When Chef, surfer and fitness fan Tom Walton took up the option of a pop-up cafe in Bondi Beach in 2012, little did he realise he would be on the crest of a wave. Right from the start, The Bucket List was a health-focussed menu with less meat but still with bangs of flavour. Now, with The Bucket List and three existing Nudefish Poke restaurants in Sydney, and two more to come, including one in Melbourne, the wave has well and truly broken.
Quality of ingredients is key and produce needs to be presented at its best, says Walton, who prefers to call it vegetable-based cooking, rather than vegetarian or vegan. Vegetarian dishes now often outsell meat and fish dishes on the menu as it does in the event functions and catering space. Walton, who has a Middle Eastern upbringing and French training, now has a preference for light flavours so he has pulled elements of them together, including miso and tahini, and nuts, seeds and spices added to roast vegetables such as eggplant or haloumi. “You are transforming it from something that is boring to something that packs a bit of a punch and then adapting it,” he says. His wakame salad with, sesame tahini and miso paste on Japanese dengaku eggplant is both a restaurant and home favourite.
“It’s basically like having a steak! You have that and you won’t want anything else,” he says.
Middle Eastern, Thai, Korean and Japanese vegetable pickles can add zing to many dishes, he says. Southern jerk marinades also work well on a whole head of cauliflower, and served with fresh avocado, tomato and herbs can replace a roast chicken, he says. Or try a whole baked cauli with tahini and pomegranate molasses or char-grilled with a green curry sauce with snows peas. It also comes at a good price point. He says you can prattle on about free-range and organic but if it is not affordable and accessible, then there is not much point. Cauli or broccoli or even brussel sprouts certainly comes in cheaper by the box.
Walton lightly boils, then oils and pan-fries sprouts, or blanches them and crushes and bakes them as you would crushed potatoes. Or he shaves with a mandolin and sautees with chilli and garlic, finishing with a little maple syrup and folding through with dried chickpeas and pairs with hummus or baba ganoush for a full meal.
The dish was so popular at The Bucket List, it moved from a starter to a main. Sweet potatoes wedges also go off on the menu with Walton hand cutting about a tonne a month. They are offered with yoghurt, tahini and mint and za’atar over the top. He is now looking to often ignored or underutilised vegetable dishes, such as carrots and broccoli and sweet potato, as a testing ground for new concepts and new menus.
“The whole thing is not going overboard with all the ingredients, like any dish. Just take more confidence, care and integrity in using those already existing great flavours.”
Sydney trendsetter Hartsyard gained a strong reputation based mostly on its fried chicken recipe. But it shocked patrons late last year by announcing it was phasing out the hot dish and Chef Gregory Llewellyn would be focussing more on veggie based dishes such as charred broccolini, lime, crackly seaweed and avocado puree.