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Modern Australian cuisine makes waves in Bali

Expatriate chefs rule culinary roost on Indonesian resort island

An Australia-inspired offering at Bali's Sea Circus.

DENPASAR, Indonesia -- A generation ago, Australia was a culinary backwater known for meat pies, hamburgers with beetroot and Vegemite on toast -- like "British food, but worse," mused a food critic for The New York Times.

That all changed around the turn of the century. Influences from immigrant communities from Asia and the Mediterranean coalesced with a health-food craze and an abundance of fresh local produce to give birth to "modern Australian cuisine" -- a whimsical fusion of simple, wholesome foods cooked and presented exceptionally well.

It did not take long for chefs and restaurateurs from Australia -- where nearly 60% of the population hold passports -- to export the phenomenon abroad.

In New York, Australian-owned cafes such as Two Hands and Bluestone Lane are the talk of the town with their perfect coffee, homemade pastries and folded eggs (a scrambled-omelet hybrid).

Bill Granger, the Australian restaurateur credited with turning smashed avocado on toast from an after-school snack into a millennial cliche, has opened 19 "Bills" restaurants in five countries, including eight in Japan.

Launched in 2010 in Singapore's iconic Marina Bay Sands complex, Waku Ghin, the first overseas venture of Australian master chef Tetsuya Wakuda, has held two Michelin stars since 2017. Tetsuya's signature dish, Confit of Tasmanian Ocean Trout, is often referred to as one of the most photographed dishes in the world.

Yet nowhere outside the Antipodes has "modern Australian," as it is widely termed, arguably left a larger mark than in Bali, the Indonesian resort island that faces Australia across the Timor Sea.

According to Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport, 121,000 Australians visited the island in September -- 6% more than in the comparable period a year earlier. The second-largest group of visitors were Chinese, with 100,000 arrivals in September. However, the Bali Tourism Board says that up to 70% of Chinese tourists arrive on "zero-dollar" tours -- tightly chaperoned sightseeing and shopping junkets whose profits are siphoned back to China.

Tourists pack Seminyak Beach in Bali. Over a million Australians visit the island each year, and some 10,000 have made it their permanent home.     © Reuters

By contrast, nearly all the 1 million-plus Australians who visit Bali every year are independent travelers, while 10,000 Australian expatriates reside permanently on the island. From property development to retail, wellness and catering, Australian entrepreneurs have invested in just about every sector of Bali's all-important tourism industry.

Modern Australian cuisine first surfaced in Bali in the late 2000s in the fashionable beach-side district of Seminyak. Some of the earliest venues to usher in the trend, such as Sea Circus, a 70-seat restaurant and cocktail bar with a beach shack vibe that opened in 2009, still draw crowds today -- cash cows for an industry renowned for its fickleness.

"We serve a modern Australian breakfast and comfort food for lunch and dinner -- tacos, burgers, healthy salads," says owner Joshua Herdman, a native of Melbourne who moved to London to work in the advertising industry after graduating from university.

Melbourne native Joshua Herdman, top, and an offering from Neon Palms, his upmarket tapas and tacos bar. Herdman's other eateries in Bali include Sea Circus and the soon-to-open Caravan. 

"One day my girlfriend came back from a holiday in Bali and said absolutely no one is doing good coffee in Bali," he recalls. "Being from Melbourne, one of the world's great coffee cities, that was enough for me to think, why not give it a go? It was closer to home than London. It was cheaper to start a business than in Australia, and there were fewer barriers to enter the market. So we quit our jobs and moved to Bali."

Herdman, whose investments in Bali now include Neon Palms, an upmarket tapas and tacos bar, and Caravan, a new 50-seat pop-up restaurant and retail concept store, says 70% of his customers are tourists but the rest are Indonesian.

"Indonesia has a growing middle class and they like nice things," he says. "We deliver high-quality products with the same treatment and service you get in Australia, plus extras like music and design."

Will Meyrick, arguably the most successful expatriate restaurateur in Bali, was born and raised in Scotland but honed his chef's skills working in Sydney's hyper-competitive restaurant scene. His two fine-dining venues in Seminyak -- Sarong, an elegant curry house that opened in 2008, and Mama San, a sophisticated ode to Asian street food trading since 2011, are as busy as when they opened.

Born and raised in Scotland, Will Meyrick, top, has made a name for himself in Bali with his restaurants Sarong, a curry house, and Mama San, an ode to Asian street food. Below, Mama San's dendeng balado -- caramelized wagyu short-rib beef with green mango salad, lemon grass, coriander, basil and lime.     

"I could not have succeeded in Bali without first working under chefs like Neil Perry (owner of Sydney's Rockpool restaurant) in Australia," he says. "It gave me a good understanding of how to fuse Asian flavors with Western cooking techniques and create the sweet/salty/sour dishes that connect with the Western palate like dendeng balado -- caramelized wagyu short-rib beef with green mango salad, lemon grass, coriander, basil and lime."

Meyrick adds: "Modern Australian cuisine has even started to encompass Balinese and Indonesian cooking at the same time because there is such a strong connection between Bali and Australia, with all the tourists coming here and all the Indonesians going to study over there."

Bali's most fashionable dining district is Canggu, a rapidly urbanizing surf mecca about half an hour's drive north of Seminyak. There, hip young restaurateurs covered with tattoos and body piercings -- both Indonesian and expatriate -- are a dime a dozen, with new cafes, restaurants and bars opening nearly every week.

The two "must eat" places in Canggu are Fishbone Local, a 100-seat sustainable seafood restaurant, and Mason, a 120-seat grill with a large, dimly lit cocktail bar at the back. Both are owned and managed by a small team of expatriate Australians fronted by Ben Cross, former executive chef at Ku De Ta, Bali's original beach club.

Ben Cross heads the small team of Australians behind "must visit" restaurants Fishbone Local and Mason. Despite the eateries' comparatively higher prices, expatriates -- who Cross says accounts for half of all receipts -- keep coming back for their vibe and dishes such as twice-cooked lamb shoulder.  

Cross says that 50% of receipts at both venues are attributable to expatriates, who have hundreds of good -- and cheaper -- restaurants to choose from but keep coming back to Mason and Fishbone for the vibe and dishes such as twice-cooked lamb shoulder and fish tacos with grilled pineapple.

"We work very hard to make sure everything that comes out of the kitchen is consistent, which isn't always the case in restaurants in Bali," Cross says. "But I think my previous experience working in Australia and learning how to adapt different ingredients that are available to you has been key to getting the menu right.

"The great thing with modern Australian," Cross says, "is it has no history, so there are no strict rules like you have with Italian and Japanese cuisine. But it can't get too complicated. It has to draw on a lot of things but still make sense and taste good. Plenty of people get it wrong -- even in Australia -- with concepts that are just too confusing."

Bali hot spots Mama San, top, and Fishbone Local.

Meyrick, who this year opened his fifth Bali restaurant -- Billy Ho, a Japanese-Korean-Hong Kong fusion restaurant, in Canggu -- says the constant fusing of cooking styles prescribed by modern Australian cuisine is creating less-sophisticated culinary experiences.

"When I first came to Bali, I tried to open restaurants that were true to their regions. But I discovered the general public doesn't care about authenticity, they just care about fusion," he says. "That's why modern Australian became the nouveau culinary favorite -- because it's incredibly simple. It has three ingredients -- a protein, vegetables and sauce -- and it's relatively cheap to make, whereas French cuisine, for example, has many more components in every dish."

He adds: "What Ben [Cross] and I are doing is finding a balance between what the public wants to eat and what we want to cook. But ultimately all this fusing will lead to a dumbing down of the restaurant experience because what people who dine out really want is simplicity and convenience."

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