1 on 1 with the Best
For most people, walking into a room to be greeted by a favourite musician or actor triggers a physical reaction; a pounding heart and a nervous sweat. As I step into the Electrolux test kitchen in Mascot, in Sydney’s burgeoning inner-south, welcomed by an unmistakable figure wielding a large knife, I feel that same adrenaline rush set in. This is my rock star moment.
The sight of Mark Best standing behind a kitchen bench with a knife in his hand has become a Pavlovian trigger for me, with multiple trips to his now-closed Marque in Sydney’s Surry Hills the setting of some of my most prized dining memories.
Today, thanks to Electrolux’s premium AEG brand, for which Best is an ambassador, I’ve been handed a money-can’t-buy experience: a day in the kitchen with my favourite chef.
stripping the barnacles
Marque built its sizeable reputation, buoyed by a three-year stint on the ‘World’s Best Restaurant’ list, around Best’s highly technical culinary style, with landmark dishes over its 17-year run including an almond jelly with blue swimmer crab, a revelatory parmesan custard, and an iconic oyster topped with grilled sea foam.
But the chef, who famously transitioned to the restaurant industry at 25 after an early career as a submarine electrician, says his trademark complex style has evolved.
“I think I’ve come full circle,” he tells me as he drops florets of curly leaf parsley into hot oil and fries them until crisp.
“There are these dishes that have picked up so much detritus that they’ve completely moved away from what they should be. Some bands, when they go on and on, they have these retrospectives and end up with six lead guitars and four drummers on stage at the same time.
“That’s what’s happened to so many of these recipes. I want to strip the barnacles off them,” he adds, in what I imagine to be a clever nod to his nautical past.
As committed to preserving the origins of classic dishes as Best may be, his signature playfulness seems equally irrepressible. The first dish he’s demonstrating for me today is a traditional interpretation of an Italian classic, vitello tonnato, with one critical difference.
“Vitello is veal,” he states. “Vitello tonnato is served with a sauce made of tinned tuna, capers, olive oil and lemon juice. So I thought why not use yellowfin tuna instead of veal?
“It’s very Australian, yellowfin tuna, and it’s very much like veal, so why not do tuna and tuna? That type of thing is emblematic of my cooking as well; using the same ingredient in different ways. Tinned tuna and fresh tuna. Those are the little philosophical engines that really drive my creativity.”
The chef carefully lays slabs of raw yellowfin onto the plate, smothering them with the prepared tuna sauce, then tops it with anchovy fillets and the fried parsley.
“I’m a bit of a retro guy, so I’m using curly parsley. I’m trying to bring it back. It annoys me that things like this go out of fashion and then you can’t even find them. Being a chef’s about inventing new things, but it’s also about saving some old ones.”
After wiping down the slick, black induction cooktop, Mark throws matchstick sized pieces of raw potato into a frying pan and effortlessly flicks them into the air, mixing them with Szechuan pepper, black vinegar and chilli.
The crunchy potatoes, a near-raw Northern Chinese take on the vegetable, form one of the titular rivers in Best’s ‘Three Rivers’ dish. Created for his ‘Bistro by Mark Best’ on board the Genting Dream luxury ship, the dishes combine the potato recipe from the Yangtze River, a buttery beurre blanc from the Loire, and Murray cod from closer to home.
Best says divining unusual pairings – Szechuan pepper, Australian fish and a classic French sauce – comes from decades of experience.
“I think about things like that all the time. If you just think about potatoes or Szechuan pepper or butter sauce, you’re only going to make a few traditional connections. But if you think about ingredients objectively, whether it’s aroma or flavour, texture, relative acidities, salinity, umami, those types of things, then you make far more associations.
“So steamed fish, slightly crunchy potatoes, the heat of the peppercorns mitigating the richness of the sauce and the richness of the fish…It’s just fish and chips, but you’ve woven a story around it.”
Lastly, Best pulls a dark chocolate tart from the state-of-the-art oven. He spoons a little cocoa powder into a sieve and dusts it over the glistening chocolate surface.
As he slices into it, the knife reveals a just-set layer of smooth chocolate balanced on a layer of chocolate shortbread.
“There’s a simplicity to this type of cooking. It’s the balance of the chocolate, the shortbread and cocoa. The ingredients you choose make the difference. It’s about purity. This tart is perfect for a dinner party, but I also served it at Marque.
“Just make sure you start cutting from the middle. I hate when people don’t start in the middle.”
I watch as he brings his knife down into the exact centre of the tart, like a surgeon operating with confident precision.
This is my rock star moment, and this is his guitar solo.