Yasmine Pitkin – not normally the squeamish type – greeted it with revulsion and horror: that squatting man, with grilles of ribcage, face-first in blood and feathers, the limp body like a slice of melon in his hands. Her partner, Ian, on the other hand, wondered aloud with glee, ‘What would that taste like?’
In the immediate aftermath, Yasmine reached for a handy plastic bag in which to void her stomach, while Ian was already compiling mental notes. It was their second-last day in Kolkata. The trip to this point had yielded no inspiration. The autorickshaw reached the spice merchant on the easternmost side of the City of Joy and all Ian could ask the brush-moustachioed man was what suggestions he had for seasoning carrion.
‘To eat the pigeon, you want?’ the man replied.
Pitkin went to desperate lengths of pantomime. In doing so, his face brightened with inspiration. ‘And rat, too.’ he asked. ‘What about rat?’
Journalists liked to apply lazy labels to Ian Pitkin, such as ‘the enfant terrible of the Australian food scene’, or the slightly more interesting (if nonsensical) ‘leather-jacket-wearing Prometheus of the kitchen’. It was true to say he both wore leather jackets and had a fuck-the-rules, experimental approach to gastronomy that had dazzled critics and diners alike. To eat at Exiles on the Bay was a $150-a-head journey into the culinary demimonde, where a signature dish was the slow-roasted sheep’s penis in a ginger-chilli broth and one could sup on saguinaccio, a traditional Abruzzian pâté of chocolate and pig’s blood. Oh, he’s just out to shock! you’re probably thinking, but the reality was that Pitkin was enamoured of fusing traditional world flavours – the obscurer the better – with a modern sensibility and a host of culinary legerdemains. The sheep’s penis, a regional Chinese delicacy, was not something Australian diners would immediately leap on, to use a poor turn of phrase. It was Pitkin’s prevailing joy to bring these unexpected, unthought-of flavours to the tables of Sydney; but harsher critics, no doubt fed by his iconoclast image, believed he cultivated notoriety. Aware of this notoriety, he played up to it – it kept him busy, and Exiles up in lights. It was a complicated symbiosis of star chef and critic. The harder each worked, the more they made the other relevant.
But it never quite sat easily with him. There were times he felt like he was Ian Pitkin, Rock-star Chef, appearing on this or that TV show, or releasing a new book, with no grounding or substance to what he was doing, no reason to be other than playing the game. He was in the kitchen less and less, and the kitchen was what nourished him. While patronage was as high as ever at Exiles, and the appearance offers and praise were coming in a deluge, he couldn’t deny it was all growing stale. He was less hands-on than he relished being, and the menu had stagnated. Imagine if you ran a huge oil-mining enterprise: you were selling barrels hand over fist, the share price was stratospheric, and yet only you knew the reserves were slowing to a trickle. There was even the creeping acknowledgement that his restaurant was, in aesthetic and pricing, out of the range of families like the one he’d grown up in, out in western Sydney. So many diners came in simply to spend up or tick his name off their list. Was it right to resent the people who came through your door night after night? Pitkin felt like he was bluffing himself and the world. It took the judgement of the panel of the Best Eats Guide Awards – people he knew and respected – to call him on it.
He’d stormed out just as the main course was being served at the awards gala. His wife returned from the bathroom to find a handwritten note left on her plate. She found him outside, pacing up and down the quiet street. His salmon-coloured tie lay strangled on the ground; his shirt was rent and creased. She took a moment to suppress her anger and went to him.
‘What am I doing differently?’ he said at the clop of her heels. They could both hear the thin rain of applause now from inside the theatre. ‘We do quality every night,’ he went on when she didn’t answer. ‘We plate it like fucking art. The punters are happy, the place is always full . . . fuck, what else?’
She groped his neck. ‘A lot of it’s just fashion.’
She soured. ‘I wasn’t on the panel, Ian. Don’t take it out on me.’
He raised a quavering hand in apology. He was stooped, looking away, and she contorted to meet his gaze.
‘You know what they’re going to say, don’t you?’ she said. ‘“Pitkin’s Hissy Fit” or something. You’ll be the story of the night. And not a good story. Take a deep breath, put on your tie and your most gracious face and go back–’
‘I already am the story of the night. Three toques down to one!’
Her fingers went to her lips. ‘Jesus. One hat?’
‘Terry told me on the sly. I couldn’t stay in there! You know, I totally get it if you slip off the pace and they dock you one, like a yellow card, but . . . have we let it go, even a little?’
Yasmine brushed her dress down her thighs. Her slick quills of black hair quivered in the breeze. ‘I’m not there often enough to know. I wouldn’t have thought so. I mean, your passion . . . it’s like I say: it’s all about who’s in favour. Nagati’s new izakaya place is all you read about lately. Do you know whether–’
He shook his head slowly. They sat there a long time, the bell-chorus of charged glasses and cutlery now emanating from inside the ceremony. It was in the taxi home, rushing past kebab shops and lorn illuminated bus stops that he made up his mind.
‘Exiles will never open its doors again,’ he said.
Now, this was hyperbole. They opened again the next night; the place was full and thrumming with controversy. Pitkin was nowhere near the premises. He was busy drafting what transpired to be a very simple three-par press release, issued two days later, stating that Exiles would close indefinitely.
It’s not a decision I take lightly, he wrote. The recent demotion of our restaurant kind of confirmed a few things to me about where we are and where we want to be. Stagnation is a fear I’m constantly battling. I need to go away and think, roam, explore. Exiles needs to be more than what it is, or perhaps not what it currently is at all. I can’t go on welcoming paying customers night after night to a place that is not worthy of their time and money. I will roam the world’s bazaars and night markets and crawl through the reeds tasting grubs with ancient tribes until I know in my heart the way forward.
And so on and so on. Okay, so maybe it was a bit melodramatic, but Pitkin really was frightfully ashamed. He took this stuff seriously. If he was running a Japanese restaurant there may have been a ceremonial blade involved.
He remained true to his pledge to become a sort of gastro-nomad. People queued outside a chained-up door at Exiles that night, but its founder was already in the air over the Yellow Sea, bound for the hawkers of Hong Kong. Yasmine was with him; she would accompany him on and off for the next eight months, going overland with him through mainland China, meeting him again in Bamako and eating in the jazz clubs while the griots recited folk poems. His jabs across the globe were desultory, following hot tips emailed from gourmet buddies or leads the locals gave him: a live goat’s blood ritual in Ethiopia; toffee-coated scorpions; a fried leech engorged with goose blood in Transylvania; fishing for piranha in Bolivia.
But all these ways of eating, as compelling and astounding as they were, never amounted to an ethos. And that’s what Pitkin sought: a new ethos for preparation and consumption, for the act of dining itself; a reinvention, a way to escape the historical bridles with which he’d trussed himself. Something earthy, above all, but something new and encapsulating; a vigorous new rule book, a cuisine they would hunt out in the far centuries for just such inspiration. He thought it might lie in playing with indigenous Australian methods he came back and spent weeks with the Yolngu learning how to cook a stingray’s liver with a pâté of the creature’s own mashed flesh. He slept under stars dreaming of witjuti grubs bathed in indeterminable dream-marinades and lashed a bare second with flame.
When he alighted in Sydney he read an email from an old buddy – Greg Chalmers, a fellow sous-chef back in Eighties London – who suggested a small spice market away from the main Kolkata bazaars. Within the hour Pitkin had booked flights for himself and his partner for two days hence and fallen into bed exhausted, thinking in the morning he would have to tell her.
We know the rest, to a point: a hungry man, an unlucky pigeon. A tense flight home with Pitkin – watering himself with those little bottles of wince-inducing chardonnay and gagging jealously on the Neil Perry dinner fare – trying woozily to explain his new idea to Yasmine, without making much sense, in part due to the drink and to the fact the idea was still assembling itself; possibilities were racing off ahead of him in all directions. While the vision had struck him like a bolt, it was his duty to capture it. At once he knew it intimately and yet still had to decode it, which was annoying. He was eager to start. And Yasmine, perhaps not understanding him, or perhaps not wanting to believe what she thought she was hearing, brushed it off as the jet-lagged ravings of an inebriant. They cut on through darkness. Eventually the sun began to whisper across the red soil, and soon it was screaming at the spires of the city.
Inspired by that moment in Kolkata, Pitkin began investigating where to source fresh pigeon and rat. Not the lousy diseased creatures, of course – there were food health standards to adhere to – but specially cultivated vermin. He worked hard in the test kitchen.
‘The Sewer Rat’ was a whole shaved rodent, roasted, set atop a mound of polenta, doused in thick, lumpy gravy of diced mushroom, roasted eggplant and cornstarch.
There was ‘Pigeon à ľOrange’, the plate fringed with torn pieces of stale bread.
Perhaps a ‘Fête de la Rue’, freshly sourced roadkill from inner-city streets and outlying suburban areas, slow-roasted over an open flame for up to seven hours?
For a snack: lemon-soaked cockroaches (the common street-scurrying blatta orientalis) and huntsman spiders, deep-fried and served with a pureed dip of assorted weeds (nasturtiums, thistle etcetera) picked from the cracks in the pavement.
‘I’m worried about you,’ said Yasmine, after observing him, labouring for hours over a cut of cumin-dusted seagull. ‘Where did you get that seagull?’
‘Don’t be worried, Yaz! This is true! This is unique!’
‘This is insane. This is both of us, Ian. My money and my life, too.’
He held her shoulders, his eyes bugging. ‘It’s adventurous! Look at all this: all city produce, all grown in the tunnels and the cracks and the roosts in abandoned buildings. People flocked in to eat dicks and tripe. Why not this? There are a thousand traditional cuisines and ways to play with them, but who’s ever thought about how we could subsist on the environment we made? What you’d eat if you had nothing. How you’d survive in this landscape.’
She sighed, drew a slow breath, which when she exhaled seemed to demolish her body’s structure. ‘It’s very clever. But would I eat at this restaurant? Maybe just once, for a laugh: “Pitkin’s finally lost it!” Oh no, look, I’m sorry. It’s just: do you know how many people are hoping you do something like this, only to see you fail? You’ve always teetered on the edge – genius and lunacy, provocative and offensive: “Oh my god, how does he stay up there?” That was your magic, what kept people talking. This?’ She sighed again, even surrendered a laugh that was more like a feral hiccup. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know, Ian. I mean, the waiters: what did you say about the waiters? Tacky.’
Pitkin’s plan was to employ genuine homeless men and women as waitstaff, teach them skills on the job, and encourage patrons to tip very generously.
‘You don’t like it?’ he asked her. ‘It’s completely subverting the expectations of fine dining. And it gives them a job and some self-respect. It came to me in Kolkata: this is the madness, the way we’ve got so caught up in the rituals of dining, in our reflections in the cutlery and the pairing of wine with meals . . . It’s beautiful eating somewhere special, don’t get me wrong. But we’ve elevated it to some abstract art. You look at the menus, you see the amounts people are spending . . . it becomes depressing.’
‘You must be looking at the wrong receipts. The ones I see are anything but depressing.’
‘I want my sommelier to only serve cask wine, by the goon bag. I want none of the cutlery to match, and I want the crockery all ugly and chipped and from Vinnies. Paper towel napkins!’
‘It’s suicide, Ian. That’s all I’ll say. The last thing I’ll say.’ It wasn’t. ‘I mean, “Sewer Rat”? Honestly? Who wants to think of rats and shit when they eat?’
He scratched his cheek, where a barbed insect leg had somehow attached itself to his whiskers. ‘Look, some of the ideas might need some tweaking.’
But the only tweaking was on seasonings and cooking methods; opening night at the new-look Exiles in the City came, and ‘The Sewer Rat’ was plated as envisaged: in a steaming belt of aromatic brown sauce. The first dish of it was served to the Premier of New South Wales, and didn’t the newspaper subs enjoy captioning that one. Ian made the rounds, checking in, asking diners how everything was. The sommelier offered a famous actor a choice from two different wine casks. Pitkin ducked into the kitchen to direct the chefs, watching intently the transfer of ingredients to pans and foodstuffs to plate, slapping errant hands away and correcting their practice. He ducked into a corner to glug from a flute of champagne, then from the parent bottle. Back out in the room many of them bore questions; he tried to deal with them with patience and enthusiasm. He knew his vision, so clear and vital to him now, needed help to be understood by others ready with ridicule. Still, he couldn’t always hold it together.
He took a main to the table of Terry Rabelais, the famed food critic, friend and judge of the Best Eats Awards. ‘I hope this wasn’t my doing,’ Terry smirked, gesturing to the corners of the room with a jokey smugness that Pitkin shrugged away. ‘I think what you’ve done here is pretty brave.’
‘It can’t have been easy to throw everything out and start again.’
Pitkin ground his brow and looked at the floor. ‘You know? It actually was.’ A fist gripped his heart. ‘It was ridiculously easy,’ he muttered.
Terry smiled with diffidence as a waiter passed carrying a bowl of choko soup over the rim of which his blight-nailed thumb was perilously curled. ‘We just felt you perhaps had let the game move ahead of you,’ he said.
‘Terry, Terry!’ Pitkin raised his palms, laughing. ‘I want to thank you. You were spot-on. What was it? “Has Pitkin stopped growing? Or have we just grown up?”’
Terry winced comically.
Pitkin smiled. There was a clipping of the offending entry in the pocket over his heart. ‘You’ll be happy to know I’ve grown up a lot in the past year.’
They made further chat before being interrupted by a female waiter brandishing an uncapped hypodermic syringe. She leaned over Terry’s left shoulder and squirted a deep red liquid all over the cut of Hyde Park possum he’d just been served.
Just after ten o’clock Pitkin took the mike and said a few words (‘Thank you all for coming’) followed by a pause, followed by nearly 6000 more words on the bloated, facile nature of the foodie industry and the need for a return to basics which, given he was hectoring an audience of mainly food industry people, went down like a pubic hair in a salad. Sensing the dire mood in the room, he rallied by praising each of them as ‘innovators’ and asking them to come along on his journey. The speech was met with a patter of uncertain applause.
The reviews in following days were positive, if you read them while squinting. Pitkin locked himself inside the restaurant each morning with a flask of vodka, a bottle of orange juice, laptop open and newspapers fanned out and read forensically. Several critiques agreed with Yaz, apropos some of the finer points of eating rat coated in faux-faecal gravy, but all applauded his ambition and invention. If anything, the radical changes had enhanced his reputation. Terry Rabelais said, ‘Australia’s most enterprising chef has surpassed the maverick streak of his youth for a more socially aware, thoughtful iconoclasm. The buzz around the new Exiles is undeniable, and justified. Leather Prometheus? Leather Proteus, more like. Who ever thought of possum-blood jus? Liz Turre from The Australian believed the homeless waiters were ‘gimmicky and gormless’, and ‘the gimmick would have been better off left unconceived in Pitkin’s overactive brain’.
Finally! he thought: there was more to his restaurant and career than how something was cooked or the provenance of the pinot grigio.
As it transpired, it wouldn’t have mattered what the reviews said. The more critical they were the more people seemed to flock to Exiles. The opening three weeks gave the owners their biggest-ever nightly turnovers. ‘And the buzz!’ said Yaz over breakfast one Saturday. ‘Every night, queues around the block. The place full of laughter. Did you see strangers leaning over people to laugh about the bread with the pigeon?’
‘It’ll die down,’ Pitkin said.
‘I don’t see why!’ his partner enthused. ‘I can’t remember anything like it. People are talking about it all over radio, TV. I’m sorry I doubted the whole thing. The homeless waiters, everything. I thought it would be a bit crass, but I get it now. The guys are all fantastic. It’s got people talking about homelessness.’
‘Is that what they’re talking about? I wonder.’
‘No, Ian, it’s great!’
‘Someone was leaving the other night’ – he cleared his throat – ‘they told me how funny the old actor was playing a homeless guy. “Look at him!” she says, this chick in her early 20s. “The sad old baggy pants with stains down the front. He stinks of wee! He tried to pick at my main! Ha ha ha!” Yaz, honestly!’
‘Look, she just didn’t realise. Which one was picking at the main? Maybe we need a sign?’
‘What: “HOMELESS PEOPLE ACTUALLY HOMELESS”?’
‘Don’t get snarky, Ian.’
‘No, all I mean is . . . maybe you were right.’
‘The whole frigging idea. You called it suicidal.’
‘I don’t understand,’ she said. ‘You cherished this idea. You massaged it. You know, you had a few simple, I don’t know, precepts: you were bored, you felt people were too caught up in food, they spent too much, it wasn’t accessible to most people. I mean, look: now you charge ten bucks a dish on average, you have families lunching here and young kids on dates, you’re pioneering “urban cuisine”–’
‘Do the air quotes.’
‘Sorry. Whatever. You’re doing something unique. You’re giving these waiters dignity for the first time in years – decades, some of them.’
‘Dignity? What: “He stinks of wee”?’
‘Do you know what Roy said to me the other day? He says, “You pair reminded me that no two days are the same.” Jenny, the tubby redhead? I brought her a plate of dinner during her shift last Wednesday. She insisted on paying for it.’
Pitkin smiled. ‘I just can’t shake the feeling people think it’s all just a big joke, some ironic commentary. “Oh, look at Ian, going after that anti-food-elitist market. Brilliant, brilliant.”’
‘Everything you’ve done since you closed the place has come from a good place. The best intentions. Who cares what people think?’
Ian smoothed his coffee-foam with the convex of his spoon. ‘I do, obviously.’
In mythology, of course, Zeus punished Prometheus for stealing the fire by chaining him to a rock; an eagle would swoop down each day to eat the prisoner’s exposed liver, only for the organ to grow back. This was a little how Pitkin began to feel, opening the restaurant each day to flocks of hungry predators.
Yaz left him in the winter, a trial separation; you need to have a think about what exactly is going to make you happy, she said. In spring he got his three hats back; Jenny the tubby redhead, now having secured a room at a hostel, was his plus-one in a Collette Dinnigan gown. November saw a fire start in the kitchen which required Exiles to close for a week and inflicted minor burns upon his forearm. In the summer one of the waiters was pulled up by NSW Health inspectors during an audit. He reconciled with Yaz in March. This is the way it went on.
He realised this was his fate: he would never be conventionally happy, as it were, but have spikes of satisfaction girded with the chafing fabric of ambition. There would always be detractors, and always times he felt he wasn’t in the right place. But he was for the first time truly satisfied with the place he ran. No more TV or feature spots: that wasn’t what he was interested in, and he no longer had a need to serve the publicity mechanism. So he was ‘the mad genius’, or ‘a novelty’ – so what? Or people didn’t get the concept of the new Exiles – well, did he? Yes, as a matter of fact, he did, and he was happy. And that was that. After all, it could always be worse: he could be a critic.