Continuing our Sydney series…
I started organising small lunch gatherings this year to see our friends and learn how we are all coping with COVID-isolation. At the same time, I wanted to support local hospitality businesses. I realise that this close circle of people Kent and I are connected to are mostly creatives, especially photographers; so I thought, ‘why not make lunch with photographers the theme’! Besides catching up with two photographer friends, this lunch story is also an example of what a COVID Safe dining in Sydney involves.
QR Code Check-In, Part Of The COVID-19 Safety Plan
Our 12 o’clock lunch began with a QR code mobile check-in (for tracking and tracing) on the ground floor of Customs House, home of Cafe Sydney. While I was checking in, my lunch guests Richard and Marcus arrived and so too did Kent. After a few elbow bumps while wrangling our phones, we showed the staff the green check-in tick on our phone screens and were good to go. We were then guided to the lift which only allows four people at a time due to the 1.5 metres physical distancing rule. We were four, perfect!
It seems we had been assigned the best table at the terrace, with a beautiful Sydney Harbour view! For a good few seconds there it was easy to forget that we are still living under the shadow of the pandemic. Well until those single use COVID Safe food menu reminded me the reality of life right now. The friendly waitstaff seated us, introducing the menu and… since we are also here to support the Australian produce, we started our lunch with a bottle of sparkling wine from Victoria. Well, Kent started with a Negroni instead.
Two Degrees Of Separation If You Know Richard Simpkin
The reality of life in NSW is a pretty good picture compares to a lot of countries, as our COVID cases remain low here. ‘This is my first trip to the city since January.’ An unmasked Richard remarked. I appreciated why he had been staying away from the CBD till now.
I met Richard through Kent, who wanted to introduce his colleague to me since he first saw my decades-long series of self portraits. ‘There’s something you have in common here, both of you have a body of work based around self portraits.’ I remember Kent explaining to me enthusiastically. Then learning about what Richard does, I soon realised that this man’s ‘body of work’ is on a completely different level. Richard & Famous is the title of this impressive collection of pictures. Literally hundreds (thousands..??) of selfies of Richard with celebrities. The exhibition of the work has been touring the world, a project took him a quarter of a century to create.
‘Audrey Hepburn, Angelina Jolie; Sophia Loren… I envy you Richard. They are my icons!’ I remember saying to the creator himself after seeing this exhibition, a wall of photos at Richard & Famous, part of the Head On Photo Festival in 2014. Knowing that this man has met hundreds of famous people on this planet… So I figured that, ‘Since we all know Richard, wouldn’t it be two degrees of separation instead of six degrees for us, right?’ Everyone laughed at that. And Kent suggested: ‘That’s your article title right there!’ Thanks Kent! ‘So who would be the one degree separation?’ Marcus wondered aloud. ‘Steven Spielberg maybe.’ Yes Richard, quite right.
Kent and I both met my other guest Marcus through Richard at the Moutai China’s 2017 launch event; which Marcus seemed to be part of organising. He worked at SBS and Chanel 7 as a news reporter and photojournalist until he started his own media company APAC News. Also a photographer, Marcus invited Kent and I to his solo show China Moments in Time in Sydney, 2019. A great success, not only did former Prime Minister Tony Abbott officially launch the exhibition; it is considered to be the largest ever display of photographs portraying contemporary Chinese life in Australia to date. It’s my first time seeing him since the show and it’s nice to catch up with Marcus today in a relaxed atmosphere.
Here Come Our Appetisers… But All Eyes Are On The Moreton Bay Bugs
As a starter, Marcus went for the Moreton Bay Bugs, Served in the Shell with Mayonnaise and Lemon. We were all amazed and somewhat envious of the generous portion – two and a half tails!!! Yes we were a little jealous. Richard who had passed on starters scored half of a bug off Marcus, so well done Richard!
Kent chose the Grilled Prawn, Salt Cod Croquette, Chorizo, Romesco, Radicchio, Lemon and Pine Nut. Nicely presented. It had two prawns much to Kent’s delight and relief. ‘It’s good.’ Was the feedback from Kent. Though by the way he kept looking at Marcus’ Moreton Bay Bugs (well we all did), politeness be damned; I guess that he wished he had a few more than two prawns!
I decided on Pancetta Rolled Quail, Prosciutto, Fig, Apple Balsamic, Caper and Aioli. I enjoyed the contrast of the saltiness and sweetness from prosciutto and figs; though the dish was not quite what I was expecting.
Adapting To A Change Of Pace During The Stage 2 Lockdown
I raised the question to both Richard and Marcus, ‘During the Stage 2 lockdown in Sydney, how did you adapt this change of pace?’
Richard volunteered… ‘I have an eight years old son, I enjoy home-schooling. It’s great to spend more time with him…’ In September last year, the two of them appeared on TV at Studio 10 to talk about ‘Why We Need to Write More Letters’ as Richard is the founder of the World Letter Writing Day. Besides encouraging people to write more letters to their loved ones during COVID, Richard also shared with us: ‘Lately I’ve created an online store, selling images of celebrities printed on T-shirts, skateboards; mugs, phone cases… It’s using the resources and time I have to be financially benefited, without leaving home.’ And recommended Kent look into this idea as well. ‘Very smart Richard.’ We’re inspired.
Whereas Marcus commented: ‘In the phase of tragedy, like the bushfires we had last summer, I was overwhelmed by people’s kindness and generosity. However, in the phase of crisis, people have become more selfish. I’m deeply disappointed about the selfishness and racism I have seen.’ Well said Marcus. I couldn’t agree more.
Our Main Course And A Bottle Of Australian Rosé
Well after that appetiser, what did Marcus’ main course look like? Humpty Doo Barramundi, Creamed Potato, Asparagus, Broad Bean, Snow Pea and Lemon Butter; it looked just as generous as his entrée. ‘Those asparagus look so inviting!’ I thought.
For Richard’s main, he picked a seafood dish of John Dory, Baby Squid, Cauliflower Puree, Squid Ink Sauce, Cherry Tomato and Lemon. We also ordered a shared bowl of vegetables. I had noticed Richard’s weight loss and asked what his secret was? ‘Not exercise,’ He revealed… ‘I’ve simply changed my lifestyle by eating smart and healthy. Instead of having burgers or pizzas, I have a piece of salmon and green veges.’
In line with our support the Australian produce theme, I asked for a bottle of Rosé from South Australia. It paired with our fish and white meat dishes beautifully!
Kent went for Pork Belly, Maple Bacon, White Bean Macademia Puree, Muscatel, Apple and Pedro Ximenez Dressing. Though a little concerned about pork crackling and his teeth (‘No, don’t write that!’), he jostled with the idea of another softer option. Marcus jokingly suggested the waiter to ‘tell the chef if he can confit the crackling skin’! The crackling turned out to be crisp and thin and apparently delightful!
My main course was Tandoori Roasted Ocean Trout, Onion Potato Bhaji, Spiced Tomato, Mint Yoghurt and Crisp Onion. It was very tasty. The fish, perhaps slightly overdone for my liking. Having said that, Marcus and Richard both liked their fish. With that great view, we couldn’t help looking out on, lovely wines, good service and fine food, we did all enjoy our meals.
Who Fancies Some Dessert
After the main course, we had been given yet another COVID-Safe single use menu for dessert. Kent opted for a liquid desert – a Salted Caramel Martini. A Flat White for Marcus and a pot of Chamomile Tea for Richard. I can’t resist a lemon tart wherever I see one, so I requested the Lemon Meringue Tart, Citrus Sherbet and Lime Ice Cream… delicious! I could have easily had one more.
The weather was rather pleasant, reaching a comfortable 24°C which was 4°C higher than the forecast predicted.
What Do You Look Forward To After The Threat Of COVID-19 Eases?
‘What are you looking forward to the most after the threat of COVID-19 eases?’ I asked Richard. ‘As you know, my son is eight years old. So I’d love to take him to the Disneyland in California for his 10th birthday.’ ‘And how about you Marcus?’ I asked. ‘Since the border closure, the opportunities have been limited…’ ‘A trip to China. Perhaps another photography exhibition.’ ‘Where about in China?’ We all know China is huge and I found out it’s Shenzhen where Marcus feels most connected to.
As for Kent, ‘Well as an artist I can’t say things have changed that much; although after this much of a break it would be nice to go back to attending art openings and seeing friends as it used to be! Some travel too might be nice.’
Our COVID Safe Outdoor Dining Experience
Cafe Sydney remains very popular and although we specifically chose the midweek to avoid the weekend crowd, it was still very busy. Yes it turned out to be a contrast to our pub lunch gathering where we surprisingly had the entire floor to ourselves. We were all glad to dine on the terrace (you should book early due to its limited and reduced capacity); it’s not just for the view anymore, it’s COVID safety conscious.
Coronavirus is still very real and hazardous. Despite our low COVID cases, as the host of today’s meetup, I do feel tremendous amount of responsibility to my friends. With this concern in mind, I have decided that I won’t be hosting another lunch with friends until we are clear of this worrying threat to our health. Our 3-hour gathering went very quickly, a sign of having a good time as they say. One more picture before we say goodbye for now. ‘Should we take our masks off?’ ‘No, leave them on!’ Let me capture a moment in history!
I hope that besides being entertaining, this post can provide my readers a window to see what a COVID Safe dining in Sydney looks like. And hopefully someday in the future, it will remind us that we have all been in this strange time together.