While she doesn’t chase the limelight like some of her
celebrity peers, Sydney chef Christine Manfield has
enjoyed enormous success built on a love of spice.
Published Selector Autumn 2013
Christine Manfield, chef and owner of Sydney’s acclaimed Universal, is a self-confessed perfectionist: “I’ve never, ever been interested in doing things half-heartedly or things that are just ordinary or regular. If you’re going to do something, just take it as far as you can.”
So when she swapped the classroom for the kitchen in the mid-80s, Christine threw herself whole-heartedly into her new vocation.
Her dedication has paid off and in a culinary career spanning three decades, Christine’s had incredible success. Her many achievements include running five restaurants, among them London’s East@West, which was awarded Best New Restaurant by the 2004 London Tatler Restaurant Guide and won the Catey’s Award for Best UK Menu 2004. Also, she’s appeared as a guest on Masterchef Australia; given her time to Plan International, Amnesty and Room to Read; launched her Spice Collection; and written six books including 1999’s Spice that apparently earned her the title, Mistress of Spice.
This is a moniker Christine holds proudly as her love of spice underpins her love of food and she describes herself as a “flavour profiler” who likes to explore the diversity and the versatility of flavours.
“I just find spice takes food to another dimension,” she says.
But Christine acknowledges there’s still confusion around what spices actually entail. When she teaches cooking classes, she often asks, “Who doesn’t use spice in their cooking?” Inevitably, she’s faced with a sea of hands to which she responds, “Do you use pepper or salt? Then put your hand down.”
Christine also finds that people still associate the term ‘spicy’ with overpowering or hot, but her take on using spices is all about being “subdued and sometimes subtle.”
As she explains, “I like assertive flavours, but it has to be done elegantly. I’m not talking about making it hot for the sake of it; it always has to be in perfect balance and harmony. The mouthfeel, which is the polite way of saying oral orgasm, has to have that wow factor.”
But their effect goes further than taste, she adds. “When you’re cooking with spices you hear the snap, crackle, pop and the aroma is as intoxicating as the flavour.”
Christine’s love of spice not only guides her cooking, but it also dictates her travel destinations. She says, “I’ll go anywhere in the world where the food’s great and there’s some spice in it.”
And it’s not just her own tastebuds that she takes on global culinary adventures. Since 1999 when Spice was released, Christine has been hosting Spice Tours for intimate groups of ten. As she explains, “We go to locations around the world where the cuisine is focused on the use of spice. India was our first destination, then it opened up to Morocco and South-East Asia. But over the last few years I’ve been focusing much more exclusively on India.”
But that’s not to say the content of the tours has become repetitive; in such a huge, diverse country there’s always a new region to explore.
As Christine describes, “To the outsider I guess it just looks crazy and colourful, but even people who have travelled with me a few times come back over and over again because each trip is different and they marvel at the difference between say Kerala in the south and Kashmir in the north.”
On her tours, Christine’s aim is, “to try to get a sense of what the place is about through its food. The social dynamic, the religion, it all comes through in its food and I think India is one place where that’s blaringly obvious. Food is a great introduction to any culture; everyone eats and when you show an interest, it’s a way of communicating, it’s a way of sharing.”
The incredible cuisine of India also inspired Christine’s sixth book, Tasting India. Including breath-taking photography by Anson Smart, it’s a colourful tribute to a country she describes as a “visual feast and a gastronomic paradise”. Divided into regional chapters, the book gives a taste of different cuisines including the elegant, richly flavoured and textured Bengali, the Himalayan Buddhist food of Ladakh and the varied flavours of Mumbai that have arisen thanks to its diverse religious populations.
But despite the heterogeneity, there is one sweeping statement that can be applied to Indian food and comes from a quote by Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, which appears in the introduction to Tasting India: “The magic of Indian cooking is in the proper use and blending of spices. It is also important to know and understand the spices that are an absolute must with different kinds of food.”
Wine and spice
Back in Sydney, Christine applies her experiences of India and the world when she’s moulding her menu at Universal.
Changing with the fluidity of the seasons, it features “distinctive and definitive flavour combinations that are not limited by traditional boundaries. It attempts to broaden the parameters of the dining experience and appreciate the natural symmetry between food and wine.”
Every dish has a suggested wine match, but while Christine and her team work hard on getting a match they think is optimal, she’s eager to point out, “There are no hard and fast rules at all. There are very broad generalisations you can follow, but you don’t have to be a wanker about it. You like what you like and what I like, the next person may not.”
She does, however, enjoy “blowing a few myths out of the water.” As she explains, “When I wrote Spice I wrote a whole chapter about spicy food and wine, because it was still a commonly held belief all through the 90s, and even as late as 2000, that when you go to a Thai restaurant you should drink beer or, at best, Gewürztraminer. Some wine writers are still saying with Indian food you can only drink sweet beer. But they’ve got a wine culture in India, they’ve got vineyards popping up all over the place in the hills, in the mountains!”
The use of spice, she says, should not be a deterrent to wine matching. “You can get any sort of spice to match with some sort of wine,” says Christine.
“There are some wines that are probably a little harder, like a Bordeaux is probably one of the hardest, just because of the tannins, but then it depends on what else you use in your cooking besides the spice that’s going to change it.”
While Christine has dedicated her culinary career to serving worldclass cuisine, she has a down-to-earth appreciation of the time and talent restrictions of the home cook. Her love of teaching has persisted and shows in the hands-on cooking classes she runs throughout the country.
“I don’t teach, ‘how to cook in a restaurant’ and I don’t use the recipes from the restaurant. It’s about empowering people to say, ‘wow, I can do that’. I don’t see much value in me standing up, pulling a rabbit out of my arse and going ‘lah-dedah isn’t this all fabulous’. Sometimes people do want to see that sort of thing and I can throw something like that in, but I then turn it into something that’s achievable at home.”
Christine has extended the possibilities of creating healthy, flavour-filled dishes at home with her Spice Collection, including Chilli Jam, Preserved Lemons Harissa and Satay Spice Paste.
While you can attempt to replicate Christine Manfield’s cuisine at home, no-one will ever be able to mimic her career. She says, “It was never mapped out, I had no goddamn idea. And I still don’t know what’s going to be happening in a year’s time.”
What she does know is that she’s decided to close Universal at the end of April. But Christine is by no means disappearing from Australia’s culinary landscape. She’ll continue writing, teaching and travelling, driven by a curiosity to explore the world and all its spicy possibilities.