Dylan Roberts. I cook – Dani Valent

Dylan Roberts. I cook

Dylan Roberts of Claremont Tonic throws some Japanese-style prawns on the barbecue for lunch.

(Dani Valent is a regular contributor to the ‘I cook’ column in the (melbourne) magazine. Click here to read what the chef and the owners of the Graham Hotel cook for their families.)

There are a few reasons that Claremont Tonic chef Dylan Roberts is glad to be feeding his friends by the Yarra today. He grew up in Wales and, even after 10 years in Australia, the shine hasn’t palled on eating outdoors. He’s serving food he loves to eat. “I like salads, raw vegetables and skewered stuff to grill,” he says. Roberts is also happy to cross-fertilise cuisines, which explains the lively tomato salad that swoops to Italy via Thailand. Above all, there’s the gratification of serving food to people who tell you how delicious it all is. “It’s a good feeling,” he says. “My friends are my number one fan club.”

Roberts grew up in the small Welsh town of Llandudno Junction and became interested in cooking at an early age, in part because his grandmother was a good, homely cook and also because his mother was busy working. “I did a lot of baking and one-pan wonders,” he says. In his early teens, Roberts started washing dishes at a nearby luxury hotel, Bodysgallen Hall. The chefs saw a spark in him. “They would give me food to taste and they started disciplining me really early,” he says. “I really responded. I remember scrubbing down shelves with toothbrushes and polishing the brass and silver.” He trained there as a chef then built up his skills and repertoire at highly rated restaurants such as L’ortolan, Holbeck Ghyll, Ynyshir Hall and the Chester Grosvenor.
“I’d always wanted to come to Oz,” he says, and in 2003 he landed in Adelaide with his Australian wife, Debra. “I knew Australian cuisine was on the way up. I knew there was great produce and it was a land of opportunity.” The couple moved to Melbourne when Roberts landed a job at Ezard in Flinders Lane. The Asian flavours were thrilling and new. “In the northern hemisphere we had carrots, celery, onions,” he says. “Seeing a kaffir lime leaf for the first time was a real wow.” He worked his way to the position of head chef, loving the camaraderie in the kitchen and the relentlessly high standards. “[Owner] Teage [Ezard] is a very good mentor,” says Roberts. “I take my hat off to him.”

After five years at Ezard, there followed stints at Cutler & Co, St Jude’s and Luscious Affairs cooking school before Roberts worked with restaurateur Davis Yu to birth the raffish Claremont Tonic in July 2012. “The food here takes my European background and gives it an Asian twist,” he says. But whatever’s on the plate, the basic desire is to cook for people. “That’s where the passion and love come from, that’s what keeps me at it. I’ve been cooking for 20 years and I still love seeing people eat my food.”

White-poached chicken lettuce cups
“This recipe takes time to prepare but it’s worth it.”
1 small (about 800g) whole chicken
1 bamboo skewer
30cm piece butcher’s twine
Poaching brine
2 litres water
600ml Chinese shaoxing wine
220g sugar
160g table salt
5 star anise
2 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp fennel seeds
1 bulb garlic, halved
80g fresh ginger, bruised
Wash inside the chicken carcass and pat dry with kitchen towel. Pull skin from back end of chicken over the parson’s nose to close the cavity. Weave the bamboo skewer through the skin to hold it closed. Tie the ankles together with twine. Using a pot with a lid that’s just big enough for the chicken, bring the brine ingredients to a rolling boil and poach chicken for 25 minutes.
Black bean dressing
90ml light soy sauce
4 tbsp water
2 tbsp sesame oil
1/2 tbsp chilli oil
2 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp fermented black beans, roughly chopped
10g fresh ginger, finely chopped
2 spring onions, sliced
1 birdseye chilli, finely chopped, optional
Mix all ingredients and let sit for 20 minutes before using.
Lettuce cups
1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into 16 wedges
4 tbsp sesame oil
1/2 tbsp salt
1/2 bunch coriander, picked and roughly chopped
1 iceberg lettuce, core removed, leaves trimmed into 8 lettuce cups
300g silken tofu, sliced into 8 pieces
1/2 bunch spring onions, sliced
crispy shallots, optional
Preheat skillet or barbecue. Mix eggplants, sesame oil and salt and sit for 5 minutes. Grill eggplant pieces until just tender then leave to cool. Shred cooled chicken meat into a mixing bowl, add a little dressing and half the coriander. In every lettuce cup place 2 pieces of eggplant, a slice of tofu and shredded chicken. Top with dressing, spring onions, coriander and shallots.
Serves 8

Tomato and watermelon salad with Thai basil
“This is such a tasty and refreshing summer salad. I like heirloom tomatoes such as Tigerella, Black Russians, Green Zebra, Rouge de Marmande and Tommy Toes. It’s best to pickle your shallots the night before.”
Pickled shallots
10 large shallots, peeled and diced
225ml white wine vinegar
150ml water
125g sugar
1 tbsp black peppercorns
2 kaffir lime leaves
Bring vinegar, water, sugar, peppercorns and lime leaves to the boil and pour over the sliced shallots. Leave overnight to pickle.
Rice wine vinaigrette
2 tbsp olive oil
90ml grapeseed oil
4 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp lemon juice
Whisk ingredients together.
1/2 lemon, zested
1 lemon, juiced
2 tbsp olive oil
150g fromage blanc or ricotta
salt and pepper
500g heirloom tomatoes, cored and cut into wedges
250g seedless watermelon, cubed
2 kaffir lime leaves, vein removed, thinly sliced
1/2 bunch Thai basil, leaves only
1/2 bunch mint, leaves only
In a mixing bowl, gently fold the lemon zest, juice, olive oil and cheese and season with a little salt. Lightly toss the tomatoes and watermelon in a bowl with a little vinaigrette, lime leaves and pickled shallots. Season with salt and pepper. Line a bowl with the tomato mixture, scatter dressed cheese on top then herbs and more dressing.
Serves 8

Grilled spicy prawns with goma dressing
“Goma is the Japanese equivalent of tahini. I choose large tiger or leader prawns and cook them on a hibachi charcoal grill.”
16 whole prawns
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 birdseye chilli, chopped
1 tbsp Togarashi pepper (available from Japanese grocers)
100ml grapeseed oil
2 tbsp kecap manis
1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
Peel prawn tails, leaving the heads on. Score the back of the prawn and remove the dirt tract with a sharp knife. Mix all other ingredients, toss with the prawns and leave to marinade for a couple of hours or overnight.
Goma dressing
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp water
4 tbsp rice vinegar
3 tbsp white miso
2 tbsp tahini
1 1/2 tbsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg yolk, optional
Dissolve the sugar in the water and whisk in all other ingredients, leaving the yolk last.
To cook, insert skewers through tail ends of prawns, coming out just behind the head. Grill for 3 to 5 minutes each side. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and serve with the dressing.
Serves 8

Spice-crusted snapper gravlax
400g snapper fillet, pinboned
200g rock salt
60g sugar
1 lime, zested and juiced
1/2 bunch coriander stalks, roughly chopped
Cure the fish a day ahead.
Mix salt, sugar, lime and coriander in a bowl. Line a tray loosely with clingwrap, sprinkle half the salt onto the tray, lay fish on top then add remainder of salt mix. Cure in fridge for 6 hours, turning after 3 hours. After curing, wash under cold water, pat dry with paper towel, wrap in clingwrap and leave to rest for at least 2 hours.
2 tbsp coriander seeds, toasted
2 tbsp fennel seeds, toasted
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
40g black and white sesame seeds, toasted
1/2 bunch coriander, leaves only, chopped
1 tbsp honey
Blitz coriander, fennel and pepper in a spice grinder to a coarse grind then mix with sesame seeds and coriander. Spread honey on fish and coat with spice mix. Carve fillet into 1cm thick slices and lay on a plate.
Coconut and lime dressing
200 ml coconut milk
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 lime, zested and juiced
Mix all ingredients until sugar dissolves.
1 nashi pear, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1 medium fennel bulb, sliced thinly and kept in a little iced water
1/2 red onion, sliced thinly, washed in cold water and dried on paper towel
1/2 bunch coriander, leaves only
¼ bunch mint, leaves only
1 lime, juiced
Mix salad ingredients and dress with coconut dressing. Place salad over sliced fish and top with more dressing.
Serves 8

the (melbourne) magazine. Issue no. 100 / March 2013 100th issue


Read the article as it appeared in the (melbourne) magazine


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