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New Year's Ease

In Melbourne, a chef finds the antidote to millennium madness: a small, perfect dinner party at home

While no one seems to agree on where--or even when--the new millennium will first dawn, travelers around the world are risking censure from the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England (the place at which, it was agreed in 1884, the universal day would begin) and making plans, come January 1, to watch the sun rise in the Antipodes.

Not surprisingly, in the South Pacific, the competition for these tourists is stiff. Indeed, the residents of Kiribati had the international date line shifted--only to be upstaged by both the Fijian and Tongan governments, who introduced daylight saving time to beat out New Zealand as the millennium hot spot. All of this is in stark contrast to Australia, where the overriding concern is not time but taste, especially in Melbourne, which is preparing for the meal of the millennium.

You see, Melbourne is food obsessed, a passion evidenced in the 4,000 restaurants and cafés that service a population of just over 3 million. Unlike Sydney's chefs, with their exuberant fusion cooking, Melbourne's chefs have turned their passion toward refining what the local food critics dub Modern British cuisine, a manifestation of an unofficial culinary exchange program between London and Melbourne. Top Melbourne chefs are regularly poached by London restaurateurs, who love the Aussie flair for innovation unencumbered by tradition, while Melbourne's top kitchens continue to be invaded by legions of British chefs trained in France who relish opportunities they don't have back home.

Chef Jeremy Strode epitomizes the Melbourne food sensibility. An admittedly manic and driven member of the ever-growing Brit pack, Strode arrived in Melbourne from London in 1992 "with an expectant wife wanting to nest in her hometown," he says, and made his way through such respected restaurants as Brown's, The George Cafe and the Adelphi before deciding in early 1998 "that it was time to put the key in my own door." Together with front-of-the-house partner Chris Young, Strode has taken a trifling 18 months to turn Pomme--a name that alludes to both the traditional French style of his mentors Roger Vergé, Pierre Koffmann and the Roux brothers and to the Australian nickname for the British--into one of the city's best restaurants. In its pairing of minimalist design with a daily changing menu that pays homage to such French classics as consommé and coq au vin, Pomme cleverly reflects Melbourne's contradictory personality.

Since this new venture has forced Strode to spend much time away from his family (wife Virginia Dowzer, a co-owner of Pomme and a fashion designer, and seven-year-old son Max), he is emphatic about spending New Year's Eve at home. Home for now is a white-washed apartment with miles of molding and impossibly high ceilings. The space encompasses eight rooms in a former hotel, The George, a landmark turn-of-the-century bayside retreat for the well-heeled that had degenerated into an opium den in the Twenties, a house of sin in the Sixties and a squatter's stronghold in the Eighties, before being reborn as a mecca for the young and the cool in the Nineties.

"But don't for a minute think he's hanging up the apron on New Year's Eve," Dowzer cautions. "Food is an all-consuming passion and it doesn't stop after working hours." This is why a small but typically Melbourne mix of art, fashion and food friends (including British chef Martin Webb, who will be the food and beverage manager at the Mansion Hotel in Werribee Park when it opens in Melbourne, and Scottish-born artist David Band, who created the covers for the New Year's Eve dinner menus, as well as some of the paintings on the walls of the loft) gather around the Strode family dining table for a fabulous end-of-millennium repast.

While working within the framework of classical French cooking, Strode prefers local ingredients: his rich and salty gougère puffs feature Tasmanian Gruyère, and his lobster broth infused with porcini is drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil pressed in the neighboring state of South Australia. The main course of boned chicken legs stuffed with a delicate herb-flecked mousse shows Strode at his best, concealing a complexity of technique with a simplicity of presentation. It appears to be plain poached chicken with a few vegetables--until that first bite.

For Strode, the bottom line is that "each ingredient must connect." He won't attempt to fuse a dozen improbably matched ingredients on one plate. "I will always stop at two or three things," he says. Thus his individual warm apple charlottes--constructed with an architectural minimalism--are offset with a simple scoop of cinnamon ice cream.

"It's a mad passion, isn't it?" Strode laughs, as he contemplates his preferred activity--cooking--for the big night off. This meal with ex-pats reminds Martin Webb of past New Year's Eves: "Just think how chilly this night might be if we were in London." "Mmm," intones the group as Strode pours a round of Champagne. "Here's to the lucky country," he rejoins as everyone raises their glasses.

Text by Annemarie Kiely, Melbourne editor for Belle, an Australian lifestyle magazine.

Published January 2000
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