Interview: Stephen Downes, Australian food critic

GOOD food satisfies more than just your palate, it is an epicurean experience that touches your soul. Nobody understands the above thought better than Stephen Downes, one of the longest serving professional restaurant critics in Australia and probably the world.

Downes started off his career as a food critic in 1977 when he was chosen to do restaurant reviews for The Age. He was an instant success, progressing to write for The Sunday Age, Australian Financial Review, Gourmet Traveller and the Herald Sun.

His cutthroat, objective and brutally honest opinions have over the years fetched him plenty of admirers and also piqued some sceptics who are intimidated by the possibility of being thwarted by the candid words of a gastronome.

Stephen Downes Pic: geelongadvertiser.com.au

Some foodies glean his words as gospel as they wait to read his opinions on the Herald Sun. Others, such as a restaurant chain founded by a certain celebrity British chef have explicitly shown him the door, thus making him one of the most controversial critics as well.

Downes states that plenty of critics these days are way too close to the industry. That, as a result leads to biased reviews. However, his conviction is based on the fact that a good review is the outcome of good food and a sensible critic is one who is thorough and assiduous in their understanding of food.

Melbourne boasts of a plethora of restaurants ranging from high-end dining to outdoor parma and burger cafes. As an integral part of Melbourne culture, only a true food aficionado can do justice in reviewing the cuisines the city has to offer.

A Passion For Food
For Stephen Downes, the ardour for food developed in France.

“As a kid I was always a good eater, but I grew up in Melbourne in a very gastro-poor Protestant culture that was afraid of sensual pleasure. We would hardly eat out,” he said.

In England, he followed his mother’s recipes mixing vegetables and meat and experimenting with the scrumptiousness of a casserole that came naturally to him.

The fervour reached its peak when he was in France, where he understood the diversity of food and how to enjoy it. Much like the fairy tales we fantasize about, Downes lived his when he fell in love and married his wife in France. Food just added to the experience, as he tasted the delicacies of French cheese and wines and prepared exotic rooster dishes using the blood to thicken the sauce. Cooking and tasting home cooked meals during family dinners at France, Downes started comprehending the adroitness associated with the art.

Now a savant, Downes is quick to point out whether or not the food is correct. He scrupulously notices even the minute details, for instance it is not acceptable if the salads haven’t been dried properly because the water seeping out may dilute the dressing.

Pic: stephendownes.com.au

Food In Melbourne And The Best Way To Enjoy It
Over the last couple of decades Melbourne has become increasingly multi-cultural. One of the boons associated with it is the development of multicultural cuisine in the city. Downes says that Melbourne is lucky to offer a diversity thus satisfying every palate. “Unlike New York, we are more diverse and offer a better value for money with quality food and respectable quantities.”

He is not one to rush to a restaurant just because it is trendy to be seen there. According to him, a bunch of places are often overpriced and needlessly hyped on social media.

His favourites include Yak Bar in Melbourne CBD, an Italian eatery boasting of distinctive pastas and starters. He also speaks highly of Greek restaurant Alpha Ouzeri tucked away on Brunswick Street.

Yak Bar in Melbourne Pic: theage.com.au

Stephen Downes bluntly states that food in some European places such as Spain and Norway are focussed on presenting it as a high-technique art. According to him, the true art of food lies in cooking and the satisfaction it provides to customers, something that Melbourne has adhered to over the years.

Amongst other things, a significantly charming aspect of Melbourne is the food and it’s diversity. As agreed by one of the most renowned critics, it isn’t a place where the pretentious supersedes the simple. Just head into the city and explore the suburbs and sometimes in the uncanniest restaurants and cafes will you find content.