It could be a passing phase or the onset of middle age, but for the moment, Phillip Searle has mellowed. He is a happy man at Vulcan's in Blackheath surrounded by the country he likes to bike around, the bush he loves to paint and the oven he has brought back to life. The oven in the cafe, once the town bakery, is not just a display gimmick, it is Phillip's chosen method of cooking. And in so doing he has revived an age-old sense of communal eating which people are rediscovering. They are coming from all over, particularly Sydney, to be part of the special atmosphere of Vulcan's and to eat his delicious food.
Phillip's thinks this way of cooking will blossom. "It's back to the hearth, to the shared table and people love it." He's developed dishes to suit the oven, cooking in large batches very slowly. "We don't divide dishes into portions. We do the whole thing and everyone shares in it and enjoys that experience. They know that they are getting a bit of what everyone else is having." There is no cooking to order, no special orders, people can't ask to have their beef more or less done because it is all cooked as one. The slow-cooked beef is a wonderous thing. It is a very cheap cut of meat which Philip marinates for days and then cooks overnight very slowly. The flavours developed are unctuous and long lasting.
It's marvelous - for the diner it's the unique taste and texture, for Phillip it's the liberation of "having the complete license to exercise my skills as a cook. I can do it exactly as I want, as precisely as I want." He recalls how upset he used to get at Oasis Seros with customers' demands and the expectations created in running a restaurant charging high prices. At Vulcan's he is able to keep the prices down because he is using low-cost ingredients and offering a small range of dishes. But part of his serenity now is the realisation that he "had to go through those experiences to really find out what a restaurant should be. It should be about real hospitality - not stitched up service." As fellow great chef Russell Jeavons also says, it's about giving of yourself. Phillip decides to cook a number of things and everyone "gets a bit of it". He feels that (at Vulcan's) people don't have a sense of ownership of their plate of food - it's much more a shared experience.
Certainly the path to Vulcan's has been lengthy and tumultuous for Phillip and his partner, BarryBarry and Phillip. From the halcyon days in Don Dunstan's free-spirited Adelaide at Neddy's and Possums to the fickle frenzy of Sydney's Oasis Seros. It all came to an end quite abruptly in 1994 when the award-winning restaurant was sold and Barry and Phillip settled into Blackheath. After a couple of years teetering between the catering challenges which Phillip does so brilliantly (the dishes he has created for the Symposiums of Gastronomy and Festivals are legendary); part-time waitering for Barry; painting and setting up the very successful Infinity Sour Dough Bakery in Sydney which has been very successful; Phillip found time to finish the renovations to the bakery in Blackheath, and Vulcans finally came to life.
Of course, Phillip's fans have followed him bush. Every weekend the place is filled with folk from Sydney and further afield. There are some reminders of Oasis on the menu - the chequerboard icecream, of course, the eggplant (see recipe), then there's a whole range of dishes which Philip has developed to suit the oven. It has are two chambers, the vast cooking area and the a narrow one with the fire. A wonderfully economical method of cooking and of heating, the heat lasts for days. In fact, the oven takes three days to cool down sufficiently to allow it to be cleaned. Mind you, cleaning means clambering through its narrow front opening. A job Phillip does himself.
He has trained the kitchen staff meticulously and is determined that they should be able to be left to do it. Life is not going to be so hard as it once was. Although it seems as though it's the challenges he sets himself which make it so. Of baking, he wrote, "For the baker with integrity, commitment has to be complete. Nonchalance destines you and your loaf to the bottom rung. That's about the same place chefs were at in the 1970s but there have been dramatic changes, and now in 1999 good chefs enjoy almost inconceivable status...and the baker has begun to emerge as a cook with credence. But it's a slow rise. Baking is an extremely solitary job and working at night has an oddly oppressive effect. No wonder then that all apprentice bakers want jobs at (Woolworths) where routines are prescribed. Take 50 bags of premix (that's flour which has had most of the nutrients removed). Mix with salt, sugar, fat and chemical agents. Empty into hole A; press B to add water; C to start. Have a ciggie, come back and put the resulting loaves into the oven. That's modern baking practice. Fortunately at Infinity we have given bakers back their hands and minds."
Inspirational stuff, but not easy. For Phillip, "I had the baptism by fire, it required working all night and stuff like that, because I really wanted to learn the game. But I don't have to do that now. No more catering, no more special events, and no more drama. I just want to take a long rest. I have been doing more painting."
He may be at 'rest' but Phillip Searle remains a master craftsman. He loves to get to the essence of a craft, be it painting, cooking, baking - to master the techniques and then to go beyond the norm. To create techniques from new forms - the chequerboard and pyramid icecream confections are examples of this, and now it is the form created by the old oven. "My focus now is a combination of the oven and ingredients. I hate the theory of getting the best produce and doing the smallest amount to it, this only has its place for the rich. But here with the oven, the cheapest cut of meat that you could possibly find is what I will get, and so I can keep the prices right down. The whole idea is to keep things totally accessible all the time".
"I think everything evolves, given that you have got that oven, you're suddenly going to become a much better cook." And he has staff who can follow, "we have only had a couple of staff changes since we started, But they are not just chefs, they have to know everything to do with it. They have to touch things, taste them and understand them. It's a singular craft. My theory on teaching -and I've never had anyone except apprentices, because if you get people who are trained, they have to unlearn everything they have learned - is to tell them what to do, leave them alone, and then come back a week later and if they can't..."
The system seeks seems to work, I've never seen Phillip looking so relaxed. So too his partner Barry Ross. As Vulcan's trades just three days a week he gets to spend most of his week in their rambling Blackheath garden. "We just want to have this business," says Phillip. "I never want to be in the position of being 80-years-old, with no money, and being at somebody else's mercy. This is the sort of business that will be able to go on for ever".
A 1995 interview with Phillip Searle from Mietta and Friends, Phillip in 1991 and a review of his restaurant Vulcans.
Smoked eggplant with crab sauce
Salmon or swordfish with sambal coat
Steamed blue swimmer crab with tamarind and "angel's hair"
Roasted salmon with glazed eggplant
Oysters with cucumber in ham jelly
Chocolate and mandarin parfail