Symposium Dinner

By John Newton

In her talk at the 22nd Symposium in 2018, Gay Bilson wrote of the 2002 Symposium, after describing some of the remarkably theatrical  banquets from Symposia that:

Every cook kept to their promise to make simple food. I remember that Cheong Liew made Hainanese Chicken Rice. Cath Kerry made a Grande Aioli (the name belies the simplicity of the dish), and so forth. There were no multiple courses, and everything could be eaten from the one plate and bowl.

Eighteen years after Searle’s extraordinary banquet, this wasn’t a Correction or an Austerity. It was simply something that seemed right for that time.

And the chef for the 22nd Symposium event (I’m not going to call it a banquet – it wasn’t) was devised in its entirety by Paul Kuipers who I’ve known for many years and to whom I taught Gastronomy in the Australian Contemporary Cuisine course: I’d forgotten, he reminded me and also told me that all the chefs who did the course (it only ran once before TAFE  killed it) were still cooking.

Paul now owns the restaurant where he was chef when I first met him, Courtney’s Brasserie in Parramatta. It was always good food, never flashy, he had to cater for the locals and he did it bloody well. Good dishes using good produce without being too try-hard. And that’s how he did the food for this event.

He also did a remarkable job of the lead up. It was held in  the complex known as The Female Factory, a grim site with a grim history. We began with a smoking, a welcome to country and a song from Jacinta Tobin  a local indigenous woman with history in the building. Her aunt died there. The first time she went back there – the complex has been neglected for many years and is now being restored for use and history by Urban Growth we were the trial to see how it would go – she cried non-stop. Only then did she learn that the motto of the place was ‘Don’t let the bastards see you cry.’ The other survivors told her she’d cried for all of them and broken the spell. 

As Jacinta finished, we walked across to a earth bsarbecue where Paul was cooking an entire kangaroo. In blackfella fashion, we tore off chunks and ate it.

Next, we walked through the laundry, where a woman who had been an inmate, Bonney Djuric  told us of the dreadful things that happened there. The room without any light where girls were locked up for months, fed on gruel, and raped repeatedly.

We came out of there feeling bleak and, perhaps, shameful, to walk into another room where we were served gruel and chopped liver, smoked beef, and pickled turnips and black tea or growlers of local beer by the six students from Kenvale, who had been schooled to be  were silent and unsmiling: no talking while eating had been the rule for the inmates

Then we were herded into a building that had been the chapel, and left, without knowing what was going on. We were left, locked in, in the dark, just long enough for us to become anxious.  

Finally, the doors were flung open and as dusk settled we were led out to a long, table (there were 130 of us) set up beneath a wooden pergola the length of the table. A relief. We sat, at first somewhat chastened by the experience. I imagine also, that for many of us, it was also cathartic.

And then the meal. Wisely, as Paul told me later, he had read about the extraordinary banquets of Symposia past and had decided not to compete. The place, the stages of getting there, the memories revived, did not call for flashy food. He served a simple family meal.

We began with good bread and Pepe Saya butter and marinated olives. Then roast pork with roasted apple and nectarine, turnips, carrot, cabbage, cauliflower with apple jelly and beetroot chutney. Dessert was a collection of Middle eastern and Indian sweets garnered from local suppliers.

 The entire meal was simple and apposite. To quote, again, from Gay Bilson’s talk this was not a ‘Correction or an Austerity. It was simply something that seemed right for that time.’ And indeed this time. And this place.

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