The Travel Kitchen is an idea about food I have had for a long time. My girlfriend Christobel Saunders and I travel a lot. One of the first trips we did together was Sicily. It was amazing in so many different ways however really disappointing in one very particular way. The place we were staying at in Syracuse (arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world) was around the corner from the fresh food market. The disappointment came from the fact I had not come prepared to cook. The vongole looked amazing, squirtingly fresh. It is where this journey begins.
I am Rene van Meeuwen, an Architect and Lecturer at the University of Western Australia on the banks of the River Swan near the city of Perth. I write, I research, I design and most importantly I cook. The connection to my love of food and being an architect are a lot closer than one would think. It took me four years to get into architecture school, finally getting a place in the prestigious RMIT in Melbourne. In the interim I worked in hospitality to pay the bills and continued to do so until one fateful night – more on that later. I was also surrounded by some great friends who were kind of food super stars.
One of my best mates growing up, Stuart, worked for Stephanie Alexander as a sommelier at Stephanie’s, later moving to Cafe Di Stasio as a waiter. Kate on the other hand worked at the institution Enris in Richmond, an Argentinian restaurant that order garlic by the truck load. I on the other hand worked at a less than glamorous restaurant, however at another scale altogether, Barbarino’s in Doncaster. The restaurant could do 500 covers in an evening so there were about 30 staff in front of house alone. It was hard work but there was always a bit of a party atmosphere. I was often on the Bar on weekends so I was always popular with the chefs. Vodka and Soda was my speciality and still is. We were all avid foodies and our tips were spent on our wine collections and our days off were spent eating at restaurants. We spent as much time in the Kitchens with the chefs as possible.
Then fortune was bestowed upon me. Barbarino’s closed down. Kate’s husband was running a bistro style 24 seat restaurant called Shillinglaw Cottage in Eltham and I landed a job after my first service. It was one of the best experiences of my career. Small regional restaurant with a seasonal approach to the menu – 3 entries, 4 mains, 3 desserts – and this was back in the 1980s. Martin Brown, the owner was tough but fair and the two chefs were often highly wound up personalities that you could read about in a Bourdain novel. They were very sensitive creatures and definitely hopped up on drugs most of the time.
I pretty much studied by day and worked by night. Monday classes were often poorly attended resulting in a fair bit of failed units on that day. Martin and I would invariably end up at Le Monde, a late night bar in the city, until the sun came up every Sunday after service. About two years into this sort of behaviour something had to give, and it was the steering rod on my much loved, under serviced HT Premiere Holden. I was driving home one Saturday night after service when my car hit a pothole, the steering went loose and I careered off the road into a tree. I’ll spare you the gory details but my left wrist was shattered into small pieces and was literally dangling off the end of my arm.
I lost the full use of my left hand for three years which all but ended my career in hospitality. I wasn’t able to carry more than one plate at a time. Not to mention, I was unable to use a drawing board anymore which put a dent in that semester of uni work. I had to start second year again. Fortunately my Dad bought me a computer. It was a DX386 IBM clone. We managed to load AutoCAD onto it so I could continue to complete my uni degree with one hand. The rest is history really.
My career as a teacher began through the computational expertise I developed through my handicap. I started teaching the following semester at RMIT and became a star recruit during the transition the architecture industry made from drawing boards to computers. Almost 16 years to this day I got a full time academic appointment at the University of Western Australia. I have published widely on Computational technology and architecture and I have taught extensively in the area which culminated in my greatest achievement. We (my team) were selected to be the Creative Directors of the Venice Biennale Architecture in 2014. This is probably one of the greatest honours for an Australian Architecture academic. Which leads me back to here! The Travel Kitchen.
Some people buy a sports car when they have their mid life crisis. I on the other hand have decided to start this blog in order to pick up where I left off in my Food career.
Perth has been a fantastic stomping ground over the last 16 years because when I first arrived the food scene was atrocious. The food was bland, service was terrible, produce was sparse. After growing up in Melbourne it was literally like living in a country town in the 1960s. It forced me to cook a lot. My weekends are mostly spent cooking longer dishes and overnight recipes while weekdays we would go for the fast and furious. Most lunches I spend hunting down the tastiest dish of this type or another. Currently I have an obsession with noodles. The one cuisine which seems to be of the highest quality in almost any city, including Perth, is Asian cuisine.
Regardless let’s get back to the Travel Kitchen. I plan to dedicate the rest of my research days hunting down fresh produce around the globe, in fresh regional markets and cook dishes on the fly. I will document the lot into an interactive map, so when you get to a destination I have been to, you can find the great food of that place fast and for yourself. The App should be ready Early 2017. Watch this space.