Aussie secret takes over New York | Innovation
A SWEEPING change is altering in the way people eat in the United States, and New York-based Australians are at the heart of it.
The City That Never Sleeps lays claim to the world’s best food and coffee, but the cafe and restaurant scene is going through a renaissance.
A global shift towards healthy, fresh and sustainable produce has diverted the American culinary scene from super-sized portions of fast-food toward a colourful, varied diet. While there’s still a place for hamburgers and fried chicken, trendsetting New York is looking for something else, and it’s a golden opportunity for Aussies.
The number of Australian bars and eateries has skyrocketed over the past five years, and as all good things do, it began with breakfast and coffee.
‘UPBEAT, APPEALING, MAGICAL ALCHEMY’
The Big Apple is famous for bagels and cream cheese, doughnuts and drip coffee. These days, you’re more likely to spot a breezy brunch spot serving up avocado toast and flat whites as a diner offering waffles and pancakes in the fashionable enclaves of Williamsburg, Chelsea or Soho.
“The timing is perfect, the alchemy was just right, “ says city restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. “What a great image, and kind of an upbeat, appealing, magical alchemy, to feel a little bit transported to Australia, something we find a familiar, but completely unknown to most Americans.
“Also, coming at a time when the old bargain of New York, which is a diner breakfast, is almost gone. Diners can no longer afford to be business, so we’ve lost almost every diner in New York City. These Australian places give you a simple, solid brekkie that isn’t Starbucks … breakfast really simply done but with great ingredients.”
New York coffee shops once offered just a few cakes and pastries alongside the caffeine hit, but the Aussie fashion for high-quality food with coffee is becoming ubiquitous. The Aussies are everywhere — at Ruby’s, Little Collins, Egg Shop, Brunswick, Flinders Street — and even homegrown cafes are developing a similar look.
The biggest Australian hits include “coffee collective” Bluestone Lane, which turned five this week as a $20 million-dollar business with outlets in cities across the US; and “New York’s most Instagrammable cafe,” Two Hands, which opened in June 2014.
New Yorkers have woken up and smelt the coffee, and it’s no longer a quick pour from a convenience store filter.
“Is all New York coffee secretly Australian?” wondered Serious Eats in 2013, observing that it was Australia — not Seattle and Italy — which deserved the real credit for the city’s espresso obsession.
The New York Times went from calling the flat white a “cult drink” whose popularity was “not likely” to spread rapidly (2010), to describing it as “a small latte” (2014), before this week hitting on: “an Australian espresso-and-steamed-milk drink that is neither a cappuccino nor a latte.”
Cafe Grumpy, an early Aussie coffee shop from 2015, booted a Starbucks out of Grand Central in 2014 and a year later, the famous chain introduced its own version of flat whites, to mixed reactions from immigrant Aussies.
While Americans serve them in a annoyingly small size only, the iconic drink has truly gone mass.
“The foundation is definitely breakfast and brunch,” says Josh Evans, 28, from Melbourne, who opened Banter in February 2017 with his partner Nick Duckworth, 24, from Sydney. “People were coming in for coffee and breakfast and lunch and sort of loving what we were about.
“It’s not a million-dollar fit-out but it’s got that nice warming touch to it with the timber, and it’s also elevated by the people who work there. And the space, the way it’s laid out. As soon as you enter, someone says hello from behind the coffee machine or walks by, so it’s got that nice neighbourhood feel to it.
“A lot of spaces in New York are very narrow and they’re sort of long and a bit dark, and I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel right. Space is a luxury in New York and to find the right space is pretty hard, We looked for about six months.”
FAST, HEALTHY, AFFORDABLE
Dan Churchill — the kind of upbeat, laid-back, surfer chef you find all over Sydney — is a Jamie Oliver type making it his mission to overhaul the American diet through his Feast With Friends TV show, social content and a newly opened Lower East Side restaurant called Charley Street.
“In the morning, you’re having granola that’s not homemade, you’re pouring a jam on it and all this stuff, you’re having vanilla yoghurt with it, which has sugar, with honey, it just adds up, and the one teaspoon of sugar they’re adding to their coffee a day as their treat — they’re already having so much. Half and half — you think it’s half skim, half cream, it’s actually cream skim, not milk. It’s worse for you.
“They’re always going to have that need for home fries, all these things, that culture. I don’t want to replace that, but I think that the healthy option is something they are becoming more aware of.
“You put in a dish called healthy hash, because they love having a hash in the morning, but sweet potato as opposed to the starchy potato. That’s one of the simple things to adjust.
“I genuinely think Australians have such a strong foundation of big produce and healthy eating and healthy lifestyle and you can see it really starting to creep towards the centre of America and therefore throughout the world.”
So how are Americans responding? “The really traditional old school New Yorker, I think they’re a bit confused when they sit down,” says Josh. “I’m talking, like, your New Yorker who’s been here for 40 years, coming across this bright cafe with colourful food, they’re a bit taken aback. They’re used to their black coffee, scrambled eggs or omelet from the diner — which is fine, I don’t mind going to a diner and eating that stuff, I love it.
“But to your audience of say 20 to 40 — obviously there’s many people that come it above or below it — but that target majority is definitely responding to it … I think the nation, and especially New York, is looking for that healthier option.
“You can sit down at a table and get waited upon and eat really good quality food, and have good quality drinks or beverages, whatever it is, whether it be coffee or a cocktail or a glass of wine at a really affordable price and it’s still fast-paced.”
SPREADING THE BREAKFAST VIBE
While New York and Los Angeles may be among the most enthusiastic adopters of the Aussie food ethos, the rest of the nation is following.
“Other cities, they’ve started to pick up the cafe vibe, the breakfast vibe, the colourful dishes,” says Dan, who travels throughout America for his show and tries to make his tips and recipes relatable for a wider audience. “You are in a bubble here. West coast and east coast are completely different to Middle America. If a Milwaukee millennial can actually like your dish and like the show, that’s when you’re going to do well.”
Since John Howard negotiated a special visa for Aussies in 2005 — the E3 — the number of imports from Down Under has soared, with New York taking over from London as the year out destination of choice.
When Kara Landau, a 31-year-old dietitian from Melbourne moved to upstate New York to study seven years ago, she was appalled by the college cafeteria options of “refined breakfast cereals, pizzas, burgers, fried noodle dishes and pastries.”
Already a practising dietitian in Australia, she asked the management if she could change the menu, and was given a shot.
“I focused on getting more vegetables, lean proteins, low glycaemic index carbohydrates and healthy fats on to the menu,” she told news.com.au. “More vegetable-based toppings when dishes such as pasta was served, ensuring there were always extra protein options at breakfast such as eggs, legumes and natural peanut butter.”
Kara ensured the cafeteria offered steamed or grilled fish once a week, Greek yoghurt and fresh fruit as a daily dessert option and added fibre-rich sweet potato, quinoa and lentils as alternatives to refined grains.
“I basically was trying to improve the menu to an extent that it could positively impact the students, but not push it too far that the students would retract and not be open to trialling the new foods, it was about finding a happy medium while still leaving my mark.”
Her passion for nutrition scored her a change in her visa status that helped her obtain a social security number. Today, she’s a sought-after speaker and product developer, with her prebiotic Uplift Foods brand stocked in multimillion-dollar retailers across America.
Australians have grown up with a naturally healthy, outdoor lifestyle, and are conscious of nourishing their bodies. Kara’s in-depth knowledge, focused on the link between gut-health and mood, takes that to the next level.
“There’s a reason why Americans flock to the Australian cafes, why they love all these bright colours, breakfast bowls and avocado toast,” she says. “On the whole, the produces feels, tastes, feels inside of you — I anecdotally say it feels better.
“I know when I go back to Australia I feel better and I think most Australians living in America feel that way.”
‘WE’VE GROWN UP WITH THIS FUSION OF FOODS’
The Aussie invasion of New York has come a long way since the likes of The Australian, Thirsty Koala and The Tuck Shop began dishing up meat pies, lamb roasts, kangaroo, jaffles and lamingtons.
The Australian flavour is no longer a fun novelty, it’s a shrewd choice in a city where you can sample the best cuisine from across the world at any time of day or night.
“You’ve got a great broad spectrum of different cultures in the city,” says Josh. “You’ve got Hispanics, you’ve got Asians, you’ve got Australians now, you’ve got your traditional New Yorkers, Korean … Italian.”
With residents from 200 different countries in Melbourne alone, he says, “we’ve grown up with this fusion of foods and different cultures and different cuisines.”
Those large immigrant populations, bringing south-asian and European influences, mean it is hard to pinpoint a specifically Australian cuisine — but that’s almost the point.
Wolf says there are many similarities between the Australian lifestyle and that of the West Coast of the United States, but “New York would rather get a trend from Australia than California.”
He calls the Australian diet “foodie, ingredient-driven, gutsy, fun, straightforward food,” melding sophisticated San Francisco with trendy Los Angeles.
Josh believes there’s not exactly a specific Aussie cuisine. “We’re such a young country that we can’t really call something our own, other than maybe Vegemite or something like that.
“It’s just fresh, local food — so a lot of meats come from the butcher literally just five doors down. So we try and focus on that kind of stuff which means that whatever we’re cooking, at night or during the day, it’s going to taste good.
“The Australian culture is expanding to more than just breakfast and brunch. On the dinner menu, you’ll see like fresh seafood dishes you’ll find New York strip steak, we do a half chicken, we do ceviche, a pate, a burrata.
“One of the differences is actually the service, in the way that we serve our product. We do it in like an unassuming way. We’re casual yet we’re — we know when to joke around but we also know when to put our head down and be efficient.”
While Nolita (“North of Little Italy”) was christened “Little Australia” for the proliferation of antipodean businesses and accents, the famous Aussie twang is now everywhere. And although some play up their heritage with names such as Northern Territory and Flinders Lane, it’s now just as common to let the food speak for itself.
“We keep it subtle,” says Josh. “We want people to come in for who we are, not to come in because we’re Australian.”
Australia’s New York food star looks set to keep on rising as the community expands, but Dan warns against assuming that “you’re going to kill it” just because of where you’re from.
“It’s one thing to be an Australian, there’s the accent and stuff that people talk about. After that, if you continue to talk about Australian culture and that way, Americans all of a sudden, they lose sight of that. You want to have substance.”
He’s working to engage his audience across platforms, hosting cooking demonstrations beneath the restaurant broadcast on social media and bringing farmers in to talk about the origin of the tomatoes his customers are eating.
“The whole world is shifting,” says Josh. “There’s more awareness around sustainability, using local ingredients, putting the right things in your body, lifestyle, all these things.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily because of Australians, I think Australians do it very well.
“We’re a younger country with a smaller population so making changes is a lot easier in comparison to America. You come to America, there’s 350 million people, to make change is very hard, very, very difficult.
“We’re such a young country and we’ve had this adaptability from the beginning in our nature, I think that’s why we’ve adapted a bit quicker.”
Wolf has another idea of what the secret is: “Let’s just get a t-shirt that says avocado toast.
“It’s more than a staple. It’s a benchmark, it’s a shooting star, it’s the everything.”