It was a woefully wet Sunday in the middle of a chilly Sydney winter and it was chucking it down. I was on my way to the home of Alex Herbert, all the heart & half the brains behind the famed and highly regarded Sydney restaurant Bird Cow Fish (Alex launched this much loved restaurant back in 1996 with then partner Howard Gardner). Sadly this iconic Sydney restaurant is no more as it’s first lady has now moved on to spread her clever and creative wings, freelancing here, consulting there and providing the best hangover cure in an oversized chunk of sourdough that Sydney has ever seen. I know because I’ve had one. A Crooked Madam that is, not the hangover. Not that day anyway.
‘The Crooked Madam’ delights the crowds every Saturday morning at the Bird Cow Fish stall at the popular Eveleigh Farmer’s Markets in Sydney and she is created with love by the hands of Alex herself. The gutsy and generous Madam consists of Sonoma sourdough, Pepe Saya cultured butter, excellent ham, Swiss Gruyere cheese, Egganic eggs, Dijon mustard or Alex’s homemade barbecue sauce (or in my case both, which technically I’m told makes it a ‘Slut’) then lastly, grindings of sea salt and lashings of bitey black pepper. I don’t think it’s possible to eat one without your eyes rolling back into your head and a misty gaze that should resemble orgasmic delirium but in my case looks more like that possessed bird from The Exorcist mid-exorcism. Maybe you could devour this homemade saucy beast with dignity and finesse but I could not and the egg yolk in my hair said it all.
We arrive at Alex’s house and on first impression it’s just like her..warm, bright & happy, walking in it’s like being embraced by a grandma hug without the grandma and I was soon to discover that her friends and her cooking were just as honest to goodness as the chef and the environment. She even has a golden retriever. I love golden retrievers.
Her home is light filled, eclectic and stylish. It’s full of gorgeous ‘stuff’ and yet doesn’t feel cluttered or over styled at all. I’m envious because you can’t teach this, it’s a gift. If I attempted this, my house would look like it was being featured in an ABC documentary about hoarding. Alex played a big part in the design of this family home and all her ‘stuff’ has a story. The large, elegant illustrations mounted on the wall are from her favourite cookbook and restaurant Chez Panisse in California, the beautifully aged and battered table I sit at came from an exclusive, historic Sydney girl’s school. Even her much loved enormous olive dishes are a work of rustic art. They are so pretty that I took a photo. Really. I took a photo of a bowl of olives.
It was clear that after the first few introductions and initial chit chat that I was amongst Sydney’s keenest & most fun loving food lovers. It wasn’t just Alex that was excitedly enthusing about the history of the colourful harvest and how it had ended up on her kitchen bench, it was all of them. It was safe to say that I was deep in a world of passionate beings, all excitedly waxing lyrical about favourite meals they’d had, best restaurant experiences and of course the importance of fresh, sustainable ingredients that were naturally sown, grown and brought home.
I wander through to the covered deck, wanting to get to know every inch of this wonderfully inspiring and unpretentious home and I also want to find Cosmo the dog for another big hug but instead I discover another well respected Sydney chef dutifully monitoring & expertly flipping his prize zucchini on the BBQ. We introduce ourselves, we hit it off, we discover shared friends and we even discuss where we were when 9/11 exploded into our lives but, sociable as he is, his eyes rarely leave the red hot grill where his own farm grown, green treasures sizzle & caramelise to perfection. I’ve only known this budding farming chef for 5 minutes but he’s so delightful that I already want to spend a day with him on his farm, skipping through lambing meadows with baskets of sun ripened artichokes on our arms and hay in our hair. Something tells me he’d quite like that too.
Our host never stops for a moment and just when you think that everything has been beautifully displayed and taken to the table another stunning dish materialises out of nowhere. As a frantic working parent, the culinary highlight of my week had been the heavy handed sprinkle of proper Italian parmesan thrown over my children’s version of spaghetti bolognese. Their version of this iconic Italian dish had an interesting ‘sweet’ flavour to it which they later inform me was the Heinz Tomato Ketchup “but it’s allowed because Jamie Oliver says it’s ok.” Yes, it was safe to say that I was looking forward to this grown up roast lunch being cooked for me by one of Sydney’s much loved and highly respected chefs.
Whether it was glazed, drizzled, dressed, laden or encrusted, everything was prepared and served with effortless generosity, style and love that day. A languishing long, laughter-filled lunch with much wine, colourful friends and eventually.. sunshine.
Bird Cow Tree
On Sunday 27 July 2013 Alex collaborated with chef Martin Boetz and they created something rather special at The Cooks Co-op HQ ‘The Farm’ in Sackville NSW.
Two old friends who have known each other for 18 years and worked together many times during those years, Martin and Alex Herbert have worked long hours to produce a feast for over 30 guests. The menu has been meticulously planned to reflect both the season and the freshness of the produce, much of it from the farm and otherwise from local growers. Words by Martin Boetz.
Keep up to date with the adventures of Martin on the farm & his delightful collaborations with Alex Herbert at The Cook Co-op website and blog. The next Bird Cow Tree lunch is planned for Sunday 8th September. See you there 🙂
Featured Image of Alex Herbert by photographer Caroline McCredie
BIOGRAPHY: ALEX HERBERT Chef & co- founder @birdcowfish
I was on my way to Paris but instead, found myself cooking …..
Alex Herbert was born in Sydney, October 1967.
Alex began cooking in 1989. A desire to travel led to her deferring her Fine Arts Honour’s Degree at Sydney University.
While researching places to work in France she somehow ended up as an apprentice chef in the busy kitchen of Berowra Waters Inn, under the direction of Gay Bilson and Janni Kyritsis.
During her twenty-three year career, Alex has worked alongside some of Australia’s finest chefs and restaurateurs, featuring Gay Bilson, Janni Kyritsis, Maggie Beer, Christine Manfield, David Thompson and Martin Boetz.
In 1991 to 1993, Alex together with her then partner Howard Gardner took on the role of proprietor-manager/contract caterer of Pine Log Restaurant, on the central coast of NSW. During this time, the restaurant was awarded Sydney Morning Herald Country Restaurant of the Year 1993, under the editor Leo Schofield.
Following on from here Alex made the move to the Barossa Valley, South Australia for a stint as chef at Maggie Beer’s Pheasant Farm Restaurant during its swan song months. In late 1993 Alex relocated back to Sydney, with Howard, and took up working alongside Christine Manfield in the position of sous chef at the award-winning Paramount Restaurant, Potts Point Sydney.
A short break to have her first son Luke was followed up by a year of working in the kitchen with David Thompson at Sailors Thai in The Rocks, Sydney. This is where she first met Martin Boetz with whom she was to have an ongoing close personal and professional relationship.
With a young son in the family and a desire to have more independence and flexibility in life, Alex and Howard opened their own restaurant – Bird Cow Fish, situated just off Darling Street, Balmain, in 1996. Here Alex was joined in the kitchen by Martin Boetz as co- chef for the first 6 months. This 48 seat restaurant was cited by the Sydney Morning Herald Good Living restaurant critic: Terry Durack: “This place is a dream. What should be freshly made is freshly made, what should be crisp is crisp, and what should be soft is soft. The balance of flavours is harmonious and elegant. The overall effect is chic simple. Bird Cow Fish – Good Simple Delicious.” SMH – Eat Out, 5 November 1996.
After three years of trading, Bird Cow Fish was sold in April 1999 so that Alex could concentrate on her role as head chef of De’lish Store, Lindfield a gourmet food store specialising in catering, cakes, desserts and take-home meals which she had co-established in 1998.
During this time her second son was born in 2000.
After four years in business, she decided to sell out and establish a food consultancy business whose clients included: Trippas White Catering at the Art Gallery of NSW and Australia’s leading Food Consultancy Company Success Cycle Australia http://www.successcycle.com.au.
In late 2003 Alex worked again with chef Martin Boetz in the kitchen at Longrain, Surry Hills Sydney, for a further eight-month stint as a senior chef.
In 2004, Alex worked with Penny Chapman as Food Consultant to Chapman Pictures for ‘The Cooks’ television drama series. Her main roles were to tutor and mentor the actors to be chefs and to cook the food for the show’s scenes.
In March 2006, the second incarnation of Bird Cow Fish opened in Surry Hills and was immediately awarded “Favourite Bistro” and its first hat which it maintained over the next six years until it closed in February 2012.
Alex is a member of Slow Food and attended Terra Madre in Turin as Cook Delegate in 2008 and since 2011 has been an NSW judge for the Delicious Food Produce Awards.
In 2008 Alex and Bird Cow Fish commenced trading at Eveleigh St Market at The Carriage works in Redfern every Saturday morning, feeding the hungry hordes delicious breakfast meals and pastry treats.
Alex’s interest and love of food writing were displayed through her many Food writer’s dinners –held at Bird Cow Fish in collaboration with Fergus Henderson, Gabrielle Hamilton, Maggie Beer, Carol Selva Rajah not to mention the tribute dinners for Elizabeth David, Alice Waters, Claudia Roden & Marcella Hazan.
Currently, Alex is devoting more time to her two sons Luke 18 and Joel 12 and is engaged in various consultancy projects in addition to her weekly stall at Eveleigh Market.
The Crooked Madam
Take two slices of good bread I use Sonoma country white sourdough. Butter both generously with good butter I use Pepe Saya unsalted cultured butter. And then Top the unbuttered side of one slice with a few slices of excellent ham and overlap with slices of Swiss gruyere. Then slap on a fried egg – we use Egganic eggs – fried, naturally, in Pepe Saya butter. Season with grindings of sea salt and black pepper.
Then dress these lovelies with a splodge of Dijon mustard or, if you prefer, a squidge of my barbecue sauce. Or, if you are up for something more serious, go for both. This means the sandwich you are about to eat is called a slut, should you wish to order one.
There are those, however, who want neither mustard or sauce, and that’s OK, too. That’s known as a naked sandwich or, if you are ordering it that way, a nude.
And there will always be those who want, on their grilled ham and cheese, a bit of this and none of that. So to avoid losing their sandwiches on the grill, we place a fork on them so we can easily locate them. These, quite simply, are called the forkin’ sandwiches.
To complete any of these gems, grill them in a hot pan until golden. Flip and grill the second side, ensuring the sandwich is warmed through, soft on the inside and crisp on the outside.
Just as a crooked madam should be.
Featured Image of Alex Herbert by photographer Caroline McCredie