australia and starting sixpenny together.
sixpenny is a small restaurant in Sydney’s inner west where you can eat a constantly evolving tasting menu paired with a glass of wine from many organic or small wineries. The restaurant has gained two hats from the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2015, is listed as one of Australia’s best restaurants and won the title of best Sydney restaurant from Time Out Sydney in 2013.
With their focus on local, fresh ingredients and amazing flavours, sixpenny is one of the few Sydney restaurants that could coax us away from Netflix and a warming meal for those lingering frosty evenings.
We spoke to Dan and James to find out how fresh, local food has contributed to their success and what the secret is to starting an award-winning restaurant in your thirties.
YFM: What first interested you about being a chef?
Dan: “I was never really aiming to be a chef when I was younger. I just liked good food. My Grandmother’s cooking was my first inspiration, because it was the best and it used ingredients grown in her backyard in Petersham (in Sydney’s inner west).”
James: “I loved eating more than I liked cooking. But in year 12 I didn’t know what I wanted to do after school. I was in a band, but I wasn’t applying myself to schoolwork. A job came up in a local restaurant and because I’d always loved food Dad suggested I apply. When I started, I discovered I loved cooking for other people, much more than I liked cooking for myself.”
YFM: What ingredients are you most excited to cook?
Dan: “Pasta! We have a dish on the menu at the moment – just a really simple pasta dish with some fresh truffles. It’s just one of those dishes that everyone wants to eat. Also, I love going to the markets on Sunday and getting fresh produce. I love seeing veggies that have come from northwest Sydney. They’re always in season and delicious.”
James: “Yeah, fresh veggies are great. You can just taste the difference. It’s hard to get good fresh seafood and meat. It’s great when you find someone who can supply you with potatoes picked only a few days ago. You can tell they’re well loved.”
YFM: You have a vegie patch down in Mittagong, where you grow many ingredients that are used in the sixpenny kitchen. Can you tell me a little about that?
James: “It started because I always had an interest in gardening and I had worked at a few places overseas with gardens and flowerbeds and I saw how that worked for them. We call ours ‘the patch’ and mainly grow perennials there and things people can’t grow for us. You can’t help but have more respect for everything that is grown after seeing how much work goes into it. We want our team to have this respect too, so we have sixpenny working-bees down there where everyone harvests and plants.”
YFM: How important is the use of local ingredients in your food?
Dan: “Quality is number one for us, and fresh, local ingredients are the best quality. This is because asparagus tastes the best when it’s snapped off the stalk that same day. If you’re growing corn it’s more sweet and delicious straight out of the garden. Even the next day it’s not the same.”
Sourcing the freshest produce is hard, because you have to work at building the relationships with small growers. We work with people like Phil at Moonacres Farm in Fitzroy Falls, and Peter Dryden who owns a farm in Peats Ridge.
It feels a little strange, as a chef, because putting so much effort into finding the best ingredients, you want to give the same amount of credit to the farmer for the final dish. But it’s great because the reward of finding good local small growers is not only getting the best quality produce but they also find you great new ingredients to enhance the dishes we’re working on.
For example, recently we’ve purchased poorman oranges, Rangpur limes and nettles off our growers, just to try something different. The Rangpur limes, for example are a great find. They have such a perfume on them, they smell like mandarins – you can smell and taste it when it’s added to the dish.”
YFM: Do you do anything in the kitchen for food waste?
James: “I worked at so many restaurants where green waste goes in the bin and that killed me. When we started sixpenny I knew I wanted to compost our green waste at ‘the patch’ in Mittagong. We take about 8 x 20L buckets down per week of food waste. It sounds like a lot, but as far as restaurant waste, that’s not that much at all because we only seat 35 people and serve tasting plates!”
YFM: It feels like there is an increasing focus on quality, local ingredients in fine dining. Do you think this has come from customer interest, trends or a combination?
James: “I think it’s a mix of all three. In Sydney hospitality is a small industry and when someone starts talking about something on social media suddenly everyone wants to try it. Plus through more education and shows like Masterchef people just care more about what is in their food. We’re seeing supermarkets like About Life and Thomas Dux open. Even Coles and Woollies have an organics offering now.”
Dan: “I don’t know that I cook for customers requests or trends. I’m all about taste. Picture a crazy Italian – saying ‘Just taste this! Close your eyes and taste it!’ The chefs who are focusing on taste, focus on sustainable and local produce because it just tastes better. There are chefs out there that try and use asparagus or tomatoes all the way through the year. Right now (in winter) tomatoes are flowery and taste like nothing. Using ingredients that are out of season is not going to get any emotion from people who taste the food you cook.”
YFM: James, what is one piece of advice you’d give to yourself when you were just starting your career?
James: “Be keen and motivated. On my days off I’d go and work in other restaurants for free. I called Dan because I liked what he was doing at Oscillate Wildly and worked for him for a while just to learn and wasn’t getting paid. From that he offered me a job. I also spent 12 months overseas working in restaurants for free. Give up your own time. Learn a broad base of knowledge too – some chefs I know only know fine dining and don’t know how to make something easy like minestrone.”
YFM: Dan, what is one thing young people can do to change the food industry for the better.
Dan: “Make food choices that support the local guys to do what they’re passionate about. We’ve got a lot of dietary trends at the moment – wanting to reduce meat, or eat less dairy. I think if you want to be more conscious about eating meat, for example, it’s much better to support a small ethical farmer from Sydney than it is to buy tofu from overseas.”
Image credits: sixpenny and Maja Basaka