What does Australia’s menu look like? NSW chef Andy Allen and his good mate Ben Milbourne are journeying up the east coast of the country, from Tasmania (Milbourne’s home state) to the tip, to find out.
The country’s extremes in temperature, rich Indigenous food history and multicultural makeup mean that it’s one hell of a road trip.
Allen, who met Milbourne at the first audition for the 2014 series of MasterChef Australia, says the pair hit it off instantly.
“I was just cooking away, being the nervous person I was, and then Benny asks, ‘hey mate, what are you cooking over there?’ From there, we just had an amazing friendship.”
Their on screen bromance speaks for itself; the pair regularly find themselves having to improvise their way out of everything from rough weather to flat tires – situations that, coupled with a rigid production schedule, could test the tightest of bonds.
“Being with your best mate always makes those intense situations not so intense,” Allen tells SBS. “Being on the road for five or six weeks is hard and it’s just great that we can do it together. Whenever one of the guys is stressed or having a bit of a hard time, the other one can talk some sense into him.”
Allen, a former electrician, confesses to trying out for MasterChef as a dare, but says food has always excited him.
Being on the road for five or six weeks is hard and it’s just great that we can do it together.
“I remember getting home from school early and watching cooking shows and thinking of something I wanted to cook, then ringing mum up with a list of ingredients. She’d go and get them and by the time dad was home, dinner would be ready.”
Growing up in Maitland in NSW, 20 minutes west of Newcastle, the chef fondly recalls spearfishing with his parents at their holiday home in Fingal Bay, Port Stephens, on weekends.
“Dad’s signature recipe is beer-battered flathead tails,” Allen says. “It was always that whatever we caught, someone had to cook, and that was kind of a time for me to get in the kitchen and experiment. I now look back at that time and realise how special it was; being a chef, you’re so aware of where your food comes from, so to be able to go out and catch your dinner I feel is a really bloody special thing.”
As well as being a partner in a digital media entertainment company (the same one behind this series), Allen also helped open the third Three Blue Ducks restaurant in June 2016 in Sydney’s Rosebery, with a team including local chefs Darren Robertson and Mark LaBrooy. It’s the third addition to the restaurant’s growing stable that already includes Bronte and Byron Bay.
“The Ducks and I have always been close – I’ve spent a fair bit of time in and out of their kitchen and we always knew we wanted to do something together,” Allen says. “And I’m going to be 100 per cent honest: it’s bloody hard work.”
Raw, straight-up and completely unscripted, watching Andy and Ben Eat Australia feels strangely akin to hanging out with mates on a road trip – mayhem, misadventures and all.
“There’s no bull with the show; there’s no lines, no scripts. As I say in the trailer, everything that can go wrong will go wrong. It’s a journey and I feel viewers will feel they’re on that journey with us.”
"I'll never forget being on the mudflaps just north of Port Douglas and we really wanted some crabs. We met Lincoln there, and he had three spears in his hands; we started walking out on the sandy mangroves and then we got into ankle-deep water. Lincoln told us if we saw a stingray to just stop in our tracks and not do anything. Well, this curious stingray decided to crawl up the foot of our head cameraman and just start sucking on his foot. It was pretty all time."
From abalone diving with Milbourne’s dad in Tasmania to visiting a wild fermentery in Daylesford, to a crab hunting expedition on the mudflats of Cooya Beach in the Tropical North and foraging for quandongs (a native Australian fruit) in the Yorke Peninsula; Andy and Ben cover solid terrain, unearthing little-known produce and local heroes along the way.
Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. It’s a journey and I feel viewers will feel they’re on that journey with us.
“There’s probably been chefs who have been hesitant to use them [Indigenous Australian ingredients] because they’re so foreign to them – they’re in their backyard, but I think they’ve been a bit scared because it is so different. They’re more readily available now, and bloody tasty, textural and beautiful.”
“On numerous occasions, in places like Palm Cove near Cairns, I was like, ‘what’s that? What’s that?’ There was a bounty of ingredients, like banana palm hearts and fresh tamarind, and a lot of great dairy up there, which you don’t even realise.
“This isn’t just another road trip,” Allen says. “We really went into the show with no boundaries. It’s been a cool ride – we’re best mates. I think that’s when you do some of your best work."
Prepare to get your hands dirty when making this finger-licking mud crab dish. Building on classic Asian ingredients including fresh herbs, citrus, sugar and fish sauce, it's a feast for the eyes and mouth.