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Food

Impress: Daniel Puskas

Over the past six years, Sixpenny, found on a humble street corner in the inner-west suburb of Stanmore, has become one of Sydney’s favourite restaurants, and for good reason. The food, served as a six- or eight-course menu, is exquisite, the wine list a delight and the sunshine that streams in the windows on a Sunday afternoon is entirely ethereal. It is a beautiful place to dine.

The fact it’s named after sixpenny restaurants, small diners that populated Australian cities in the gold rush era of the late 1800s, where you could get a ‘square meal’ for just sixpence, speaks volumes about its identity. The title was the perfect middle ground for co-founders and chefs, Daniel Puskas and James Parry; it was not as simple as the fourpenny restaurant, not as fancy (or expensive) as their ‘posh cousins’, the shilling restaurant. 

Since James’ departure two years ago, Daniel has headed up the kitchen (and run the restaurant) alone. Moulded by many years of experiences and friendships, as most creatives are, he has carved out his own culinary niche. A very successful niche. He was awarded the 2018 Good Food Guide’s Chef of the Year, with the restaurant consistently praised for its modern simplicity.

“Over the years I have learnt I want to keep it simple but elegant,” says Daniel of his cooking and plating. “I don’t think it has to look a particular way, it just has to taste delicious. Some people eat with their eyes, but people who really taste the food, will see beyond it.”

Life lessons

For most successful chefs, it is the time at someone else’s apron strings that creates their style. For Daniel, it was discovering what he didn’t want that taught him valuable lessons.

It was an early start in hotel restaurants and function rooms that gave him the impetus to seek out something different, and so, in 2000, he bought a copy of the Good Food Guide, found the best restaurant on the list and applied for a job. The restaurant was Tetsuya’s. 

At this revered hot bed of Australian talent, Daniel not only worked under the inimitable Tetsuya Wakuda, but also Martin Benn, who was head chef at the time before going off to open the amazing Sepia, Dave Pegrum as sous chef, and a veritable line-up of Australia’s best talents toiling away as chef de parties and apprentices. He had landed well. 

“There was a great bunch of people in the kitchen and on the floor” recalls Dan. “Tets was always in and out of the kitchen. He brought an energy. ‘Taste, taste, taste’ was his mantra and that’s stuck with me. 

“But in the end, it was about working in a fine dining restaurant. With so many people you were not doing a magnitude of jobs, rather a large quantity of small jobs.”

New world views

Like many chefs of his generation, Daniel chose London to expand his culinary horizons. However, the combination of  long hours and long drinking sessions, curtailed any real creative stimulation.

Rather, it was time spent in Spain, Italy and Jerusalem that gave Dan food awakening moments. Living in Jerusalem for five months was a change of pace.
He started to learn Hebrew and would practise while bartering in the souk and buying his groceries for dinner. 

Making his way back to Sydney, he found himself in another highly acclaimed kitchen, Marque. While learning from another incredible line up of chefs, he also mastered how to cook in a tiny kitchen,  work in a smaller team and multi-task.

While at Marque, he won the prestigious Josephine Pignolet Award, which provides one young chef each year the financial support to travel. Daniel took off again. This time to America, and into the kitchens of cutting-edge restaurants WD50 and Alinea. Again, an awakening.

“I learnt a lot of how I didn’t want to cook,” says Dan of his journey. “I thought I needed to learn all the modern techniques. In fact, it taught me that I didn’t want too much of that in my kitchen.”

An Australian identity

Back home, Daniel teamed up with James Parry for the first time at Oscillate Wildly in the Sydney suburb of Newtown. It was another growth moment.

“James’s training had been at Bird Cow Fish and Billy Kwong. He had a very different approach to cooking,” says Dan. 

“He had the skills to make food delicious, where I was trained on how to work in a kitchen. I started to feel I had so much more to learn, again. But I think he found that balance in me, too. So we decided to create something together and Sixpenny was born.”  

With this delightful suburban restaurant, Dan has carved out his own identity in the heart of Australia’s culinary landscape. It is somewhat to be expected, given his stunning pedigree. Although he calmly tempers that fact.

“It’s about relationships, the people, not the resume,” he says. “We’re only a small restaurant, but we all have big dreams.” 

A bit like those folk who ate at the original sixpennys all those years ago.

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How the Show Has Gone On
Words by Alastair McLeod on 20 Jun 2018
The culinary landscape has evolved and devolved over the past 20 years. Back then, chefs worshipped the French canon with fury, finesse, and formality in kitchens like Banc, Est Est Est, and Tables of Toowong. Today, fire, fermentation and foraged flourishes are the moods of the moment. Think Firedoor, Gerards Bar, Igni. Temples of gastronomy used to be in big cities, whereas today’s ground-breaking restaurants are flung far. Tropical north Queensland is expressed in every bite at Nunu, the terroir of the Southern Highlands tasted at Biota in Bowral, and Brae in Birregura offers a soulful connection with agrarian Victoria. Showcasing Australia’s best The Good Food and Wine Show has been key in reflecting the trends for almost 20 years, telling the story of our farmers, fishers, growers, producers, winemakers, brewers, bakers and chefs in a fresh and innovative way. Such is the scale of the show, it serves as a culinary state of the union, a snapshot celebration of the best that Australia and the world have to offer. Having been involved with the show, I have seen an increased commitment to shining a light on each state’s best food and wine. Event Director, Claire Back, explains, “We have placed an emphasis on regionality. When we’re in Perth, for example, we bring the Margaret River and Swan Valley to you. “I also see my job as ensuring people take away something new. It could be learning that Cabernet tastes different in a Cabernet glass than in a Merlot glass. I want people to be excited about new products and learning a new skill.” Star spotting The show offers inspiration, aspiration and, with upwards of 10,000 guests flooding through the doors each day, perspiration! For many, the aspiration is the opportunity to see their food heroes. This year, star chef Matt Moran will be cooking in the celebrity theatre. As he reflects, “Over the past 15 years, there’s been an explosion in food. People want to know where it comes from, who’s grown it and who’s cooking it. The accessibility of the chefs is a real positive with chances to meet, taste their food and see them demonstrate their craft.” Another star of this year’s show is the ebullient Miguel Maestre . For all his mirth and merriment, he takes his cooking sessions very seriously. He believes his class should be 20 per cent laughter, 40 per cent cooking and 40 per cent things people haven’t seen before. “I have a massive fear of under delivering,” he explains. “I am as nervous as I am cooking for the most fearsome food critic.”  Wine immersion These days, the name could be ‘The Good Wine and Food Show,’ such is the ever increasing celebration of our winemakers and wine regions. In fact, when I get a break, you’ll find me in the Barossa Valley sharing a Shiraz with Rolf Binder or a joust about Jura with renowned wine scribe, Nick Ryan at the Riedel Drinks Lab. While the Wine Selectors Cellar Door offers a dazzling range of classes that reflect our insatiable desire for more knowledge. ‘Fireside Wines’, ‘Meat your Match’ or perhaps ‘Brunch Time, Wine Time’. The juggernaut that is the Good Food and Wine Show hits the road in June for its national tour. It’s a wonderful weekend to immerse yourself in your passion. The opportunity to learn, taste, sip and be inspired is what keeps me coming back year after year.
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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