Danielle Alvarez: Halcyon House Party
Danielle Alvarez has an incredible warmth, a softness in her demeanour that belies the traditional notion of a professional chef. It translates into her cooking. The apparent simplicity in her food is, of course, anything but; it takes great bravery – and skill – to create food like hers.
Since arriving in Australia four years ago, and opening the much-acclaimed Fred’s in Paddington, Danielle has changed the way we see the possibilities for food in a restaurant. There is an elegant simplicity to her cuisine, a taste of the Mediterranean via Berkley, California. While those climates tell similar tales, Danielle’s ability to take those careful lessons and traditions and apply them to her new home here has been impressive.
The produce at Fred’s is paramount. There are few chefs who have worked so hard to forge a connection with their producers and the seasons. All the produce is seasonal, ethically reared and, most importantly, has incredible flavour. Her attention to detail, to combinations, to the impact of the tiny variations as the seasons progress, to the importance of acid, fat, salt and fire allows her to work magic with seemingly simple dishes.
Raised in Miami to Cuban parents, Danielle was originally an art student. But she eventually succumbed to food, her desire for the beauty of the kitchen outweighing that of the gallery. She found her culinary feet in California, at first with hard and fast training at the French Laundry and later with Amaryll Schwertner at Boulettes Larder.
Perhaps her most formative years, were those subsequently spent at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. “Chez gave me a lot of confidence,” says Danielle, “there’s a lot of skill; you can’t underestimate how hard it is to make something that simple that amazing.”
Alice Waters is renowned for her strict adherence to seasonal variance and organics, and Chez Panisse is legendary among the world of thoughtful consumption. With the Berkeley restaurant approaching its 50th year, it’s turned out many excellent chefs who have taken those lessons to the world.
Beyond the unwavering commitment to produce and ethics, Chez Panisse has a thoughtful sustainability set-up for their staff, too. Workable hours and shared creative responsibility give the restaurant, and its alumni, an edge. The menu is determined by the markets and the seasons, but the nuance of each dish is actually divvied up on a daily basis between the entire team.
At Fred’s, Danielle has taken these lessons and carved her own genre. The restaurant, like the woman, is warm, inviting and homely. There is an enormous open hearth where a leg of lamb gently turns alongside the open flame – fire is the final ingredient for so many of her dishes – vegetables are stacked up on the large central benches. All the preparation and cooking is shared with the diners. You feel you are at a dinner party rather than a restaurant. It is the kitchen you always wanted to own.
That dinner party vibe seems to follow her around, you don’t feel like you are being cooked for by a chef, but rather by a friend. She has cooked all over the country, leaving her beautiful kitchen to work in others. But, of course, Dani is so much more than the walls around her. Her cooking transcends the place.
To find out what Danielle serves at her Halcyon House dinner, check out the Nov/Dec issue of Selector.