An alumni of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, Danielle Alvarez will be turning menu development on its head when she swings open the doors to Fred’s in Sydney next month.
Alvarez was brought to Australia by Merivale’s CEO Justin Hemmes, who felt her commitment to producing simple, fresh and flavourful food aligned perfectly with his plans for the Paddington site. She’s been in the country for a couple of years now, assisting in the kitchens of other venues in the group, including Coogee Pavilion and The Paddington, all while laying the foundations for Fred’s.
“Merivale has seen tremendous growth in the last two years especially, and so it’s not that I got sidelined, it’s just that other, bigger projects took precedent. The construction of the building for Fred’s (at 380 Oxford St) has been a bit of a project. It was a retail space, so basically everything had to be done from scratch, and all the council approval processes have contributed to a very lengthy opening. But that being said, the time has been well spent. I’ve had a lot of time to meet our suppliers and build relationships with them that I think will only make us better,” Alvarez told Hospitality.
The menu at Fred’s will be a la carte, and – bucking the trend – not designed for sharing. The portion sizes will mean diners can enjoy two to four courses, choosing from a list of three to four cold entrees, three to four hot entrees, approximately four mains, four desserts and a selection of sides. There will be a kitchen brigade of eight to 10 chefs, seating for 65, an aperitivo bar in the front and a speakeasy bar downstairs called Charlie Parkers, which will seat another 90.
Alvarez at First Farm Organics
The menu is yet to be written, and that’s exactly the way Alvarez wants it.
“Before coming here, I had never worked anywhere that didn’t change the menu every single day … It was quite hard to come to Australia and work in venues where the menu didn’t change; where you had to think about portions, and whether or not you have enough for tomorrow. I was always used to starting fresh every day. I think it’s just a matter of working different parts of your brain, so to speak, and getting everyone used to that, which will be my challenge,” she said.
“It’s about being led by the farmer as opposed to chefs coming up with ideas and then having farmers help to execute those ideas.”
Alvarez said this approach is commonplace in the states, but not so much here.
“Sourcing ingredients this way, and cooking this way, is happening in most places in California, where I worked before … It’s nothing innovative – it’s how people have been doing things for centuries,” she said. “But I think we’ve been going away from that in Australia, and I’d like to be able to go back to it.”
Being led by suppliers
While Fred’s’ site and concept were being developed, Alvarez spent her time forging relationships with local suppliers. That, she said, is the most important piece of the puzzle when offering a menu that changes daily.
Her suppliers include First Farm Organics (Blue Mountains), Martin Boetz’s Cooks Co-op (Hawkesbury), Field to Feast (Catherine Fields), Willowbrae Chevre Cheese and Woods Organic Flour, to name a few.
She said suppliers can often be apprehensive about dealing directly with chefs, but the key to offering a truly produce-driven menu is to demonstrate to those creating your ingredients that you have an appreciation and understanding of the work they do.
“Once you talk to them a few times and explain that you know a little bit about how this works and that – to some degree – you understand how their business operates, they have respect for that and they want to work with you.
“I think the apprehension probably comes from working with a lot of chefs who don’t really have an understanding of how long it takes for things to grow and how much time they need to spend on the farm - it’s quite surprising when you learn about it. You need to sympathise with them and keep talking to them, keep building the relationship, go out to see them, go to their property, meet them in person and then go from there,” she said.
The problem with farmers markets…
Getting face to face and building strong relationships with producers is all the more important considering how difficult it is for chefs to source from farmers markets, Alvarez said.
“In the states, chefs would get access to small farm produce through farmers markets, where in northern California you’d have one every day of the week in a relatively small area. So chefs would come with a truck or a van and do the big pick-ups two to three times a week.
“Wouldn’t it be great if there were a couple of central markets here where chefs could go, walk around, buy things at wholesale prices, in the same places where the public are free to go, at times that are easy for chefs to get to?”
This would also make life easier for the producers, who shouldn’t have to run around town delivering straight to the restaurant’s door, she said.
“Farmers have a really hard job and their time is best spent on the farm growing things. So to think that they could deliver more than once a week is a big ask. If there was an opportunity for them to go somewhere where they knew they were going to sell x amount of produce and they wouldn’t have to do all these little drives everywhere – that would be wonderful.
“I know that a few people are doing that at Eveleigh Markets, but you kind of have to do it before 7.30am because you can’t drive your car in there … I wish it was a bit more accessible because that would be an ideal way of getting produce to restaurants,” she said.
“Chefs aren’t superhuman. We can’t work until 1am and then get up at 4am. We’re just not made for that.”
Once Alvarez had developed a network of suppliers, she then turned her attention to recruiting chefs who bought into her philosophy and are capable of creating new dishes on a daily basis. Once Fred’s launches, the task will be to get the dining public onside, especially considering that Sydneysiders are so used to seeing a menu before making a booking, and who love the opportunity to enjoy a particular dish time and time again.
“For one part, it’ll mean managing the expectations of diners. While it’s going to be different, I hope it’s something that they’ll grow to appreciate rather than fight against. If you’re not used to going to places like Fred’s, it might be a bit surprising, but it’s about saying to people ‘this is what we do’. Even though it’s a bit different, we hope that you’ll like it, whatever day of the week it happens to be.”