Andrew Blake has a few hundred thousand regrets, one for every dollar he owed when his Southgate restaurant was shut down seven years ago. But he more keenly rues all the meals he missed with his two ex-wives and four children over the years. While he worked as a restaurant chef “between 1977 and 2002” Blake, 50, never cooked for his family. “I was always working, he says. “And, if I did get home, I couldn’t be fagged cooking, it was always takeaway. Perhaps that’s why he’s such a solicitous host this bright autumn morning, serving oyster shooters and buttermilk pancakes to his girlfriend, Jodie, his daughter Neredah and old friends.
For a long time, if you wanted to know where Melbourne dining was at, you looked to Andrew Blake. His first chef’s job was at Fanny’s in 1980 when it was the city’s leading restaurant and he embraced fine dining and hard living in equal part. “We’d go out till 4am, then come back to the restaurant and sleep on the banquettes, he says. But Blake impressed with more than stamina, and Fanny’s owner, Gloria Staley, gave him the head chef job at her cutting edge Sydney restaurant Chez Oz; he left after two-and-a-half years for a stint at Arthurs, before retreating to Melbourne. From 1989, he worked at Richmond’s trendy Cafe Kanis, where he popularised risotto. His next project was Kanis, Blake and Kanis, a pioneer upscale grocer with take-home meals, killed by the Toorak Road clearway and the early ’90s recession.
In 1991, the developers of the Southgate precinct approached Blake to open a restaurant and found him rich in ideas but poor in pocket. “I had a mattress on the floor of a friend’s warehouse, was driving an old bomb, my mum lent me money, he recalls. The developers put in $500,000 and Blake’s became the city’s “it restaurant in ’92, introducing 500 diners a day to new food (smoked-salmon stacks, Thai red curry with kangaroo) and novel dining concepts (shareable dishes rather than the three-course catastrophe). “It was a runaway train, says Blake. The money rolled in, but the landlord claimed 15 per cent of turnover as rent “”$25,000 a month in 1992 “and Blake frittered away much of the rest. “It was a spendy time, he says, noting a sudden affinity with upscale furniture, designer clothes and expensive partying.
Blake’s was leant on to open Stella (the city Mod-Oz darling that plunged in 1997), Stella at Heide (good food, bad business), South Yarra bar Tonic (ditto), a warehouse at South Wharf (a function venue with restaurant-quality food) and, eventually, Blake’s Cafeteria in 2001, an all-day diner in Greville Street undone by too many cool cats sitting on their lattes and neglecting to eat. Southgate changed the locks on its indebted tenant in 2002; Blake sold his cafeteria in 2004. Now he’s employed by ex-wife Jenny to run catering business Blake’s Feast and runs Zirky’s restaurant at Mount Hotham in winter. The $300,000 debt is almost wiped but he isn’t planning
on diving back into restaurants. “I want to be the father I wasn’t, he says. “I used to eat standing up in the restaurant kitchen. Now I enjoy sitting down, savouring, watching other people enjoy my food. I like that gesture, that giving. There’s plenty of time for me to right lots of wrongs.
Baked pullet eggs, stewed tomatoes and salsiccia
1 medium brown onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
50ml extra virgin olive oil
1kg ripe tomatoes, chopped
500ml quality tomato passata
1/2 bunch basil
salt and pepper to season
400g pork, chilli and fennel sausage or other spicy, coarse pork sausage
4 pullet eggs or small free-range eggs
Heat oven to 180C.
Sweat the onion and garlic in the olive oil in a heavy saucepan until translucent. Add the tomatoes, passata and basil leaves. Cook slowly until the tomato stew thickens (about 50 minutes). Season to taste.
Pan-fry the sausage, cut into 2cm chunks and add to the tomato stew. Pour into a
26cm earthenware baking dish. Crack the eggs into the tomato/sausage mixture,
cover and bake in oven for about 6 minutes or until the eggs are cooked to your liking.
Buttermilk pancakes with poached quince and honeyed yoghurt
1 litre water
1 cinnamon quill
1 lemon, juiced (keep lemon)
1 vanilla bean, split
11/2 cups plain flour
4 tsp baking powder
4 tbs caster sugar
large pinch salt
21/4 cups buttermilk
50g unsalted butter, melted
200ml low-fat Greek-style yoghurt
Preheat oven to 140C.
Place sugar, water, cinnamon, lemon juice, squeezed lemon and vanilla in a heavy enamel pan. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 5 minutes.
Peel, core and quarter quinces and place in pan. (Quince quarters should
be submerged.) Cover with a lid and place in oven. Cook for 2-3 hours until tender and deep orange-red in colour. Remove from oven and cool.
Mix the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, mix the
buttermilk, eggs and melted butter. Add wet mixture to the flour mixture and gently stir to incorporate. Do not over-mix. Let sit for 20 minutes before gently stirring to remove any remaining lumps.
Cook pancakes in a non-stick pan, top with quince and a dollop of yoghurt.
Smoked salmon with horseradish ricotta on toasted briant
150g fresh ricotta
2 tsp freshly grated horseradish or 3 tsp from jar of horseradish
2 tbs chopped chives
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
4 thick slices briant (brioche/croissant loaf) or sourdough bread
8 slices smoked salmon
Mix the ricotta, horseradish and chives in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Toast the slices of briant, top each with a dollop of horseradish ricotta and drape
2 slices of smoked salmon over each.
Thyme and garlic-roasted field mushrooms with Persian feta
8 field mushrooms, stalks removed
2 garlic cloves, poached for 5 minutes and finely sliced
1 tsp thyme leaves
40g unsalted butter
100g Persian feta
Preheat oven to 180C.
Spread the mushrooms on an oven tray and spread over the poached garlic slices
and the thyme leaves. Place a nut of butter on each mushroom and roast for 20
minutes or until mushrooms are cooked but still firm. Top with crumbled Persian feta.
All recipes serve 4