On a sunny December evening, to one side of Nicholson Street, stands a cluster of open-faced but somewhat bemused strangers. The minutes tick by as 6.30pm, the time we’ve been instructed to arrive, passes without event. We’re gathered in front of an unobtrusive park as per the hand-drawn map we received via text the day before. But our expected guide, Well Sensered Food’s founder and director Himesh Chhima, is nowhere to be seen.
Soon enough though, the first trick of the evening is played. In amongst our number is a young man wearing the outfit equivalent of a psychedelic haberdashery — in essence, the most conspicuously inconspicuous mole possible — who has been standing around chatting with us as though he’s one of the attendees for the past half an hour. He pulls out a Well Sensered Food apron and leads us down an alleyway lined with corrugated iron fencing and hints of overgrown courtyards poking out.
There Himesh finally welcomes us to the evening, donning his signature feather earring in one ear and a haircut that makes Pinterest weep with envy. His smile is broad, Cheshire cat-like, as he introduces tonight’s theme: High Treegustation, a six-course degustation framed by tea-infused jelly accompaniments that promises a palatability akin to your mind-altering substance of choice.
There’s two things I should note at this point:
- I’ve never been to a degustation.
- This is not, in fact, a degustation.
Point 1 serves Point 2 well, because we’re asked by Himesh to throw everything we know about food etiquette and cuisine normally associated with degustations out the window anyway. Instead he gives us this guidance:
“Look around you. Pay attention to what’s going on.”
Sounds simple, right? But just because something is simple, doesn’t mean it’s difficult. What Himesh is doing here is helping us to undergo a meditative and/or drug high experience – that is, demanding us to be 100% present in the present moment – through taste, smell, and awareness.
Himesh alternates between delivering an experience of sensory synaesthesia and taking the mickey out of every single element of dining preconceptions. In the past he’s called himself the village idiot and, when I suggest the title of wizard, he tells me he prefers the term ‘food gangster’. It’s hard to define what his craft is – as Oscar Wilde said, to define is to limit – but it’s important to note here that he doesn’t so much cook as he creates. And what he creates is an experience.
How does he do this? Imagine what you know about a particular food or drink and how it normally tastes or is served. Imagine that preconception as an accordion. Now take that accordion, stretch it and every aspect of the known flavour combination apart as far as possible, then suction it so it flips inside out, and press the accordion back together again.
Then add a six-course style delivery with Storm in a Teacup-infused jelly dollops and judiciously selected spirits to invigorate any overwhelmed travellers undertaking this Wonderland-style journey. Throughout the evening, Himesh constantly brings us back to what it’s about – that which can’t be anticipated, predicted or preconceived. His final piece of advice before it all begins:
“There’s one thing that will get you through this evening, and that is how you feel.”
So, without further ado, down the rabbit hole we go!
Course #1: SAVOURY MUD
Before we can actually taste what’s put in front of us, Himesh nimbly steps around the long communal table spritzing a scented spray into our cupped hands. It smells like freshly watered pot plants, which is appropriate as we’re then handed what looks like an edible plant in an al foil cup, ‘soil’ included.
First we’re instructed to try this course’s tea jelly to set the tone – a fresh mint infusion, with a nip of Tullamore Due served alongside. As we taste these, Himesh and his crew of silent waiters sprinkle pumpkin and sunflower seeds onto our ‘plants’, and then we’re finally ready to sample the dish itself.
Do you remember when you were a kid, and eating mud and earth and clovers and grass was pretty much a dietary staple? Now recreate that glorious time with duck liver pate and dark chocolate mousse – I’ve got “the adult equivalent of deliciously meaty Yogo” written in my notes – with pea puree, raw cacao and fresh mint. There’s something magnificent about eating artisan food that harks back to when you used to sink your teeth into the garden bed as a child.
Course #2: GAZPLANTCHO
The next jelly teaspoon is infused with Bi Luo Chun, a Chinese green tea, and we’re spirited away with some Tromba Tequila. These serve to accompany a cold blend of avocado, cucumber, grapefruit, lemon juice, toasted mustard and cumin seeds.
Nostalgia continues to predominate the experience: the dish’s sweet citrus flavour tastes exactly like a candy I was given on my second international flight ever at age 11 because I was suffering from extreme ear-stabbing pains from the high altitude. Then I find myself thinking of the hot Australian sun on No. 2 buzz-cut yellowing grass during a dry spell in summer. And a second later, it’s morning condensation on green springtime lawns, remembering when we made fairy rings in friends’ overgrown backyards.
Course #3: FALLEN BURGER
Oh, how far the mighty burger hath fallen! The third instalment of the night brings us a splattered burger served on a broken tile, as though it’s been dropped on the floor. Our amber-coloured jelly accompaniment (Hojicha, a Japanese green tea) hints at the spiced rum the course is served with, but if this sounds like a stock-standard pub burger to you, remember that we’re dealing with a self-titled food gangster here.
Let’s start with the unassuming ice cube that’s suddenly deposited into our rum. The thing is, it’s not frozen water – it’s frozen BRINE. And, without warning, it completely cartwheels the flavour of the rum.
What Himesh has done is reverse the drink and food flavours. The burger contains components like candied orange zest, sultanas, and a molasses reduction – all rum-associated tastes. This brine ice cube in the rum makes it taste likes pickles; it’s like the digestible version of Freaky Friday.
Add to all of this that, in teasing jest, course #3 has been served with a fork. How exactly are we supposed to use a fork to eat a burger that’s been ‘dropped’ on the floor like some kind of aesthetically pleasing 3am drunken splat-and-run at the local takeout? The answer: you don’t. And if you try, you’re gonna find Himesh laughing his arse off at you.
Course #4: ZEN GARDEN
The next course is introduced as “calming it down after the chaos”, but don’t let the notion lull you into a false sense of security – we’re still in unchartered culinary territories here. This is the first of three desserts, and served so that you share the plate with the person opposite you. We begin with Earl Grey tea jelly flecked with a leaf of purple basil, a sip of Glenfiddich 15 on the side, and can dig into the goods after a gentle rain of flower petals is lovingly tossed over the plate.
At first I think we’ve been given a sandpit to play with, which is partly true, but replace the child’s play notion with one of a Japanese rock garden. Our rock formations are made of raisins and white chocolate in a sandpit of crumbled black cardamom shortbread. Throughout it flows a vivid blue river of coconut water and agar gel, and on the riverbank we find an overspill of fresh basil mascarpone. It’s cool, sweet, refreshing, transitory and, like a traditional Zen garden, it’s there one minute and gone the next.
Course #5: DUCKIES & CREAM
Here’s three words to get your gastronomic loins tingling: DUCK FAT GINGERBREAD. A love heart’s worth of the stuff precedes the fifth course, a hedonistic gin and tonic jelly masquerading as dessert. It’s served in a kaffir lime and brine-rinsed glass with grapes, underscored with more of the holiest of holies – aforementioned duck fat gingerbread – and topped with a dollop of jasmine tea cream and a solid crack of black pepper. Add a little bit of Hendrick’s gin alongside and we’ve got us a little taster of the Bacchanalia.
Course #6: SWEET MUD
Can you believe we’ve made it this far without our heads imploding? Himesh is impressed that we have, and thanks us for our struggle before introducing the last course of High Treegustation – one final plant, the inside out accordion of the very first dish, with little samples of what came in between.
After a lick of Lapsang Souchong tea jelly topped with a leaf of red garnet, it begins and ends with more sweet earthy scent sprayed into our proffered palms. Then we’re handed our edible plants – these ones in full bloom with vibrant flower petals scattered amongst the greenery – and once more we receive a sprinkling of pumpkin and sunflower seeds before we’re invited to savour the plants.
What they contain is a verdant, fertile mix of tea-soaked dates, dark chocolate mousse, crumbs of duck fat gingerbread and black cardamom shortbread from the two preceding desserts, limes, and some of the Zen Garden’s fresh basil mascarpone. With a final toast of Balvenie 14 we farewell the experience in a spaced out reverie, wondering what on earth just happened.
There’s a kind of lingering magic in the evening as you find yourself looking at where you started and where you are now. And what you take away with you – aside from a spirit-nourishing spectrum of unexpected flavours and sensations – is the invigorating sentiment of innovation, imagination and playfulness that Well Sensered Food engenders.
Well Sensered Food’s next event will take place in the next few months. Seats have a tendency to disappear reeeeeallllly quickly, so follow them via their Facebook page, Instagram, and scour out their website here to keep abreast of their events.
Photo credit: All images by Elly Freer.