• Even a simple toastie can trigger a flashback. (Getty Images)
Helen Razer takes a (booze-aided) trip through her food memories.
Helen Razer

28 Feb 2018 - 12:02 AM  UPDATED 15 Nov 2018 - 9:52 AM

Adult life is the attempt to resolve all the memories of childhood.

This thought may be adapted from those of a writer, but I heard it first from a chef. She was a good chef, too, and one, at the time, besotted with culinary experiments. When she wasn’t talking foams, films or Ferran Adrià, she was considering the emotional power of food.

Back in that molecular age, cooks were just as busy thinking about emotions and memories as they were with popping things in liquid nitrogen. “Food memory” – that is, the strange ability of flavour to recover lost moments from life – was a big deal last decade, and we saw chefs like Heston Blumenthal recreate grown-up versions of things remembered from the past.

So, this is how me and the chef found ourselves talking about childhood at 3AM in a Taylor Square pub in Sydney's Darlinghurst.

It is possible that everyone in that pub was talking about childhood – what else is there to chat about at 3AM? When any of us is a little, ahem, tired, childhood is often where we land.

There we were describing our childhoods out loud. Well, I was describing mine – “I was such a special little lady and no one understood me”, etc. Chef was describing it with much more focus and reason. She was very keen on taking diners from multiple cultures to a memory of their past, and at around 3.30, I became keen on the idea of chicken shawarma.

It is possible that everyone in that pub was talking about childhood – what else is there to chat about at 3AM? When any of us is a little, ahem, tired, childhood is often where we land.

The next morning – by which we obviously mean “afternoon” – me and an uneaten shawarma found ourselves together on the sofa with no clear memory of where we had met. In not remembering much, I half-remembered the discussion of memory, and of food.

“Did Chef really say she planned to produce appetisers with a 3D-printer?” I wondered. And then, my head started hurting, so I returned to the business of feeling misty about my culinary child.

I remembered sitting in a place called the El Toro Coffee Lounge. This suburban joint, adjacent to a bus depot, remains my threshold memory of dining sophistication. It was there I first encountered the luxury of table service and found that not every adult with a plate in their hand was obliged to remind a kid to eat their greens. It was there I first saw candles that were not only bigger than those on a birthday cake, but so cleverly placed in spent Italian wine bottles. Oh, the chic maturity of it all. I was overcome.

Recently, on one of my dining excursions with Dad, I asked if he remembered the El Toro. Very much, he did, he said. It was a special day. Didn’t I recall that we were there to celebrate his first pay rise? Workers used to get those in the seventies.

Did I remember what I ate? Of course I did, I told him. It was an amuse-bouche with the menu name of “Mexican toast”. I cannot taste melted cheese, ham and onion these days without experiencing the sense of fine-dining.

Did I remember what I ordered? Well, obviously, “Mexican toast”.

Apparently not. Me and my three-year-old sister had been permitted to order whatever we fancied. Meg said, “owives” – she was one of those toddlers who preferred olives, chilli or any big flavour to kid-food and, yes, she’s now a chef. 

I had asked for, “roast pork, please sir, and a pot of strong tea”. He and Mum had laughed. I was such a pompous child.

And now, decades later, I like to think of myself as a down-to-earth diner, as impatient with the “food memory” that elite chefs like René Redzepi talk about on TV.

This is the memory I was struggling to resolve! At six, I was very pretentious.

Helen Razer is your frugal food enthusiast, guiding you to the good eats, minus the pretension and price tag in her weekly Friday column, Cheap Tart. Don't miss her next instalment, follow her on Twitter @HelenRazer. 

Don't miss her next instalment, follow her on Twitter @HelenRazer.


Eat grilled cheese toasties and watch Noma My Perfect Storm:


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