• What's your Alibi? Sydney gets a plant-based restaurant. (Nikki to)Source: Nikki to
Kimchi dumplings with sesame foam, spicy udon and tempeh sausage and vegan baked raclette? Welcome to Sydney's plant-based restaurant, Alibi.
Lee Tran Lam

22 Mar 2018 - 1:05 PM  UPDATED 27 Mar 2018 - 1:37 PM

Before he was 10, Matthew Kenney’s father would take him out hunting for deer – sure, he wasn’t old enough to be tagging along or taking part, but he was unmistakably keen. Shooting animals on the coast of Maine, America, is not the origin story you’d expect for Kenney – a chef who, nowadays, runs an international vegan empire with venues in Bahrain and Bogota, as well as a plant-based pizzeria in New York. But growing up, Kenney didn’t even have any concept of what vegan food was.

“I don’t even recall knowing what a vegetarian was,” he says with a laugh.

And here we are in 2018, and the brand-new Alibi opens its doors. Located at the Ovolo hotel in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo, this plant-based restaurant will be his first Australian venture. Alibi also openly brags about the fact it’s the only vego hotel restaurant in the country, so far.

To explain how we got to this point, though, we need to rewind back to Kenney’s beginnings – many decades ago – as a chef.

“When I started my culinary career … there were a few vegan restaurants in every city, but they weren’t considered ‘real’ restaurants,” he says. Menus were filled with fish and meat – and he remembers how radical it was when Charlie Trotter, in Chicago, debuted a vegetarian menu in the ’90s.

Kenney’s classical French training meant he was not afraid of deploying butter and other animal fats. But even back then, he’d lean towards lighter, healthier dishes. When he opened his first restaurant, Matthew’s, in 1993 on New York, he cooked Moroccan-spiced crab cakes and crisp red snapper with blood orange onion marmalade, dishes which “stayed on the menu the entire 10 years the restaurant was open”.

As a chef constantly cooking with fish and meat, he wasn’t an obvious candidate to become a vegan. That turning point came via a friend – one known for his extremes. “One day, he decided raw vegan food was really the key to youth and health. So he bought all the best products and all the cleanses, and he only ate at raw restaurants. I made a dinner reservation not knowing he was fully committed to this, as I hadn’t seen him for a few months.” The day before they were meant to meet – at a trendy French-Chinese restaurant – Kenney’s friend declared his raw-food allegiance and requested they go a place called Quintessence instead. “I’d never even heard of it, even though … it was literally four blocks from my house,” says Kenney. “But I went and that experience completely set the tone for the change that I would end up making.”

“It was full on a rainy Monday, which surprised me. They didn’t serve any wine and there was no music that I remember. What I did notice was that everyone in there was glowing,” he says. And while he thought the food was unrefined and the presentation clunky, this raw vegan meal shook him up. It wasn’t any particular dish that transformed him, but the way he felt afterwards. He was bright with energy.

“You know, usually after a big meal, you want to lie down or take a nap or not eat for 12 hours,” he says. “After this meal, I walked New York for two or three hours, I was so invigorated.”

He thought, “there could be something magical” if you applied some elevated techniques or culinary dazzle to this style of food. But transitioning from a French-trained, butter-reliant chef to a raw vegan newcomer was not easy.

“I had a lot of mishaps,” he says. “All the techniques that I had learned were not effective. With raw food, you can’t reduce a sauce [like with French cooking].” His first successful dish was an heirloom tomato lasagne – despite initially disastrous results (“the sauce was too watery and I didn’t know how to make the cheese”). After many months, he nailed it: a sauce shot through with flavour and intensity from a sun-dried and fresh tomato base and a macadamia ricotta created a creamy, cheese layer. The pesto-pistachio pesto had a nice, natural crunch because it was uncooked.

“It was stunning,” he says. “It tasted like a garden, everybody really loved it, and that gave me the confidence to continue on.” The dish – which ended up at Pure Food and Wine, a raw vegan New York restaurant he opened in 2003 – may very well end up being served at Alibi.

Spicy Udon. Sichuan Tempeh, Shiitake Mushroom, Red Mustard, Toasted Cashew, Togarash.i

He’s fine-tuning his Sydney menu with Ovolo group executive chef Kasper Christensen (who used to be the Danish royal family’s private chef) and suspects there could be a mix of Kenney’s classic dishes – like his kimchi dumplings with sesame foam, and his noodle cacio e pepe – as well as more current creations from his Plantlab cookbook. Like his spicy udon and tempeh sausage, with radishes and cashew hoisin dressing. Or watermelon poke with ponzu-lime marinade. And variations of his vegan baked raclette, ceviche dishes and his smoked hummus with harissa and flatbread. Since his early days, he’s stepped back from keeping everything raw vegan, but vegetables are still the stars of Kenney’s menu.

And in Australia, he’s keen to give a local twist to Alibi (as his 5 am market visits and foraging expeditions indicate) and he predicts purslane will make cameos on the menu (“it’s a great source of B12 and we don’t have it very often in the States”). The new local outpost of his empire isn’t going to be a carbon copy of its sister venues across the world, though. He’s spent the last month experimenting and refining the menu to make sure this venue would feel unique. “We’ll definitely put a spin on it. We’re not trying to take something we do in the US and just drop it here.”


Tues - Fri 6pm - midnight
Sat - noon-midnight

Ovolo Woolloomooloo | 6 Cowper Wharf Roadway, Sydney NSW

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