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Jess Blanch
Travel + Lifestyle Expert
+ About Jess Blanch

About Jess Blanch

Beginning her career in public relations, Jess Blanch moved to journalism in 2003 as a weekly reporter on small business for The Australian Newspaper. Having worked across a number of magazines, books and custom publications she is now Publisher & Editor In Chief of RUSSH Magazine.

Check out the new RUSSH website at russhmagazine.com.

 

Friends with benefits

Friday, January 15, 2010

Simon Johnson – Sydney’s self-professed purveyor of fine foods – chooses his friends well. I caught up with him following his return from a ‘research trip’ and a tip that his passport had recently been stamped everywhere – from Milan to Puglia – eager to unearth his most amazing food moment while abroad.

Naively, I anticipated a tantalising narrative of Yannick Alleno’s duck foie gras at Parisian uber-eatery Restaurant Le Maurice or perhaps an account of an extravagant hunt through Italy’s Piedmont region for white truffles.

Not so. Johnson modestly recalled an evening spent in the UK where he is now setting up a distribution outlet. The setting, simple: a home-cooked dinner with friends.

“On my last night in London I had plans to go out to dinner with Antonio Carluccio, however he had been mushrooming and suggested I just come over for risotto,” he recalls.

“It’s all about simplicity. We just sat down and he made this beautiful mushroom risotto, around the kitchen table with some friends. It was driven by beautiful mushrooms, great stock, carnaroli rice. Stirring for 20 mins and we had this beautiful dinner. So delicious and it delivers so much.”

Despite the fact that Carluccio happens to be an Italian-born chef, restaurenteur and a BBC TV food presenter, Johnson’s anecdote points to a burgeoning trend towards simple, seasonal comfort food, prepared ‘improv’, without fuss. It’s the epicurean way to say, “Oh this old thing? I just threw it on.”

While seasonality has been in favour for quite some time – driven by the Tuscan food fad that seems to have dominated for almost a decade – food influencers appear to be paring things back further and getting back to absolute basics. And in terms of execution, a prepared dinner party sounds all so very premeditated.

“The impromptu entertaining thing is starting to happen in Australia,” says Johnson, acknowledging spontaneity is the recipe of the day.

“I think people are realising that by having key ingredients in your pantry, good vinegars and good olive oils, you can be a hero in the kitchen with very little fuss. The key is to concentrate on flavour.”

It’s a message echoed in most of the cookbooks we found under the tree this Christmas. Open My Table: Food for Entertaining by TV chef Pete Evans of Melbourne restaurant Pantry fame and he agrees.

“The wow factor is simply how good the food tastes and how easy it is to make it happen,” he writes. “That’s what I strive for in my home cooking: simplicity with great flavour.”

Home from New York for the holidays, an in-the-know friend of mine claims the back to basics approach isn’t confined to the home front – with humble Roman food taking the city’s restaurant scene by storm.

True Roman food – despite the ancient capital’s reputation of a more-is-more mentality – actually relies on economical cuts of meat and simply dressed pastas. So while temperatures plummeted in the Big Apple over the festive season, locals were feasting on peasant fare such as crisp porchetta (a whole roast pig) and salted oxtail. It’s a method the Italians refer to as alla vaccinara, translated as ‘in the butcher’s style’ and it personifies the chaste nature of this new attitude.

Need proof? Restaurateur Danny Meyer, responsible for the legendary quality burger chain, Shake Shack, recently opened a downtown restaurant called Maialino replicating a Roman trattoria complete with authentic blue-check tablecloths and a mode New York Magazine calls “a casual-dining ethos of recession-era New York”.

For those of us who don’t spend our days out mushrooming, the good news is that the off-the-cuff trend doesn’t require Michelin training. In fact, according to Johnson, it can be as easy as well-informed shopping list. He advises stocking up on good quality basics such as Ortiz anchovies, a big chunk of reggiano, jars of tomato and basil sugo, some really good sourdough bread and a few of your favourite antipasto style things – like jamon.

His eponymous Peroni semi-dried tomatoes from the south of Italy – new in store – are a good start.

Simon says: “If friends pop in, you can throw the bread on the grill, brush it with some olive oil and perhaps a little garlic, throw an anchovy down and server a glass of champagne and you could be anywhere.”

Rome perhaps? It sounds so easy: my only concern is that my friends may be too often knocking at my door.

Important information:This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

 

 

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The year of living fearlessly

Friday, December 11, 2009

When New York’s 82 year-old Gramercy Park Hotel re-opened in 2006 following a $200 million makeover, renowned hotelier Ian Schrager insisted it wasn’t just another “art hotel”.  

He was referring to the surge of hotel chains that had begun to adorn their walls with big-name art in an attempt to gain credibility.

Far be it for Schrager, famed for his too-cool-for-school establishments such as West Hollywood’s Mondrian and Miami’s Delano, to follow a trend. Ever ahead of the zeitgeist (he is, after all, the man who launched Studio 54), he snubbed the fad and went one better, enlisting artist and good friend Julian Schnabel to put his creative mind to the legendary space on Lexington Avenue.

In a sharp move away from the minimalism Schrager had made famous through his previous work with designer Philippe Starck, the Schnabel collaboration set an entirely new scene.

The 185-room hotel mimicked an artist’s studio: eclectic, neo-expressionist, haphazard to the untrained eye – a downtown bohemian playground. Here it started with the art: two Andy Warhols hung in the Rose Bar alongside a super-rare Jean-Michel Basquiat, on loan from one of New York’s art-world nobles, plus special commissions and works by the likes of Damien Hirst, Keith Haring and Richard Prince.

My first visit to GPH (as it is affectionately known to Manhattanites) was during the pinnacle of its celebrity, only weeks after opening. It was impossible not to be blown away by 20th century masterpieces hanging indifferently among precious antiques, not to mention being the first time I’d seen a Warhol in the flesh.

With just a week in town, I’d not only I saved myself hours at the MET but had my eyes opened to a whole new aesthetic.

This, of course, was Schrager ‘s vision –opening up art that had previously only been experienced by a select few to a broader, albeit hip, community. Mission achieved: let’s just say, poetically, I left my heart at the Gramercy Park.

Last week: three years on and I had a sense of deja vu when I received a room key enticing me to ‘live fearlessly’ at the opening of Melbourne’s newest hotel – The Cullen Hotel on Commercial Road, Prahran. The Art Series Hotel concept is the brainchild of Melbourne entrepreneur Will Deague. The eponymous hotel, named after bad boy and Archibald Prize winning artist Adam Cullen, is the first in a number of hotels set to open in Melbourne over the next 18 months. Next up in March, The Olsen (titled on art world darling John Olsen) followed by The Blackman on St Kilda road with three others in the pipeline.

To be fair, The Cullen is not the first art hotel in Australia. Tasmania’s richly-awarded Henry Jones Art Hotel sits on Hobart’s waterfront opened in 2004 and features over 250 original artworks by both established and emerging Tasmanian artists. A veritable gallery, there’s an installation room, school of art and most of the works displayed can be purchased through catalogue.

It would seem however the Aussie contingent – unlike Schrager– are happy to boast their connection to the to the cultural scene and label themselves as art hotels.

The Cullen actively encourages patronage by art aficionados through offering an in-house curator to guide guests the hotel’s exhibitions and Melbourne’s cutting-edge galleries indicating it’s not just about following a trend.

But does that mean these hotels will be any less inspiring or illusive?

It’s unlikely. After all, Adam Cullen - as much impresario as artist - is hardly main stream. Emerging in the 1990s as part of the grunge movement, he gained notoriety when he chained a rotting pig head to his leg and dragged it around for several weeks until the putrefied skull fell apart. He furthered his notoriety by illustrating a dark fairytale book for convicted criminal Mark “Chopper” Read. The traditional art world has labelled his work as crude, distasteful and grotesque. But come to think of it, I’ve heard similar things said of Studio 54. Perhaps in art, as in life, there are times when it can pay to live fearlessly?

Important information:This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

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For the love of the game

Friday, November 27, 2009

Who can forget the polo scene in the iconic 1990 film Pretty Woman where handsome eligible bachelor Edward (Richard Gere) and the ‘escort’ Vivian (Julia Roberts) frolic flirtatiously during the divot stomp?

Having removed her shoes, Vivian, a vision in brown and white polka dots, leans on Edward’s arm, flashes him her toothy smile and their eyes lock in adoration – their fate sealed. The rest? Let just say that in the end, as it said in the movie, “she got the fairytale”.

Spectating at last Saturday’s Paspaley Polo in the City in Sydney’s Centennial Park – the first of the series to run in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth – I couldn’t help but ponder: if racing is the sport of kings, could polo be the sport of romance?

With a moment to myself by the fan in the corner of the hospitable G.H Mumm tent, I consulted the program guide – the glossary of terms, to be precise – for some intel.

On polo ponies it read: “main qualities are heart, speed, stamina and the ability to accelerate, stop and turn quickly, and whose temperament is amenable to the rigours of the game”.

Surrounded by the assembly of Sydney’s social set on this warm summer’s day, it was impossible not to draw synergies –in fact, I was convinced I’d stumbled upon the perfect chronicle of what it takes to be a winner in the local dating scene.

According to Polo in the City spokesperson Janek Gazecki, the series now in its fourth year, has given polo the necessary ‘face lift’ demonstrating it as more than “a mere backdrop for a champagne party, but rather a veritable and vigorous sport”.

“It has brought polo to the people and injected new excitement to one of the oldest sports in the world,” he says. “Yet balanced it with a level of refinement and glamour traditionally expected of polo.”

This year, corporate hospitality sales close to doubled that of previous years, indicating a reliance on the sport for entertaining its high net-worth clients. Sponsors included Audi, Ernst & Young and, among such glamorous surrounds, one could be led into thinking polo remains the sport of billionaires and playboys. This is not the case says Gazecki.

“Here in Australia, one of the world’s top polo playing nations, there’s been a surge of young urban professionals wanting to get involved,” he says. “And the reality is many of the professional players, who travel the international circuit, hail from the country.”

As for my fairytale ending, I had my hopes pinned on the divot stomp but as the chukka ended and I looked around for a suitable pal to hit the turf with it appeared they were all preoccupied in the Stellar Artois tent.

In my closest company was a hot and sweaty polo pony – his head bowed in exhaustion. Not wanting to miss out, I walked over to him to pat his chestnut forelock. Then, checking that no one was watching, I asked shamelessly: “Is this the moment where you fall in love with me?”

If only horses could talk.
Important information:This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

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The out of towners

Friday, November 20, 2009

“This is the top venue on the Gold Coast,” the driver told me as we approached the Palazzo Versace. “If you don’t like this, don’t come back.”

Straight off the plane from Sydney, I, a brunette, dressed in sombre black had clearly been labelled an out-of-towner. Pulling into the heavily mosaic tiled driveway of the award winning hotel we watched a Donatella-type, platinum-haired and tanned, slink past, body conscious in heels and I immediately understood why. As I paid my fare, the driver looked at me sympathetically and warned: “Just don’t take the bathrobes home. The slippers are fine but if you take the robe they’ll charge you 500 bucks”.

Donatella is, of course, the sister of murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace and now figurehead of the Milan-based empire. Gianni, before he was shot down outside his Miami home was a flamboyant figure on the international party scene with glam mates such as Sting and Princess Di. Predictably, the family has remained in the headlines and worldwide the Versace name is synonymous with sex, euro-style and scandal.

Opening in our sunny state in 2000, only 100 meters from Main Beach, the Palazzo Versace became one of the world’s first fashion branded hotels. And much like its namesake, it keeps a high profile. There are all the usual trappings of a five-star hotel, all appropriately ostentatious. 200 rooms, 72 condos – either with private rooftop area or plunge pools, a private marina berthing up to 32 meters, three restaurants, a spa, well-equipped gym and a Versace boutique. The swimming pool, not content as that, doubles as man-made beach.

Visually, it is an open embrace of the Renaissance and Baroque eras with marble in abundance and bespoke carpets, linens and crockery (sporting the ever-present Medusa’s head) offer a point of difference at every occasion. The centrepiece of the lobby is an ornate chandelier, which once hung in the State Library of Milan. The result? Opulent but well executed. 

Others agree. The Leading Hotels of the World gave their seal of approval shortly after launch, awards have reached ‘too many to mention’ proportions and in a move that seals their position in the global luxury market, a second Palazzo Versace is set to open in Dubai next year.

My willing date for the weekend is my husband and feeling like two characters from a Fellini film, we adopt a ‘last days of Rome’ approach that warrants over-indulgent as an understatement. Perhaps it is the pressure to live up to the glamorous décor? We dine lavishly, forget to wear sunscreen, spend a little too much on wine, go to bed late and wake to find our suite decorated with chocolate wrappers – the remnants of a game we like to call ‘death-by-mini bar’. It is a sweet life, La Dolce Vita style. Our only saving grace is rising early to soft-sand run along Surfer’s great white strip – a wry attempt to repent for our sins before we do it all again.

Despite the decadence, it is the super-relaxed, uninhibited atmosphere that gives this establishment its edge. Here ‘Italians do it better’ arrogance meets the Gold Coast’s unsophisticated vibe and the magic is in the juxtaposition. No amount of hotel-school can hide the bleached locks of the surfer-turned-barman who prepares my apértif each afternoon – the negroni (a house favourite hailing from Milan’s legendary Bar Basso) and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Was I tempted to steal the robe and slippers? Absolutely not. After all, what use would I have for them. To borrow the oft-repeated words of Donatella Versace: “Glamour is back”.

Important information:This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

 
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Secret wine business

Monday, October 26, 2009

When an invitation to lunch arrives to celebrate the “world’s hottest new secret wine varietal”, it’s hard to remain suitably nonchalant. To my mind, the words ‘secret’ and ‘wine’ are seldom used together enough so it was with piqued interest I showed up to Kiwi chef Justin North’s Clarence Street restaurant, Etch (a dressed-down sibling to the acclaimed Becasse) to find out more about a French varietal to be launched by an Aussie wine label.

In what proved a bounty for my viticultural vocabulary, I shared a glass of Moscato on arrival with the winemaker himself, Scott Comyns. Winemakers are wonderfully down-to-earth companions at these kinds of events. They tend to quaff their wine, rather than sip, which means they’re instant fun. Plus, they are handy with pronunciations.

Aranel. Said like a-ran-nel. It’s certainly not the most elegant of names but it is French so it may be excused, n'est-ce pas? Grown here in Griffith, from the one surviving cane imported from France more than ten years ago, it is maker Tempus Two’s latest foray into what they like to call innovative European wines with an Australian twist.

This boutique winery has been subject to European charms since its inception and when founded in 1997 by industry trailblazer Lisa McGuigan, was born to the name of Hermitage Road. A year later when the French appellation campaigned to stop the use of the name Hermitage, it was renamed Tempus Two. Which, not by coincidence as it turns out, is Latin for second time around.

Tasting Aranel for the first time, it quickly registers how lucky we are McGuigan didn’t hold a grudge against the French. I’m not a qualified oenophile, despite a dedicated devotion to wine over the last decade, so I looked to a gentleman holding court at our long table, earnest in his dark-rimmed glasses and silver hair, looking like he knew a thing a two.

Not Peter Bourne, obviously, but when he spoke people paid attention, as did I.

“Lovely with this trout,” I overheard as he referred to the morsel on our plates.

“But calling for oysters,” he added. Nodding their heads in agreement, his audience was enthralled. Then in an instant, a lady shifted forward in her seat and my viewing was switched off.

Nonplussed, I had other things to concentrate on. An aged Semillon, a Melange a Trois, a Tempranillo – it is amazing how quickly an afternoon can pass when you’re tasting wines. Realising I was late for the airport I reluctantly made for a quick exit.

Rushing out the door, I ran straight into the man I’d decided was a member of the wine cognoscenti, dislodging the contents of his arms.

“Oh, merde,” he cursed, tactically, catching the wine.
Surely that was French for…?

Following my apology, I gave into my curiosity and, politely, or so I thought, asked the man if he was a wine scribe of some note. Visibly annoyed, he simply replied that he wasn’t going to tell.

And I shrugged it off. Perhaps he too was caught up in the clandestine nature of the lunch invitation?

It wasn’t until last night when I turned the top on a bottle of Aranel that I thought again of this mysterious man who swore in French. Whoever he may be, he was absolutely right, how well it works with oysters.

Important information:This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

 

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