In 1988, the second International Food Festival was held in Tokyo, Japan. There were a number of categories, including one for the most original menu. Australia was represented by Sydney chef Jean-Paul Bruneteau, whose restaurant, Rowntrees, pioneered the use of bush foods in fine dining. He did us proud, winning the award for originality and innovation and gaining third place overall behind France and Switzerland.
Bruneteau was born in France but migrated to Australia with his parents at the age of 13. He began his culinary career as an apprentice chef in the catering division of the merchant navy and spent some time working at Bennelong at the Sydney Opera House. In 1982, he opened Rowntrees: The Australian Restaurant with his partner, Jennie Dowling. Located in Hornsby, around 25km north-west of Sydney’s CBD, the restaurant may have gone a little overboard with its Australiana theme. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that:
Diners eat to background music by the Warumpi Band, Men At Work and Peter Allen among others. Cocktails with names like Murray River Cruiser are served and the waitresses are about to be outfitted in new uniforms with colourful Australian motifs on them Carved emu eggs, paintings of Australian fauna and Tooheys Pilsener prints decorate the walls. Even the sherry labels have kookaburras on them.
Although the restaurant made a feature of witchety grubs, it couldn’t serve kangaroo which was still illegal in New South Wales at the time. And their definition of Australian food was pretty broad. Bega brie deep fried in Rice Bubbles with raspberry and kiwi fruit sauce could hardly be called native cuisine.
Nonetheless, the restaurant’s credentials were impressive enough for Bruneteau to get the gig as Australia’s representative at the 1988 food festival competition. His three-course menu began with what he called Warna-nai (“foods from the ocean” in a First Nations language). Barbecued crocodile, Balmain bug, scampi and a Tasmanian scallop were all served on an orange and finger lime sauce. The main course was Smoked Banksia Anabaroo: water buffalo fillet seasoned with dorrigo pepper and barbecued over Banksia cones. The meal concluded with Rolled Wattle Seed Pavlova, a dish that has become world famous.
By 1991, the decor and the menu at Rowntrees had evolved, even attracting international plaudits. An article in the Los Angeles Times described a charming place with pink linen and crystal on the tables.
French-born owner and chef Jean-Paul Bruneteau and his partner, Jennifer Dowling, had perfected an intriguing menu of exotic flavors that included Marraki Hot Pot of Buffalo Tails, Warm Salad of Barbecued Streaky Bay Octopus, leafy Warragal greens–a wild native spinach–and a salad dressing of Davidsonia, a smooth skinned purple rain forest plum. Moreton Bay Bugs–a tasty shovel-nose sand lobster–and Tasmanian Devilled Crayfish were among the main courses.
Shortly after the LA Times visited, Bruneteau closed Rowntrees and moved Darlinghurst, opening Riberries. Here, according to a review in The Canberra Times, the menu included braised Queensland emu with quandongs, baked witjuti grubs served on a traditional wooden coolamon, the Banksia barbecued buffalo, warrigul greens and wattle seed ice cream.
Riberries closed in 1999. It seems the Australian public just wasn’t ready to embrace a cuisine based on native ingredients. Bruneteau went on to open two restaurants in Paris – first the Wolloomooloo, then Bennelong, named for the first Aboriginal person to visit Europe – before returning to Australia around 2008 to work as a restaurant consultant. He now describes himself as “semi-retired”.