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Sunday, February 28, 2010

A look back at Launceston's Fee & Me

While I was cleaning up my computer yesterday I came across some articles I wrote a couple of years ago, including this one about Launceston culinary institution Fee & Me.  Fee & Me shut its doors for the last time in late 2009, after 20 years and countless awards. I contemplated editing this article as a retrospective, but I thought it best to run the article just as it was written originally - it's how I remember Fee and Peter. 

An old recipe for new success

It has been almost 20 years since Fiona Hoskins and Peter Crowe began their Launceston restaurant Fee & Me, a business venture that formed from a love of fine food and exceptional produce.

Over the last 20 years Fee & Me has accumulated an awards list long enough to make any restaurateur jealous. Since opening, the restaurant has been nominated for, and received many awards for the quality of its food, service, and wine list including: Best Australian Restaurant of the Year in the 2000 American Express Awards and Best Tasmanian Restaurant in the 2001, 2002 and 2003 American Express Awards. More recently, Fee & Me has received a place in Fodor's Top 100 Eating Places in the World every year since 2003.

But executive chef Hoskins and maitre d Crowe say there is no secret to their success, they just do it for the love of it – their success was just an unexpected, though inevitable, bonus.

It was a series of happy accidents that led to the pair becoming the owners and operators of the most successful restaurant in Tasmania in the '90s. Fee & Me is a restaurant that is renown worldwide and revered by locals, and is still the pride and joy of the two long-term Launceston residents.

The couple both worked in hospitality when younger to support their university studies, an industry they would keep coming back to over the years. The idea of owning their own restaurant was always on their minds, and the pair would often to go to restaurant auctions, just to keep abreast of who owned what, and what was a success or a failure.

Hoskins, a former primary school teacher, and Crowe, a former accountant, bicker playfully in disagreement, over if they came to own Fee & Me by accident. The first version of Fee & Me, on the corner of Kingsway and York streets, was "going for a song," says Crowe. They pair won the auction under the reserve price, and suddenly became responsible for their own restaurant, which for Crowe had been a lifelong dream.

Crowe insists that they never intended to run a "fine dining" restaurant, accidentally earning the label by putting tablecloths on the tables to hide their battered surfaces. "In 1989, tablecloths set you apart from causal dining," says Crowe. They still use the same tables bought with the premises at auction, along with many of the other fittings.

In the beginning, Hoskins only intended to fill in here and there while she worked out what she wanted to do in the long term. She was a jack-of-all-trades, jumping in where and when needed, from dishwashing and waiting tables, to pushing around the vacuum if the cleaner was off sick.

It wasn't long before Hoskins – who has no formal chefs training – was playing around in the kitchen, in the early days giving the professional chefs her personal recipes to adapt for the restaurant menu. A little trial and error later, Hoskins was creating many of the dishes on the menu, and had begun working her way towards a chef's position by watching and learning. "I have always loved cooking, always," says Hoskins.

Hoskins eventually began what she describes as an informal apprenticeship – under then head chef Mark Lunnon. "Once I had him (Lunnon) talking about food, you couldn't shut him up, so he told me everything, and taught me everything he knew."

One evening, with 94 people booked into the restaurant, most of the kitchen staff came down sick with a mystery virus. Hoskins had no choice but to jump in and cook for almost 100 people, and has never looked back. "We haven't been able to get her out of the kitchen since," jokes Crowe.

Much of the fame and attention for Fee & Me has stemmed from their unique degustation style menu, a system still in place today. The menu is divided into five brackets of dishes, all entrée size. The menu selection begins with lighter items – like pan fried trevalla with beetroot hummus, cumin and yoghurt salad and a pomegranate dressing – and moves to richer, more filling items – like the spring lamb loin with pumpkin puree and crisp potato garnish.

The menu is designed so the customer can put together their own dining experience without the restrictions of a traditional degustation, where the chef will choose set dishes for the meal. Hoskins and Crowe say they created their menu as a reflection of the way they like to dine. "We thought 'wait on a minute, we can't be the only people in the world who want to eat like this', that it must be possible to have small courses but choose what you want to have," says Hoskins.

Crowe is responsible for the award winning wine list, where wines by the glass are helpfully divided into sections to match the menu. He says that they intend the dining experience to be unique every time, by letting the customers design their own experience. 

Crowe and Hoskins consistently seek the freshest high quality ingredients. "If we get a great product, the cooking is easy, just don't ruin it," Crowe says. Seasonal and local produce is used in the kitchen when available, and they prefer organic or natural products when feasible.

Hoskins also recently signed the GM free chef's charter for Tasmania, opposing the use of genetically modified products in her kitchen. The charter, a Greenpeace initiative, calls for the thorough labeling of all food products containing genetically modified ingredients, and opposes the introduction of genetically modified canola in New South Wales and Victoria.

Life for Hoskins is not just restricted to life in the kitchen. With the restaurant running consistently, she is now able to step back and pursue other interests, like saving the Tasmanian Devil.

Hoskins has been working as a volunteer with the Devil Island Project, which she says is her way of giving something back to the community that has given endlessly to her.

"Tassie has been good to me. I love it here. I love Tasmania, I love the seasons, I just think it’s a beautiful place," she says. Although Crowe insists Hoskins doesn't have much love for the cold Tasmanian winters.

Last year Hoskins ran the London marathon, a yearly fundraising event for charities.
Hoskins has raised $47,500 to help save the Tasmanian Devil, and has raised almost $200,000 from other fundraising activities with the Devil Island Project.

While the couple now have time to pursue other interests, both insist that there is no end in sight for Fee & Me. "It doesn't really feel like work, because this is what we love," says Crowe.

The restaurant is still going strong today, with a full house more often than not. It is a fine example of dedication and longevity in an industry that is fickle at best, where you are only as good as your last review.

Fiona Hoskins and Peter Crowe don't care for the critics these days, most of which were instrumental to their initial success. They know that most would now consider them "old news", but they don't mind. "At the moment we don't always please the critics, but we please the customers," says Hoskins.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Eat, Drink, Blog and a friendly award.

I've been invited to speak on the photography panel at Eat Drink Blog, Australia's first ever food blogger's conference, to be held in Melbourne on 21 March. In honor of this, I've made my first ever powerpoint presentation. Luckily the conference is 3 weeks away, so I've got some time to improve on it!

As part of the conference there is a photography compeition, and all Australian bloggers are invited to enter. All you have to do is upload a photo that you have the copyright for, and have blogged about sometime in 2009/10. It's that easy. You can find more information about this via Tomatom, or go straight to the Flickr page. There is already some great shots up, I'm very impressed (and feeling a little inadequate)! It's also sponsored by SBS Food, so thank's SBS, you're all kinds of awesome.

And this blog has received an award, courtesy of The Raw Noodle (aka Ranita). I'm not quite sure what this means. But I'm a pretty over the top person in general - so I graciously accept. Thanks to the Raw Noodle for thinking of me.

Here is my award:

Ranita has asked me to answer a series of questions, as well as pass on this award to six other bloggers I would like to know more about.
  1. Where is your cell phone? Charging
  2. Your hair? Unwashed
  3. Your mother? Driven
  4. Your father? Relaxed
  5. Your favourite food? Cheese
  6. Your dream last night? Forgotten
  7. Your favourite drink? Beer
  8. Your dream/goal? Newspapers
  9. What room are you in? Bedroom
  10. Your hobby? Blogging
  11. Your fear? Driving
  12. Where do you want to be in six years? Melbourne
  13. Where were you last night? Pub
  14. Something that you aren’t? Confident
  15. Muffins? Gag
  16. Wish list item? Shoes
  17. Where did you grow up? Balnarring
  18. Last thing you did? Shop
  19. What are you wearing? Glasses
  20. Your TV? Off
  21. Your pets? Imaginary
  22. Friends? Random
  23. Your life? Unusual
  24. Your mood? Content
  25. Missing someone? Indeed
  26. Vehicle? Feet
  27. Something you’re not wearing? Perfume
  28. Your favourite store? Grocery 
  29. Your favourite colour? Crimson
  30. When was the last time you laughed? Today
  31. Last time you cried? Commercials
  32. Your best friend? Generous
  33. One place that I go to over and over? Dumpling World
  34. One person who emails me regularly? Journalist
  35. Favourite place to eat? Outdoors
The bloggers I would like to pass on the Over the Top award to are:

The Kitchen of Queen La La
Tummy Rumbles 
Melbourne Gastronome
Pikelet and Pie
Food Trail

Okay, that's all from me for today. Don't forget to go and check out the Eat Drink Blog webpage!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Good dog, bad coffee

I'm dog sitting this weekend. Pip asked very nicely this morning to be taken out for a coffee and a ham and cheese croissant. Pip always gets what she wants. Lucky pooch.

We headed off to La Torta 310 (formerly Cafe Cardamom, formerly something else no one ever went to). We had coffee. We had a ham and cheese croissant. We had another coffee. I tell you, Pip was infinetly more impressed than I was.

La Torta is extremely dog friendly. Pip got not one, but two dog biscuits. The courtyard area if perfect for pooches: large, secluded and sunny.

After briefly considering the breakfast menu (that I couldn't really order off anyway because the chef was out making a wholesale delivery and wouldn't be back for half an hour) I agreed with Pip that a ham and cheese croissant was infinetly the safest option.

The menu was a typographical nightmare. Perhaps someone behind the scenes thinks using randomly placed bold type is pleasing on the eye, but they are very wrong. Together with more commas, colons and exclamation marks for a whole restaurant strip (the word Yummy!! does not belong on a menu) I was suitably frightened.

This is Pip. Pip likes anything people eat, walks, sleeping under the blankets and leaving white hairs on my black clothes. Pip dislikes flies, rain and guide dogs.

My first latte was lukewarm and flavorless. Distinctly below average. The second was a slight improvement. I'd put this lack of quality down to the friendly, yet largely untrained waitstaff. Okay, I don't really know how untrained they are. I'm making an assumption. But I think the likely hood of any member of staff taking on the job title of "barista" in this venue would be slight. 

Dirty cutlery anyone?

La Torta is a bakery, so most menu items are made on-site. The above croissant was light and fluffy, just about perfect I'd say. It's just a shame that it was cold in the middle, containing too much cheese and giving me flash-backs to the kind of mass-produced cheddar found in hospitals and high school canteens. My cutlery was also covered in smudged fingerprints, clearly having been handled by a number of people (or one very greasy person) before it reached the plate.

We decided to clear off then the live accoustic music started. It was all a bit much for me at 9am on a Saturday morning. Thank goodness I didn't have a hangover or the very noisy and offensively bold manageress would have driven me completly mental, as good as her intentions were.

La Torta 310
310 Elisabeth St
(03) 6234 3112
Closed Sundays

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Chado - doing it the right way


Melbourne and Sydney are currently under the spell of the "third wave movement" of coffee making. New techniques and new standards are being embraced to evolve coffee drinking into a sensory experience. $40,000 coffee machines are the drawcard for cafés like St Ali or Proud Mary in Melbourne, where a cup of the good stuff could set you back anywhere from $4 to $14 – it's a café revolution.

In Hobart we do things a little bit differently. For 18 months now we have been quietly experiencing a tea revolution.

Chado - The Way of Tea, on the quiet part of Elizabeth Street, Hobart, is an unassuming place. Deceptive in size it offers nothing from the outside that might tempt one in other that the promise of a hot pot of tea and the sounds of the shakuhachi flute drifting from the inside onto the street.

There is an air of tranquillity, most likely feeding of the relaxed nature of the gentle waitresses and the wall to wall tea – for who ever drinks tea if not for the purposes of feeling soothed and relaxed?


It is owned and run by local musician and former bassist of alternative rock band the Violent Femmes, Brian Ritchie, and his wife Varuni Kulasekara. Split over two levels, but mostly using the downstairs space, Chado is a teahouse, not a restaurant. While most of us would go to a restaurant and order a drink with our meal, Chado is the place to order tea with food on the side.

In the menu, one page for lunch, with no more than eight items on offer, and 22 pages of different teas. The booklet reads more like an encyclopaedia than a menu. The tea is listed via country of origin then variety with thorough descriptions on taste, aroma and history. The words "spoilt for choice" are an understatement.

All priced according to rarity and quality, all the teas are brewed at a specific temperature for a prescribed time, then brought to you with further instructions. My companion and I were informed that our tea had been steeping for one minute and thirty seconds, therefore it would need only another 30 seconds before we should poor the whole amount into a second pot so it would not become bitter as we drank. We were also given a small thermos of water (at exactly 85 degrees I was told) to pour into the tealeaf pot when we were ready for more tea, which on this occasion was an Anji Bai Pian (Zhejiang) at $5 per pot, $7 for two people.

The small lunch menu offers two meal varieties, a bento box (a Japanese style lunch box) or donburi (rice bowl). I found the menu written with too little detail, although our waitress happily explained to us what came with our meals beyond written descriptors like Cape Grim beef, grilled salmon, natto (fermented soy beans) or organic silken tofu.

The donburi option is a smaller version of the bento box, and my choice for this particular visit to Chado. Priced at $14.50, a good sized piece of Tasmanian salmon came warm and crisp, marinated in mirin, sake, miso and soy on a bed of sticky, fluffy rice, adorned with chilled (and deliciously slippery) pickled cucumber, mushroom and what I suspect was radish.

Our meals were prepared for us by Tetsuya trained chef Luke Burgess, on the last few days of a month long guest appearance in the Chado kitchen, who was brought on board to help streamline the back of house.

In Luke's month long secondment, he stripped back the menu to eliminate long wait times for meals, training Varuni and two young staff members to fill his position after his departure. Time will tell if his kitchen legacy leaves a lasting impression.

Varuni and Brian are considering opening for two nights a week during the autumn season for dinner, and with the addition of a liquor license would serve sake with a slightly modified dinner menu. I would personally love to see shabu shabu (Japanese-style hot pot) cooked on the tables and washed down with a lot of cold Sapporo beer. But I do like to dream.

Chado is not just a lunch space, but also a retail outlet. Brian and Varuni regularly travel through Asia sourcing teas and their assorted paraphernalia. We "seat shopped" (a bit like window shopping but from your chair) for hand made tea pots from China and Japan, Sri Lanka and Taiwan while we ate, and before long had convinced ourselves that the purchase of new tea sets would be compulsory. How had we ever lived without them prior?

All of the teas are available to purchase by weight, each coming with instructions on the correct brewing temperature and time (it's enough to make you want to buy a kettle that boil water at five different temperatures). A number of local restaurants and cafes also purchase Chado tea to serve in their venues including Pigeon Hole in West Hobart, Morilla Chalets, the Islington Hotel and Chicchio in Salamanca.

After a year and a half on the Hobart scene Chado seems to be making some definite improvements. They are certainly trailblazers (in Tasmania at least), offering a truly unique experience for Hobartians and our many visitors. I'm looking forward to seeing this business expand and assimilate itself further into the Hobart lifestyle, and in the mean time I'm off to buy a very fancy kettle. What temperature does water boil at again?

Chado – The Way of Tea
134 Elizabeth St
Phone: (03) 6231 6411

Open Tue-Fri 10am until 5pm

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ten things to do while waiting for a dinner date who is never on time

  1. Stuff around on Twitter
  2. Re-read the Mercury
  3. Smoke many cigarettes
  4. Fantasise about holiday to China
  5. Read the food secions from the NY Times and the Guardian on iPhone
  6. Chat to strangers
  7. Peel label off beer bottle
  8. Check sky for rainclouds
  9. Look at door
  10. Wish you had gone home to have a nap as well
Curses to you Turner. Lucky you are such good company.

We did eventually make it to Piccolo in North Hobart. You can see the pictures here.

Things have been a bit quiet in the last two weeks as I have been in Melbourne. You can see those pictures here. There were a couple of highlights:

  • Mezzo Bar and Grill (formerly Oyster Little Bourke) was nothing short of brilliance. Go there. Now.
  • Proud Mary in Collingwood really does make the best coffee I have had in a very long time
  • Camp Shanghai Dumpling is still as ridiculous as it ever was, and next time I will go to Hutong.
  • The Ron Mueck exhibition at the NGV International is stunning, and worth a trip from Hobart for it. It runs until April.
I know I don't usually write up recipies or cooking attempts, but shortly I will attemp to make and blog about:

  • A perfect souflee
  • Bahn-mi
  • Baked eggs
  • Salt cod croquettas
And in other news:

  • Stingray Seafoods in North Hobart is currently under renovation and will soon become Mako Seafoods. I'm rather hoping this is a dramatic improvement.
  • Tom from Piccallily is heading off to Gordon Ramsay's new venture, Maze, in Melbourne. Piccallily are looking for a suitably talented replacement, and I'm sure Tom leaves big shoes to fill.
  • Rumour has it that the old Dress Sense store in North Hobart is about to become an ice-cream shop, probably part of the Cold Rock chain. A funny time of year the start consruction on an ice-cream shop, but it's just a rumour and I can neither confirm of deny.