Spaghetti Ramenese: Deconstructing ‘Modern Australian Cuisine’ With Chef Nick Smith of Rising Sun Workshop

Image: Rising Sun Workshop – supplied.

Author: Melody Menu

When Nick Smith, the Executive Chef of what was to become Rising Sun Workshop needed to hustle up a menu for its pop-up precursor, he turned to ramen. It was a meal that could be created en masse by a single chef, and on a camp kitchen that could be built and dismantled within a week, if the law were to shut them down – which it did. A few years, a $40,000 crowdfund and an army of DIY volunteers later, we are able to sit within the motorcycle workshop and 90 seater café that makes up Rising Sun. Across two levels, the space captures the communal atmosphere of its profit-for-purpose concept, with solo eaters and families alike eating Japanese-Australian café fare, with the meals subsidising the activity in the workshop behind. A backdrop of Devil’s Ivy drips from exposed beams, past dusty rows of sake bottles, and frames motorcycle memorabilia. It provokes a humble, lived-in look; a dream garage made more inviting by the vibrant food and lo fi mood music drifting down through the speakers.

Taking a quick break from an intensive two days of service, Nick talks through Rising Sun’s history, from inception to present day. Conceptually, the idea of a shared workshop space stemmed from ingenuity and necessity, when Nick’s business partner Adrian Sheather, broke down while riding his bike along Parramatta Road. With no public workshop in sight, and no shed or set of tools in his own inner-city apartment, the seed for Rising Sun was sewn. ‘That was Adrian’s idea that we needed a place to work, but how do you make that work economically for the member?’

Around that time, Nick was working in speciality coffee with Adrian’s brother-in-law, Dan Cesarano. It was suggested that to make the workshop a viable space, the team would ‘combine the things that we were good at, and food and a restaurant would become a profit-for-purpose business that supported amenities for communal consumption.’ This would occur in a similar vein to a gym or a library, thus making the workshop affordable in subsidising it through the café. ‘It’s about pooling resources into a central space as a neighbourhood amenity that the public then access; and it combines the things that we love and the things that we miss.’

Nick had grown up in the early 80’s and saw the value of creative workshop spaces through his experiences working with his mechanical engineer grandfather. ‘[He had a] big suburban house and a workshop underneath, and we would go down and fix things, and that was mental therapy for him, I think. We didn’t talk about mental health in those days, but I think for him, that’s what that was. And I didn’t realise at the time how important it was for a young person and an older person to share that sort of time. We don’t have facilities for that anymore, we’ve cut that out of modern life. We go to work then we go home then we shop and we work in that triangle.’ In this way, Rising Sun challenges this triangle by providing a communal workspace and cafe that exists outside of these consumption-based parameters, all while providing a spectacular food and dining experience.

Nick’s passion for food is infectious, with questions regarding Rising Sun’s menu morphing into extended discussions on food history and innovation. ‘The food program here at Rising Sun is a series of accidents. We did ramen, and it was only going to be for a month or two. But it went really well, and I can’t get rid of it now.’ With no Japanese training, Nick found it particularly challenging to incorporate ramen into a menu that tells a cohesive story. This meant one of two approaches, either going ‘out-and-out Japanese’ which wasn’t a possibility due to a lack of training. ‘Or, you kind of look at it from an Australian point of view.’

Here, Nick delves into an issue which infuriates Internet trolls, and makes chefs scratch their heads in bafflement. This issue, this dirty word, is fusion food. ‘Everyone hates using the word ‘fusion’, it’s a horrible thing. It has the same connotation that nouvelle cuisine had in the 80’s and early 90’s, because it was done badly.’ Despite this, Nick has found a new comfort and understanding in fusion food, prompting him to wonder what all of the fuss is about. Because what is ‘modern Australian’ food if not fusion? ‘We’ve been doing fusion food from day one. As soon as you spread lilli pilli jam on a piece of toast in colonial Australia, you’re involved in fusion cuisine. As soon as you want to make an Irish stew but you’re fresh out of lamb; and use wallaby tail; you’re in Fusion Town.’

‘The Australian pantry is easily the most exciting, most innovative space in food in the world, in my opinion. Nowhere else would you move aside a bottle of Thai fish sauce to get at a can of dolmades. Our cupboards look vastly different to any other cupboards in the world.’

The way Nick encourages us to embrace fusion food is for us to collectively own it – owning our heritage and acknowledging the many and varied food cultures that came before us – while also keeping an eye to the future. In this way, fusion food can represent unlimited potential for growth, change and learning, rather than a source of cultural cringe. This was further reinforced for Nick when he came across a particular textbook as he was studying up on Japanese cuisine. When he found a late 19th Century map of the islands of Japan broken up into approximately 60 ‘broth states’, he was inspired to try his own hand at ramen, in a way that was based on the original tenets of ramen, but reimagined in his own unique way. ‘It kind of blew the lid on everything. It meant that I could come back and Newtown could be the 67th prefecture.’

This marriage of ‘modern Australian’ fare and Japanese cuisine is seen most keenly in all its fusion glory in Nick’s dish ‘Spaghetti Ramenese’, an inspired twist on the ubiquitous ‘spag bol’ found in so many Modern Australian establishments. Utilising pork belly braised down into a ragu and matched with ramen noodles rather than spaghetti, it is then seasoned with dehydrated seaweed, and features a burst of complex salt courtesy of fish sauce. ‘But it’s a pork ragu, it’s really Roman. And this is what I’m getting at: it starts to sound really fusion-y. But then you dig a little deeper and you look at the history of a dish and you realise that Ancient Romans were using garum all the time, which is essentially fish sauce.’ In this sense, all food becomes fusion once you dig deeper into the history of a cuisine and the trade routes and cultural inclinations that formed the cuisine as we now know it.

Particularly Australian food, which is still impacted by colonisation, and immigration, is ever-changing and something to be celebrated. As Nick says: ‘We’re the fusion nation – we should embrace that.’ And this extends to the home. Here, Nick encourages people to research up on ingredients and flavours, and be aware of and open to new tastes and experiences. Essentially, stock up that amazing Australian pantry. ‘Put some effort into it. Make something delicious; fill your fridge with delicious spices and relishes and chutneys and curry pastes and, I don’t know, look at that paintbox. It’s so much more fun than just Uber eating.’

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