They came from Pottsville and Parramatta, from Ballina and Bondi, to celebrate the launch of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2023 on Monday evening. And then there was chef Clare Smyth, the first and only female chef to win three Michelin stars in the UK, who secretly flew in from Notting Hill for the occasion.
Not even the team at her Sydney luxury diner, Oncore by Clare Smyth on the 26th floor of Crown Sydney at Barangaroo, knew she was coming.
“I laid low for a day or two in Sydney, then we called a pretend meeting on Sunday morning for the staff,” she says with a laugh. “They came in and I was there. They couldn’t believe it.”
Neither could the star-studded crowd at Shell House Dining Room and Terraceas they sipped Mumm Champagne and devoured caviar-laden snacks.
“I love the dining scene here. It’s so vibrant and exciting.”
“When [The Good Food Guide] sent me the invitation, I just knew I had to jump on a plane,” says Smyth. “It’s the most recognized and respected guide in the country, and after the last few years, with everything the industry has been through, I really wanted to be part of the event.”
Little did Smyth know that her restaurant was to receive Australia’s equivalent to the three Michelin stars of her London business, the coveted three hat award.
“I was so thrilled to be able to share the moment with everyone,” she says. “My team work so hard, and head chef Alan Stuart is a brilliant and dedicated young chef, only 31, but with so much discipline.”
The last time a chef could boast three Michelin stars in Europe and three hats in Australia was when French culinary legend Paul Bocuse operated a fine diner in Melbourne through the early 1990s.
Oncore is not everyone’s cup of tea, with eleven courses of superlative produce re-engineered with high technique costing around $340 per person.
“Nostalgic, surprising, and often playful luxury dining” says The Good Food Guide review, which singles out the potato dish – slow-cooked with kombu and topped with flowers, sorrel and roe – as worthy of attention.
“Some of it is a little flamboyant,” he says Good Food Guide editor Callan Boys, “but I think that suits Sydneysiders’ sense of fun perfectly.”
Oncore was awarded three hats, Boys says, not just for Smyth’s vision and steadfast quest for perfection. “It’s also because Alan and his team are working so closely with NSW producers such as Tathra Place ducks and Malfroy’s honey, to deliver heightened versions of familiar flavours”.
In Sydney for just five days, Smyth has been dining out like, well, a Good Food Guide reviewer, with lunch and dinner, followed by lunch and dinner.
“I love the dining scene here,” she says. “It’s so vibrant and exciting; more so than it is in London at the moment, which is still suffering, politically and economically.”
She particularly loved her first dining experience at Firedoor in Surry Hills, which coincidentally achieved three-hat status this year for the first time. “It’s very, very sharp, from their service to the cocktails, to the food all touched with fire,” she says of Lennox Hastie’s fire-fuelled kitchen in Surry Hills, which operates without gas or electricity.
Next stop was Merivale’s luxed-up Mimi’s in Coogee (“it was heaving, on a Sunday night, such good fun”), Matt Moran’s Aria in Circular Quay (“I always love it there”), and tiny Parlar in Potts Point ( “the food is fantastic, I had such a lovely meal, and what a strong, hard-working team”).
Oncore shares its new three hat status with Firedoor, Quay and Sixpenny, the little corner restaurant that brought elevated dining to Stanmore.
When Smyth came to Sydney as a budding young chef 20 years ago, it was Neil Perry, Matt Moran and Peter Gilmore of Quay that she aspired to work for.
“Everyone thinks of Sydney as being dynamic and ever-changing, but these chefs are still delivering incredible dining experiences all this time later, which is phenomenal,” she says. “When I ate recently at Margaret in Double Bay, all I could think of was how lucky we are that Neil is still cooking. It’s because he wants to – and how cool is that?”
It’s this positive side of the hospitality industry that the chef says we need to talk about more. “We need more young people to hear these stories of how people love to cook and love to make people happy, and decide for themselves that is what they want to do,” she says.
The Good Food Guide 2023 magazine is available at newsagents, supermarkets and online at thestore.com.au for $9.95.