Looking at Dandelion’s executive chef and owner Geoff Lindsay, you mightn’t guess his specialty is Vietnamese cuisine. To be fair, for the earlier part of his career, it wasn’t. Like many of the best, Geoff worked in the demanding field of fine dining restaurants, training under the doyenne of Australian cuisine, Stephanie Alexander, and edging his way up to executive chef postings in Hong Kong and Bali. In his hometown, Melbourne, Geoff founded fine dining institution Pearl, which won a remarkable two hats each year under his decade-long tenure which finished in 2010.
It was around that time Geoff realised his cooking instincts were changing; silver service was losing its sheen.
“I wanted to move away from this demanding and expensive pursuit,” Geoff says of his time in the fine dining fast-lane. “And reconnect with what it was I loved about cooking and sharing food.”
Geoff’s passion for cooking was re-invigorated by a trip to South-Asia. Eating abroad, he discovered an unlikely affinity with the flavours, aromas and recipes of Vietnam.
“The food was more than just rice paper rolls and pho,” he recalls of. “It was sophisticated and regional, with street food and imperial cuisine.”
The cuisine’s evocative nature reminded Geoff of why he entered the profession in the first place – “it’s a sensual and personal way to communicate with people,” – and offered a blueprint for his cheffing future. And so in 2011 with the help of his wife Jane, Geoff opened the Melbourne restaurant Dandelion. Injecting traditional recipes with creativity and fine dining finesse, Geoff began to redefine the face of Vietnamese food in Australia. In contrast to the cheap and cheerful eateries many diners were used to, Geoff brought high-quality produce and presentation to the game.
“The thing that makes Dandelion’s food unique and lifts it above your everyday suburban Vietnamese restaurants is that we use the best available ingredients in Australia,” explains Geoff. “[We use] Sher wagyu, Noosa spanner crabs, Hiramasa kingfish, Spring Bay mussels, Crystal Bay prawns, Seven Hills goat, among many others.”
This quality-first strategy has clearly worked. Dandelion is the country’s most awarded Vietnamese restaurant, having racked up six hats in as many years from The Age Good Food Guide.
A raft of influences
There’s no doubt Geoff’s travels through Vietnam helped him in the dishes, too. The current menu, for instance, samples specialties from across the country. You’ll find salads from the picturesque island Phu Quoc, wet curries from the Mekong, and spiced meats from Vietnam’s highlands – home to 54 ethnic minority groups. Looking further afield, Geoff says the influence of neighbouring and colonising countries – such as Portugal, France, China, Lao and Cambodia – are also apparent in the menu.
Back to basics
While there are plenty of complexities in Vietnamese cuisine, Geoff says the ‘fundamental tastes’ can be listed on one hand.
“The five key spices are cassia bark – not cinnamon as is often incorrectly translated – black cardamom, star anise, clove, coriander seeds,” he lists. “These are the key spices in pho and represent the five fundamental tastes and senses or ngũ vị: spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (earth).”