The bingo players were getting restless. They'd been waiting for John Ash to finish his cooking demo in the Crystal Harmony's rose-pink amphitheater. Ash's hour was up, and he was still putting the final touches on his soft-shell-crab tempura salad with walnut-oil vinaigrette. "This oil will drive you out of your mind. It will leave you writhing on the floor and speaking in tongues," he said as he whirled the dressing in a blender. The bingo players didn't care. They wanted him out. Ash's fans, however, would have none of it. While he tried to make a polite exit, they stormed the stage. Bingo would have to wait.
This battle of wills took place on the seventh day of an 11-day luxury cruise around Australia and New Zealand. John Ash, one of the founders of California cuisine, who now lectures on food-and-wine pairings as the culinary director of Fetzer Vineyards, had been invited on board as a guest chef. This would be his first time Down Under, and while he wasn't exactly writhing on the floor and speaking in tongues, he was certainly excited. "There's so much happening in Australia and New Zealand," he told me. "There's an explosion of interest in food--it reminds me of California 20 or 30 years ago." I'd been hearing the same thing and wanted to investigate.
Like California chefs, the cooks of these countries meld Mediterranean and Pacific Rim influences, with an emphasis on terrifically fresh produce and seafood. As in the Mediterranean, olive oil is key (Australia has even begun making its own) and wine is a part of daily life. As for the Asian presence, bul kogi, a Korean dish of beef wrapped in lettuce leaves, is now as Australian as the Pavlova, a dessert created in the Twenties to honor the ballerina Anna Pavlova.