We dine a little differently these days. Of course, we still eat out and most of our restaurants are proving time and time again that they can weather any storm, whether it’s a harsh winter or another wave of the pandemic. Some of us are cooking more at home and, for many, food is helping us to form new connections, or reform old ones.
But there are still nights where it’s too cold or too COVID-restricted to go outside. And so here we are as I write, with another looming threat of lockdown, stocking our pantries with staples and our bathrooms with extra toilet paper. And restaurants are braced, with their just-in-case contingencies. Plenty of chefs now have experience flipping their kitchens into manufacturing centres, with ready meals and takeaway the go-to for many that don’t know a griddle from a skillet.
One of these chefs is Paul Baker. Formerly the head of the applauded and awarded Botanic Gardens restaurant, he’s created a new venture using his adaptability, ingenuity, and his ability to turn a few carefully selected ingredients into a ready-to-eat meal.
During the bleakest of times for our food and hospitality industry early last year, Paul was ready to connect. He connected with producers who had supplies that were destined to spoil. He connected with other chefs who had tried and tested recipes that could be made in bulk qualities and yet still deliver flavour and quality when they landed on your doorstep. Some of these even worked in his kitchen when restaurant doors were closed.
And, most importantly, he connected with us, stuck at home with our microwaves and mobile phones, with Uber Eats in our most-used apps screen. The digital world has changed the way we shop and order and Paul’s team went from culinary experts to digital masters. Importantly, it was word of mouth that sold this new concept and today, over a year later, Chefs on Wheels still delivers.
Will we ever cook again?
And so here we are, seated in a rather nice dining space, overlooking an open kitchen that could definitely do with a clean. I do like this table, and I wonder who chose those new light fittings? It looks like someone spent last year’s holiday budget on new flatware, too. The cutlery might use a polish and whoever poured the wine has really overfilled the glasses, but who are we to judge? Tonight, we’re eating at home and Chefs on Wheels is serving a selection of dishes from afar.
The oven’s pre-heated and instructions are easy to follow. Most dishes are one-pot wonders, but there are others you can add for variety: nothing crazy – just a side salad, sauce, or garnish here and there. Everything else is supplied. The website allows you to theme your dinners with options including an Italian or Indian feast, Thai if you fancy, or some family-friendly favourites. Snacks and best sellers read like a typical restaurant menu and, yes, they even do desserts.
First up, roti pockets are stuffed with silverbeet, spinach and ricotta. Heated from the freezer there is a bit of early concern that we might be in for a stodgy result, but through their tests and trials they’ve managed to make the reinvigorated bread-like pastry cases impossibly flaky with a little crunch around the edges. The filling is hearty and flavoursome, like a well-filled pasty of sorts, with hints of dill and mint and lemon zest. A minted parmesan sauce (from last week’s leftovers) acts as the perfect accompaniment.
A family-sized Thai massaman beef curry comes hot out of the oven with a sauce that is a little too liquid for my liking, but it’s nothing a little syphon and stove-top reduction can’t fix. Served with a 90-second jasmine rice from the pantry of lockdown staples I never quite got through and we’re onto an authentic winner yet again. It’s mild, thanks to its coconut base, and packed with flavour offered by a long list of herbs and spices like lemongrass, chilli, star anise and kaffir lime (that are also all marked clearly on the website and package – those with dietary requirements, rejoice).
Then from Thailand to France: it’s coq au vin with baby potatoes and basil pistou up next. It’s a nice spin on a classic, with an unctuous sauce of wine-heavy flavour and tender chicken that comes apart with the lightest encouragement of a fork. Potatoes are a little overdone, but perhaps I forgot to set the timer… either way, they form a sort of mash that is nothing to complain about and soak up some more of that sauce.
Keeping a la carte, we plate a beef bourguignon with more potatoes that this time keep their shape. The meat falls apart on impact and the thick gravy, with a typical bacon flavour, coats a medley of finely chopped vegetables that add volume to this delectable dish.
Obviously, someone went a little carb-crazy while ordering, as the oven dings to remind us of a mac and cheese with collard greens and bacon that’s been keeping warm. It’s an effort to get through but very worthwhile – less cheesy than expected but, given the richness of other dishes to date, this comes as a pleasant surprise. It turns out that mac and cheese is a great plate-to-mouth vehicle for the remaining beef bourguignon gravy, too.
That side of salad mentioned earlier goes untouched but through no fault of the Chefs on Wheels. I can only blame them now for our final showdown with sticky fig and ginger pudding. This one is baked ‘fresh’ from frozen batter – not reheated – and the method works. It’s a delicious cake-like pudding that has a pungent ginger scent but is subtle in taste by comparison. It is warm and sticky as promised and a generous dollop of caramel ice cream melts into its centre in agreement.
As we work to scrape the last from our plates we ponder: will we ever cook again? And, who drank all that wine?
Chefs on Wheels
For menus, ordering details and other information, go to the Chefs of Wheels website: chefsonwheels.com.au
Chefs on Wheels delivers to metropolitan Adelaide and some parts of regional South Australia.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.