Sometimes sifting through the motony of emails, wading through the newsletters, spam and group deals, will yield rewarding little nuggets of pure gold – a golden ticket as it were. Was I interested in a masterclass with 3 Michelin starred chef, Heinz Beck? I replied with lightning speed to the invitation – you betcha I’m keen!
So last month I had the absolute pleasure of attending a Heinz Beck masterclass with a small group of Sydney foodbloggers. The masterclass was to be held at Caffe Sicilia, the exclusive Surry Hills venue where Chef Heinz Beck held two extravagant 8 course dinners for the public.
Beyond the doors of Caffe Sicilia a large dining room greeted us, flanked by a well stocked bar full of interesting wines and liqueur bottles. The glass cabinet in front of the bar is normally laden with sweet treats and goodies – a familiar sight that greets guests but on this occasion it is conspicuously absent as are all the customers. The restaurant has been emptied for the masterclass.
We’re soon greeted by the chef himself. In an age where television has popularised the fiery tempers of celebrity chefs and military bootcamp style kitchens have become folklore, you’d be forgiven for expecting that a 3 Michelin starred chef might carry an air of regal arrogance or unapproachability, but refreshingly this chef is quite the opposite. He is friendly and affable, all smiles and encouragement, patiently answering our every probing question.
Beck is of German heritage, began his chef training at 17 and gained experience in award winning kitchens around Germany and Spain. In 1994 he joined La Pergola in Rome, the restaurant he is most synonymously associated with, and his first Michelin star was award by 1997, the second by 2000 and in 1996 he gained the coveted 3 Michelin stars rating and has been the only 3 Michelin starred restaurant in Italy for a number of years. Chef Beck can now boast 5 restaurants to his name, 2 others which are also Michelin starred including the 1 Michelin starred Apsleys in London, and Café Les Paillottes in Pescara, Italy.
Meeting his Sicilian wife has ensured there is always a generous dose of Sicilian flavours peppered throughout his menus. In fact in numerous responses he candidly mentions his mother-in-law’s cooking as being a prime influence on him. When asked what his favourite dish is, he immediately rattles off one of his mother in law’s dishes: pasta con i tenerumi - a summer minestrone-style soup and typical Sicilian regional speciality with pasta and young leaves and tendrils of the local marrow, cucuzza. Close affinity with one’s mother-in-law is no mean feat so I questioned him further on this and whether his own mother resents the supposed favouritism he shows his mother-in-law. His answer was quick and to the point: “No, why would my mother worry? She can’t cook.”
When asked whether he has had a chance to sample any local Sydney restaurants, he offers a resigned shake of the head and confesses he doesn’t know much about the local Sydney food scene nor has he heard much about our top chefs. Almost sheepishly he admits he’s not a user of social media, nor does he watch TV – a surprising admission coming from a man who has his own highly rated television cooking show in Italy, one that pits housewives against professional chefs! Beck explains that a housewife will send in one of their recipes which he reviews, then secretly adds in a mystery ingredient that both the housewife and the chef they’re competing against must use and create the recipe in 15 minutes.
He goes on to explain that his whirlwind tour to Sydney has been regrettably brief and other than a tour of the fish markets and surveying some local produce for the menu, this trip hasn’t allowed him any time to visit any restaurants – it’s all been about prepping for his 8 course dinners. And prepping there has been in spades. For this special showcase dinner, Beck has brought with him a small entourage of 4 supporting staff – 3 chefs from his restaurants and a sommelier. Then in a slightly conspiratorial manner, we’re told that Caffe Sicilia went to great lengths to ensure that every whim Beck requested for the 8 course dinner was catered for – including but not limited to specific De Cecco pasta, Becks’ favoured brand; Valrhona Jivara chocolate; custom grown batches of edible flowers and a mammoth $14,000 worth of custom designed crockery and glassware purchased just for this event! In some circles, such demands might confer one a less than pleasant “diva” label, but you could consider it the mark of a perfectionist, where only the best will do. From that perspective, I can empathize entirely – Beck is associated with specific standards of excellence worthy of his coveted 3 Michelin stars and I understand his reluctance to rent out and sully his name with anything less than perfection.
Introductions and niceties done we were whisked into the small back kitchen where both Beck’s imported specialist chefs and Caffe Sicilia’s own chefs were all busily prepping for that night’s meal. We crowded around the chef in the hot kitchen, flames licking the pots and pans as Beck shows us the steps required to create his sedanini pasta with red shrimps dish – yet another dish inspired by his mother-in-law! A decadent crab bisque with lots of aromatics, tomatoes and thyme oil is created and reduced down to intensify flavours. With a familiar flick of the wrist, the assisting chef tosses the pasta, sending them into impressive acrobatic displays. The bisque is used to lubricate the pasta and to help highlight the shrimp component in the pasta dish, then the finished pasta is served on a smoky eggplant puree and topped with herbed breadcrumb croutons.
The pasta dish is sublime – the pasta silky and perfectly al dente, the prawns poppingly juicy and the crustacean flavours powerful throughout the dish. The addition of orange zest adds a really interesting flavour edge and I wanted so much more than the sample served to me. The herbed breadcrumbs instantly transported me back to my own travels in Sicily where I fondly remembered dishes like pasta con le sarde sprinkled with those herbed breadcrumbs. It’s a typical ingredient found in many Sicilian pasta dishes as Parmesan was considered a luxury item yet bread was an abundant staple, hence heavily flavoured herbed and spiced breadcrumbs became the poor Sicilian’s substitute for Parmesan.
Once we’d scraped away the last morsels of the pasta, we’re led back to the kitchen to watch the making of Becks’s orange jelly dessert. Sweetened orange juice is set into jelly, topped with dollops of vanilla custard and basil cream, sprinkled with orange granita and edible flower petals, then finally finished with a perfect quenelle of bergamot icecream placed ever so gently on the dessert as the crowning touch.
The bergamot ice cream has been created from fresh bergamot orange, a type of citrus with a grapefruit-like yellow peel and not as I’d always mistakenly assumed, a flower. The basil cream, though I was dubious when about how it would work in the dessert, complements the myriad of citrus flavours surprisingly well. As I eagerly sampled spoonful after spoonful, I found it a light and delicate dessert, an intriguing interplay between citrus and floral flavours with the granita crystals and cool ice cream ensuring it was an appropriately light end to any meal.
I was very impressed by our teaser taste of Beck’s legacy dishes during the masterclass and couldn’t wait to return to Caffe Sicilia and try the rest of the dishes. On a lovely warm summer night we did just that, sitting outside in the restaurant’s al fresco dining area, watching Surry Hills life amble by. I’d returned with the Co-pilot to sample the full Heinz Beck “Legacy Degustation” menu featuring four original Heinz Beck recipes bequeathed by the chef to Caffe Sicilia. The big surprise are the prices – they were hardly what I’ve come to expect of 3 Michelin starred establishments. The 4 courses are a mere $65 and with matched wines, a steal at $85!
The first course is a breaded cannoli of Palmer’s Island mulloway and is delightfully light. Delicate diced fish encased in a fluffy breaded cannoli on a bed of ripe, finely diced rockmelon and celery – the latter providing a refreshing occasional crunch. It is one of the most original and enjoyable dishes I’ve tasted in a long time. The matching wine is a superb pairing – at first sharp and acidic but with a mellow tail that strongly accentuates and brings to the fore the toasty flavours in the breaded cannoli. My favourite wine degustations are always those that don’t just match the food but bring some transformative element as they did here and I savoured every sip and mouthful. I later learned that the matched wines were all specially selected by Beck’s sommelier from Apsleys in London, one of the team members to have accompanied Beck on his brief tour here.
The sedanini pasta dish was one of the two I’d tried at the masterclass. The Caffe Sicilia iteration was more generous in portion, slightly more flavourful and, dare I say it, more enjoyable than the one I remembered. The herbed and anchovy laden breadcrumbs combined with the tomatoey, crustacean sauce base made for a strong flavour hit. As my palette errs towards stronger flavours, I relished the flavours. The pasta was as perfectly al dente as I remembered, the orange rind notes and smoky eggplant just as distinctive. The paired prosecco pinot noir blend was an unusual pairing as sparkling wines normally precede white wines, but the orange rind notes in the dish matched extraordinarily well with the floral fruity notes in the bubbly.
For those worried that small degustations won’t be filling, the veal and mortadella main dish that came next will allay any of those fears. A very generous roulade of veal and mortadella rolled in a pistachio crust with dollops of celeriac and edible flowers. The roulade was incredibly good, tender and very succulent. It was matched with an interesting nebbiolo which when tasted alone was slightly savoury and slightly smoky with subtle tequila-like flavours. The smokey notes in the mortadella married very nicely with the nebbiolo seemed to mellow and round out its flavours when paired with the dish.
Lastly we had that orange jelly dessert with bergamot icecream. Sadly, the quenelle of bergamot ice cream wasn’t nearly as perfectly formed as the dish we’d sampled during the masterclass, so the presentation didn’t quite live up to expectations. But the flavours were all there – the orange jelly, herbaceous basil and intensely aromatic perfumed bergamot still all mixed together in an explosion of citrus and flowers. The paired dessert wine on it own was nectar sweet with a strong bouquet of rockmelon, peach and mandarin on the nose. On pairing with the dessert, the Co-pilot found it not only complemented but added a whole new flavour profile. I on the other hand found it inexplicably accentuated the hitherto unnoticed bitter notes in the dessert and brought them sharply to the forefront. Personally I wasn’t a fan of the bitter notes, but the Co-pilot found this quite sophisticated and likened the flavour to some of his favourite drinks, Chinotto and Negroni.
Overall we found it a very interesting, unique meal and importantly very good value. Original ideas, forms and textures that were all intriguing and not just variations of the same run of the mill Italian dishes or modern fads. The matched wine pairing was an absolute winner in my eyes – at a mere $20 extra, I really felt it showed some commitment on Caffe Sicilia’s part in having the dishes enjoyed as they should be. The glasses of wine weren’t overly generous, but were sufficient and they could have easily charged more for those matched wine (as everybody else does). To price it so affordably really allows diners to have a more complete experience and that’s pretty commendable. I should disclose here that the Co-pilot and I both dined as guests but we were genuinely so impressed with both the experience and the value, we’re more than happy to return with the family and spread the word of mouth – something we’ll be doing very soon! Afterall, it’s a very small price to pay for Michelin-grade dining in Sydney!
The Gourmet Forager dined as a guest of Caffe Sicilia and Wasamedia.
628 Crown Street, Surry Hills, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9699 8787; enqu...@caffesicilia.com.au
Open: Mon 5.30pm till late (dinner); Tues – Fri 5pm till late; Sat – Sun 8am till late