An interview with the delightful Danielle Alvarez
Selector Magazine, Nov/Dec 2018
Danielle Alvarez has an incredible warmth, a softness in her demeanour that belies the traditional notion of 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 food, 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. 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 the hard and fast training at the French Laundry and later with Amaryll Schwertner at Boulettes Larder, an alumni of Chez Panisse.
Perhaps her most formative years, were those subsequently spent at Chez Panisse. “Chez gave me a lot of confidence,” explains Danielle, “there’s a lot of skill, you can’t underestimate how hard it is to make something that simple that amazing.”
Alice Waters’ cooking and restaurant is renowned for its strict adherence to seasonal variance and to organics, Chez Panisse is legendary among the world of thoughtful consumption. With the Berkeley restaurant approaching its 50th year, many excellent chefs have come out of that restaurant and consequently 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 their alumni, an edge on many others. 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.
Cooking at Halcyon House, in Cabarita Beach, she applies her own rules to the cooking. The humble origins of the exquisite hotel portray an easy feeling of luxury in an old motel, the epitome of the egalitarian Australian holiday by the beach. If Fred’s has the kitchen you always wanted to own, Halcyon House is the beach house to go with it.
There is a feeling of summer that pervades every corner of this beautiful hotel: the blue tones in the fabrics, the carefully casual decor and paintings collected from bric-a-brac markets around the world, all seemingly reflecting the ocean just beyond the Pandanus trees.
If we are to continue the analogy, it would be easy to suggest that Halcyon has been set up with the same attention to the raw ingredients as Danielle’s food. A gentle, but sometimes surprising harmony, is found in the interiors – fabrics and furniture brought together to complement each other and also to contrast each other.
Their restaurant, Paper Daisy, is a fitting location for her Mediterranean cuisine. In the days where chefs will often travel to new kitchens or restaurants to share their food, it is nevertheless an enormous challenge. A new location means new produce, what’s in season and where’s it at in its season. “Changing a dish is like jumping on a moving train, you are balancing the produce available and the time you have to create in the day. I can see when a dish isn’t right, more than necessarily explain it – the texture, the colour, the balance.”
Danielle is quickly besotted by the indigenous ingredients coming out of Ben Devlin’s (who has previously worked at Esquire and Noma) kitchen and the ferments he is making from them. This is one part of the joy found in working alongside another chef. Devlin’s food also plays on his sense of place.
Over the course of their Gourmet Weekend we are treated to welcome drinks, a cooking class with Danielle and two dinners – one cooked by Devlin and the other cooked by Danielle. It is an interesting contrast in interpretation of Australia.
The sea out the front is a fundamental part of both of their cooking. There is local fish, some served raw, another with the skin cooked crisp served with pippies sourced from the local fishermen along with a gentle beurre blanc, using a little of the juice from the pippies to give it flavour, and a chiffonade of sorrel for a spike of citrus; there is also local pork; an upside-down blood-orange cake. It is an incredible taste of the local environment seen through two different pairs of eyes, two different histories. That is a special kind of magic.
And back to Danielle, our modern-day Patience Gray, Elizabeth David or Marcella Hazan. If there is anyone whose apron strings you would like to learn from, I would suggest Dani is one of them. Go and sit in her restaurant, seek her out as she travels the country, or, for a little advice on how to cook like Dani at home see the below:
(1) Don’t take it too seriously – from a food perspective don’t use your dinner party as the moment to do something too complicated.
(2) Offer your guests a drink immediately – that first moment where everyone’s settling in and getting to know each other can be awkward!
(3) It’s super important you are around your friends and guests – get everything set up before people arrive, make sure it’s not too involved at the last minute: raw fish you can dress at the last minute or a roast that can go into the oven when they arrive.
(4) Don’t freak out when something goes wrong - play it calm and they won’t be any the wiser.