Wednesday 16 January 2019

The Last Summer at Chris’s in Lorne

The Last Summer at Chris’s in Lorne
I was a late comer to Chris’s.  This little unpretentious 40 seat café had already made its name for decades as the place to be in Lorne for honest simple grills and sensational seafood. Chris would start the day early at the pier bagging the best seafood of the day, big sacks of crayfish, tubs of proper calamari. Gemfish was the most popular fish du jour. He would make Kakavia the Greek fisherman’s soup, pure pistachio Baklava and a mess of chocolate mousse before finalising all the orders and preparing breakfast for his elderly parents who came from Greece for the southern summer. By the time I started my day around 3pm Chris had already ensconced himself at the sidewalk table spruiking the day to the passing parade of regulars booking tables and running to and fro to the TAB for the day’s bets. Stevie, Sammy and all the other Greek old boys who ran the café scene in Lorne would gently break each others balls over coffee and gossip. Kosta, Chris’s younger brother would often call in to “borrow” a few cray and take the parents up the road to his café to see the grandchildren.
This summer was different the pressure was on from the big developers. David Mariner was hovering he had to get Christos to sell up to realise his big fuck off development A serious charm offensive. Eventually he made an offer too good to refuse and the countdown was on.
The staff were a motley crew of local grommets, super smart university students and a few experienced hospitality tragics.  Many lived or camped out the back of the shop.
It was a small restaurant with a small kitchen that did seriously big numbers.
A big thick flat grill ruled as the kitchen piano.  Chris had a remarkably simple system of service that echoed how Chinese restaurants worked. One of the young Einsteins would receive the orders and get the raw produce from the fridge, a bowl of scallops, a couple of steaks, a clutch of calamari etc while verballing the whole service to the 2 cooks on the grill and stove. Aboyeur and Garde Manger in one.  Crays were dispatched to order before going on the grill or under the salamander with a swift cut through the head down the centre for a quick death.
The caller had to have the skills of an air traffic controller and the patience of a saint to talk through the often 3 sittings that would smash us on the grill every night in the season. The seafood was simply seasoned with garlic oil salt and pepper. Broiled on the flat top and served. The crays were the same or finished with a brandy sauce made a la minute for each one. There was a real Greek salad with the finest Fetta and good herbs and the famous roast potato. It took me a while to fully understand the lore of the potato. It was always Christos who put it on very carefully around 4pm in a big galvanised crate filled with about 80 big unpeeled but washed dry spuds not sure of the variety but they were not Kennebecs. There was a second tray for the 9pm sitting By 6pm they were baked potatoes, by 7.30 they had a crisp crust and by 9.30 they were nearly hollow with a crunchy skin and a smoky layer of silken spud. One weekday night just after I started the delightful Bob Cowcher was due late.  Chris kept us there to wait for his friend with a special bottle. I was worried that I only had about 3 potatoes left and they were rapidly shrinking. As I was leaving I said Hi to bob and apologised for the spud and I can still visualise his smiling response “George I was dreaming about that potato all the way from New York.” That’s what I call a signature dish.   
Service began around 5.30 with families coming straight off the beach slowly building up to the first official service around 7pm these diners were well trained to be out by 9pm.
There was a doorman with a job of responsibility who herded the walkins armed with a roll of $5 notes from Chris that he would convince parents to give to their teenage children to go and get fish and chips or play the pinnies while the oldies could relax over a bottle, a cray or a big fillet steak. There were 3 normal sidewalk tables but often the footpath would be full of tables of diners right up past the old post office full of happy campers

The heat in the kitchen would come to a screaming crescendo around 8pm to make sure the 9pm setting was ready to roll.
Chris had a very clever pressure valve installed in the shape of a punching bag hung in the corridor out the back that he, and all of us including the diners, would occasionally consult when the merde frapped le ventilateur.

If we were lucky we could catch our breath before the nine o’clock rush.
This was the main course. After 9pm the real regulars would descend on the dining room. Christos knew just where to seat this A list. 

 Joe and Patrice Saba had a table every night for at least 8 often a lot more that would spill into the rest of the room creating a soiree that continued well into the night. Pinder was buying the Burley Griffin Knitlok mansion. Rennie Ellis captured these scenes forever.
Chris worked the floor all night sampling the premier cru BYO’s and generously flirting with his adoring public. It was the toughest brigade I have worked with. Penny made sure everyone behaved themselves. 
 A summer of love tinged with sadness because of course the bulldozers would soon erase this sacred site. For what?
You can still find Christos Penny and Taki  [this is really a reminder to self to go soon] at Beacon point at Skenes Creek near Apollo Bay where the story continues.                        

Wednesday 9 January 2019

Lost and Found Vanne Trompf and Percy Everett

Lost and Found
 Percy Everett and Vanne Trompf 
This is the story of three buildings, two architects and a lifelong love of the Moderne.
 My Art Deco epiphany came in 1972 when a friend came back from London with Bevis Hillier’s catalogue to the ground-breaking World of Art Deco exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 1971. The book lit a spark within our group of friends and we became hunters and collectors with an insatiable appetite for all things Art Deco. Deeply infected with the Deco bug most of our spare time and money was spent in op shops, antique shops, auctions and flea markets until our student shared houses were styled to the hilt in what would now be called Acid-Moderne.
 I knew it had got serious when we had a whole room devoted to rescued mirrored tables.
.    We scoured the city and suburbs making guerrilla raids to country centres and revelled in the architecture but it would take another forty years to discover that it is Percy Edgar Everett’s work that holds the distinct bass line to the rhythm of Art Deco architecture in Melbourne and indeed all of Victoria.
Bursting with clutter we realised that to feed this obsession we would have to dispense with items in order to find space for more. I found a vacant classic tiny deco boutique with rounded brass bound windows and a classic door motif Both no longer in place] that became our logo at 109 Collins street Melbourne.

 It was still a working gentleman's hair salon in 1973 called Jockels with Mr. Bill Routlege on the scissors and strop in the basement. A small group of mates and I leased it, kept the name and became gonzo Art Deco dealers. When we opened Miss. Whiteman of Le louvre flounced in, looked us up and down, saw the faux leopard skin on the ebonised Bauhaus style desk and offered a regal welcome to Collins Street. We had passed the toughest test.   
 We eventually passed on the shop on to my friend Paul Craft of Paraphernalia who moved up from the Block Arcade.
In 1975 I embarked on another equally strong passion, a life of professional cooking and restaurants. Our dining rooms were filled with chrome and bentwood littered with Ward, Lowen, Sebel and Featherston chairs that, to most people, was just “shabby chic mix n match”. But bookings from the cognoscenti sometimes discreetly asked for the Featherston stem chairs and table by the bookcase.
After three decades at Sunnybrae Farm and Restaurant near Birregurra Diane and I were looking for a small modernist house to retire to and in 2013 we stumbled upon a little “Eichlerish” house in Kyneton. The architect was not known to the real estate agent or the council and it would take four years to identify the designer as Vanne Trompf who had a practice in Kyneton in the seventies.

 Vanne was part of the modernist movement in Melbourne and was for a time a lecturer at RMIT.
I wrote Vanne a note to say how much we loved the house and he offered a cheeky invitation to check out his aluminium earthship on a big farm in the shadows of the Grampians.

On arrival at Chez Trompf you are greeted by an understated Zincalume covered courtyard housing water tanks where the tail of a 1953 silver aluminium H G Mulliner coachwork, Type R Bentley Continental’s Batmobile bum protrudes out of the southside garage.

 Vanne had said he liked aluminium. The functional eco features of his 1983 house can be read clearly from the brutalist exterior and sits perfectly in the landscape. It’s a slow reveal as you enter to the 180-degree views of the Grampians. The interior is based on Indian Havelis that allow cross ventilation with rooms divided by low walls that do not extend all the way to the ceiling. A brutal natural granite two-sided fireplace takes central focus in the living areas. The walls are decorated with early designs, his daughter’s paintings, rich textiles and the work of [another Australian Art Deco hero] his relative Percy Trompf’s iconic posters.  The Grampians follow you through the house and you can feel the spirituality of country.

 Over a cup of tea, we learn that due to Vanne’s poor health, the farm has been sold and they are moving to Hamilton. On the way out, Vanne’s wife Judy says how thrilled he was to hear that his little house in Kyneton is being lived in and loved.
We decide to spend some time in Hamilton before returning to Kyneton and stumble upon what at first looked like a white landlocked tugboat bursting out of an embankment and that early thrill of unexpectedly finding a great Art Deco masterpiece came flooding back. 

Percy Everett’s building is in the grounds of the Hamilton Base Hospital and one of the nurses explained that it was originally a tuberculosis “chalet”. It is only after probing Professor Google that Percy’s epic story as chief architect of the Victorian Public Works Department from 1934 to 1953 is revealed.
The TB sanatorium, one of a number that Percy designed, was for the use of 14 patients and all the design elements are purely functional from the tubular X Ray room to the ramps and the semi open fully glazed northern orientation. It was built in 1944-5 but by 1947 Tuberculosis had found a cure and while many of the other Chalet have gone this little tugboat that could, in my opinion the most playful and personal of his buildings, is thankfully fully conserved and serving the community as a modern rehabilitation centre. Percy’s career is too important for an amateur like me to summarise here but a look at Rohan Storey’s collation of Percy Everett’s greatest hits on the link below will reveal how important his work is to the architectural fabric of Victoria. Who is going to write the Everett book?
Postscript: Sadly, Vanne Trompf died in 2017.  

This was published in Spirit of Progress the Journal of the Art deco and Modernist Society of Australia Spring 2018


Friday 5 January 2018

A Matter of Taste

Its 1974 I’m sitting on the stairs at the old Joel’s Auction rooms in McKillop Street Melbourne waiting for a lot to come up. In those days the most extraordinary stuff turned up for sale and that day it was a job-lot of about 300 political cartoons that belonged to Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ private secretary Percy Deane . I had spent the last 24 hours trying to work out how I was going to get the money to buy this most important collection. By the next day I had reconciled having to let it go and waited to see how much interest they would bring. As the lot came up the bidding stalled at $750 and before I knew it I had bought the collection for $800 thinking it would surely go for thousands?? I wrote a cheque and realised I had until Monday [Joel’s are still selling on Thursdays] to cover the cheque. My first call was to show them to my friend and “go to guy” for cartoons Vane Lindesay the great Australian Black and White artist and historian whose cartoons graced Australasian Post and many other publications. 

Vane was over the moon to see them and explained how important the collection was but he was also not in a position to buy them but offered to swap me two of them for two original Leunigs an offer that I could not resist. At the time I had a shop in Collins street that specialised in Art Deco, Australiana and ephemera. Barry Humphries was a good customer. He collected Australiana and I went up to the Windsor where he was living at the time and left a note for him to ring as soon as he got back. By Saturday afternoon I had no word from Barry and I went to see my friend Ann Turner [History professor Ian Turner’s wife] for some advice as to how not to be arrested for cheque fraud.  Ann was a fixer and she rang Cliff Pugh who said bring them over. Cliff bought the collection and I managed to keep 2 of them. One was a Will Dyson pastel portrait of Gerald du Maurier drawn as a magician in a tux pulling a rabbit out of a hat [subsequently stolen in a burglary] and this wonderful David Low cartoon of Billy Hughes and fat “friend”. I liked the joke but always thought there was more to the story than the “Why worry about it” punchline.
After Cliff bought the lot and told me he would donate the collection to the various galleries that had a geographical or political connection to the drawings. He was that sort of man a mensch.
 Good result. Vane had two for his collection I had two wonderful Leunigs and a Dyson, this David Low and the rest of the collection would go to where it was meant to be.
Fast forward [fuck its 43 years!] to a couple of months ago when Diane noticed that historian Ross McMullin was giving a talk at the Kyneton Library about Pompey Elliot He was a great presenter and after the talk I bought his book about Chris Watson Australia’s third Prime minister “So Monstrous a Travesty” the story of the first national Labour government in the world. Great book
In the second chapter we hear about his choosing a ministry that would include two future prime ministers Andrew Fisher and Billy Hughes.  His choice of Senate leader was Gregor Mc Gregor who had lost most of his sight in a logging accident while working as a labourer [good working-class politician] but had a remarkable memory “he buttressed his vigorous speeches with streams of memorised statistics’. This ex wrestler [also good training for politics] “had become plump to the point of stoutness with a massive square shaped head”
That’s when the penny dropped Billy Hughes’  dining companion was revealed to be no other than blind Gregor McGregor.
So finally, another level of politically incorrect comment was revealed in the “joke” that now still has a resonance and truth in the madness that the “modernist” food world has become.
So why worry about it?

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Gyuri could you go down to Acland street and get some……

We were in Erdotelek about 75 km from Budapest when the fireworks went off in October 56 but Dad was stuck in the city and he spent the revolution quietly in the cellar of the Astoria hotel and the Emke Kavekhaz in Budapest. When the dust settled things moved very quickly. After a couple of aborted attempts at being smuggled across the border by those who would now be termed people smugglers, we managed to get out of Hungary with the help of my fathers’ sisters’ family who were already living in St. Kilda. We slipped through the curtain in April 57.
As soon as we arrived in Melbourne Acland Street became the Main Street of our new lives. After about a year in a shared house with another Hungarian couple in East Kilda we moved into the Sur la Mer block of flats opposite Luna Park; about as close as you could get to Acland street and far far away from the chaos and pain of Budapest.
St. Kilda and Acland street as its nucleus, was a magic playground to a young new arrival. We had left everything behind but my parents still carried a lot of heavy baggage. I joined a loose gang of immigrant urchins, most of who were also enrolled at Brighton Road primary school. We learned to keep shtum and out of the way just watching the grownup rituals quietly from the wings occasionally playing the go between.  Our playgrounds were now not the dark streets of Budapest, Warsaw, and Berlin but Acland Street surrounded by the Palais, The Victory, St. Moritz and South Pacific all of which we could enter by secret lore known only to the street. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of this village of emigres made the huge culture shock easier for my parents. St. Kilda provided true asylum.
My crowd were the little ones, we were all under 10 and as youngsters we collected Tarax and other drink bottles around the beach that carried small deposits you could redeem at Acland street Milk Bars. This foraging kept us in pocket money and the beaches clean. We also collected bottle tops that had hidden letters under the cork revealing clues to prizes. We would sit at the peanut farm swapping bottle tops and playing alleys.  
All our family food came from the many butchers, bakers, fruiterers and delicatessen on the street. Only Peter Gruners’ butcher shop [GONE] and the Monarch remain from those days. Our Hungarian tribal clubhouse was the Flamingo a slightly risqué but friendly café restaurant. It had a different personality depending on the time of day. Early in the morning it was shift workers having breakfast, at weekend lunches it was tourists and families. Early in the evening many local families would gather to eat together before starting their second jobs. Later in the evening the young singles strutted in their fifties finery. Although we were allowed out at night I was told never to go there after 10pm The Flamingo had a killer jukebox dead centre as you walked in, a café bar with a big eszpreszo machine on the right, a small dining room on the left and a pool hall with two full sized billiard tables out the back. It was a Hungarian but not specifically Jewish cafe and there was no anti-Semitism. The Australian locals who had immediately embraced the Porkolt and schnitzel were our sounding boards for the new language. On Sunday mornings it became the stamp club with a large core membership of middle aged men sitting around communal tables drinking coffee and peering into magnifying glasses trading stamps and talking politics.  I learned to love rock and roll from that jukebox and the facts of life in the back room under the billiard tables. 

My mother opened a strudel shop in the old market on the corner of Acland street and Barkly street roughly where the supermarket now stands. She had two small Early Kooka stove/ovens and a large wooden table where she stretched her ethereal pastry much to the delight of the locals. Poppy seeds could be bought freshly ground just as they still are today at Gruners’ but Morello cherries only came in tins, it would take another 50 years for them to be available fresh. She made both savoury strudel like cabbage and caraway, also sweet like cottage cheese and sultanas but my favourite was the one with poppy seeds and cherries. The secret of her paper thin pastry lay in her tender touch learned from her mother and a little lemon juice in the pastry. She also made a fine walnut chocolate cake that I have continued to make for over forty years in her memory.

 The market had a large central fruit stall with small shops set around the edges. Her shop was only one of two that was enclosed and it had windows facing into the centre at the back of the market. It was the least visible site. The shop next door was vacant. The rents were cheap and the whole street in fact served well as a start-up hub for the New Australians. There was a side entrance to Coles from the market where most of our school stationary and accessories came from. Cosmos Bookshop was where Readings now stands and it had a small section of Hungarian books that my mother and sister constantly checked for new arrivals. They also provided a book exchange for the expats.  I got my hair cut by one of two traditional Australian barbers who made us feel grown up by shaving our sideboards and necks with a cut-throat razor way before we grew any fuzz. Suddenly the Flamingo disappeared and the Hungarians moved to the Excellent and later there was a split between this, the Miami and The Balaton. The juke box and billiard tables were gone but there was a room for traditional Hungarian card players upstairs. The card game was a Hungarian form of bridge played by three people called Ulti where, put very simply, to win the game you had to take the last trick with the lowest trump. This concept epitomised the Magyar psyche. I loved the look of the cards The suits were the seasons and the court cards were all characters like William Tell and other mythical heroes and heroines.  I would kibitz by my fathers’ side bringing coffee, snacks and changing ashtrays while they talked of the old and the new. Often after the game a group would come home to enjoy a late Sunday lunch cooked by my mother. There was an air of optimism.  

 My father soon opened a small fruit shop in the street with a friend who had also left Hungary after the Russian “liberation”. They had an FJ ute and I was occasionally allowed to accompany him very early in the morning to the Victoria market which was then also the wholesale market to get supplies. I have never lost the love of that place.
Being asked to get something from Acland street was an adventure. Bread meant a Challah on Fridays On other days a light rye or a Vienna loaf. The Vienna was the signature St. Kilda loaf a large slow risen low yeast loaf with a shiny thin crisp crust that I now recognise as being the result of steam injection at the end of the bake. Delicatessens like the Budapest, the Edelweiss and the Benedykt provided all the continental culinary essentials. From paprika, yeast, salami, dill pickles to smelly Esrom and Tilsit cheeses. The culinary groundwork had already been made by those lucky enough to have got out of Europe early. Mum made most things from scratch but the convenience of dried noodles, pickled herring, sauerkraut and such enabled her to cook as she had in Budapest while still working full time. You could even get live chickens and unlaid egg yolks or oocytes at the kosher poultry shop. The whole family cooked. My father loved the smallgoods and could make wonderful traditional stews. My sister also did a lot of the shopping and cooking as often the oldies worked late. Later when I left home to a shared house in Park Street ironically only 100meters again from Acland street. I realised that I could cook without having had any formal instructions.
 The first non-European restaurant I went to was the Tientsin. The iconic circular entrance announced a dark wood panelled 1960’s film set interior, imaginings of an elegant exotic room where flavours so foreign to my limited experience often left me bewildered. As we got older we lived in many other flats around the Belle and except for a short stint in South Caulfield we never strayed further than Dickens Street. This short exile introduced me to a new group of friends from much wider backgrounds. But soon we were back in the hood to our OYO apartment in Mitford Street just a hundred metres from the Belle. My parents continued to live there for the rest of their lives.
  We soon graduated to the Black Rose Cafe where over dishes like Rinsroulenden [beef olives] we could listen to the finest modern Jazz that the owners would play all night. They collected rare records that we would covet and try to find later. Here as junior beatniks in skivvies and tight pants we discussed the books our older siblings were reading, the Vietnam war, or the latest Dylan album while pretending to be grownups drinking short back coffees amongst the very bohemian older clientele. The Black Rose would also be where we would adjourn to after a night at the Melbourne Film Festival to discuss films like the Seventh Seal or the latest Goddard. Late night munchies came from the hamburger joint on the corner of Carlisle Street and Acland street where Greasy Joes would reign for many years. They had a carefully polished mirror grill manned by a master. After each order he would meticulously bring back the shine no matter how busy they were. By the time the Fairy Stork opened our palates had learned to love exotic Asian flavours.
  I would often wander in to the makeshift film studio at the back of the RSL where commercials and later television shows were filmed and wondered at the magical modernity of show biz. The movie On The Beach had just been filmed in Melbourne and there was a mock nuclear submarine sideshow built on to the side of South Pacific the sea baths. One night, hearts pumping with adrenalin we painted a ban the bomb sign on its side. Over Felafel and thick coffee, we listened to the news of the Six Day War with the Egyptian owners of the café on the corner of Chapel Street and Dandenong Road.  After that day felafels started to get complicated.     
I was heartened by the new wave revival of St. Kilda in the eighties. When my good friend Donlevy Fitzpatrick opened the Dogs Bar another exiting chapter had begun for the street. As the oldies still lived there  I never lost contact with Acland street even when I moved to the country over 30 years ago.  Maximus, The Prince, Daniel Gerrard,  Ciccolina, Spuntino, Greasy Joes Chinta Ria merely added echoes to the legacy of the early Oyster Cafes and Grills of the past.
My family table and the diversity of Acland Street provided the inspiration to me for a life in restaurants and I believe all the people who brought their traditions and took the risk of presenting them on this extraordinary little street throughout all decades played a very important role in the development of a cosmopolitan culinary culture in Melbourne.

Excerpt from Judith Buckrich's new book   Acland Street the Grand Lady of St Kilda  available all good bookshops and of course  Readings  review here