13 February 2024 · Author Profile
Christine Manfield is one of Australia’s most celebrated chefs, and we are delighted to have six of her books now available on ckbk. In this exclusive author profile for ckbk, fellow cookbook author Roberta Muir speaks to Christine about her career, her restaurants, and her cookbooks.
By Roberta Muir
Chef, restaurateur, author and culinary tour leader Christine Manfield describes herself as “a curious cook and perfectionist inspired by the culinary melting pot of global flavours and Australian native ingredients.”
That inspiration means her cooking can’t be neatly pigeon-holed into any one cuisine or style. Though with an enduring love for India and books entitled Fire, Spice, and Stir (the last consisting of dishes which build on a core set of 14 spice-paste recipes), she’s earned the nickname ‘Queen of Spice’, and spices – both hot and fragrant – are used liberally throughout her recipes. Christine’s signature, if she has one, is bold flavours; her food is simply the tastiest I’ve ever had.
Christine has inspired food lovers for over three decades through her restaurants, cookbooks, cooking classes and food tours. She moved from Queensland to Adelaide, South Australia, in her 20s, and her early career as a schoolteacher, with a strong focus on literacy, shows in her well-written, easy-to-follow recipes and the engaging stories that accompany them.
In the mid-‘80s, wanting a total change of direction, Christine gave up teaching and headed to Europe. “It was about making brave decisions”, she says. “Job security was such a focus, especially back then, but Margie [her partner] and I already had a strong wanderlust, we were curious and always wanted to explore new things; that trip opened up the whole world to us.”
Christine and Margie lived in Paris for a while before returning to Australia to help out Margie’s sister who’d opened a B&B on the Great Ocean Road. “We loved what we knew about the hospitality industry,” says Christine, “and after working the summer season at Marianne’s B&B I took a job at Petaluma Restaurant, which had just opened at Bridgewater Mill in the Adelaide Hills.”
Adelaide in the late-‘80s was a hub of creativity that would help define the emerging Australian cuisine that evolved throughout the ‘90s and noughties. Two of the most influential chefs of that time were Cheong Liew at Neddy’s and Phillip Searle at Possums. In 1988 Christine and Margie followed Phillip Searle to Sydney so Christine could work with him at his seminal restaurant Oasis Seros.
By 1990 they were ready to go out on their own and opened their first restaurant together, in the Paragon Hotel in The Rocks, followed by one in Woollahra’s Phoenix Hotel. In 1993, they opened Paramount Dining in Potts Point. It fast became one of a handful of restaurants epitomising the new ‘Australian cuisine’ and Christine made her name there as a key player in this new movement
“We were in the right place at the right time in terms of Australia’s maturing food culture”, Christine explains, “and my story sat within that larger story. ‘Modern Australian’ is as good a term as any to describe what was happening – it’s a very broad umbrella and everyone had their own expression of how they brought the flavours together. For me it was and still is: think global eat local. It's all about combining what I’ve experienced on my travels and distilling that into my own voice using what’s around me.
“Spicy food has always been the foundations of what I do – bold, punchy flavours and textures have always been part and parcel of my food story. Next door to Paramount we opened a shop, Paramount Store, that was way ahead of its time. We produced chilli jam, preserved lemons, pestos and other pastes and condiments that people could use to spice up their cooking. The savoury chapters in my first book, Paramount Cooking, were defined by these items.”
“The Paramount books, Paramount Cooking and Paramount Desserts, were designed as a twinset that reflected my food at that time. Because I was a chef who wrote a dessert book, I became known as a dessert specialist. Paramount Desserts contains different playful ice cream reminders of childhood memories, such as Paramount Splice and Tropical Tutti Frutti Ice-Cream Slice.
I always honoured what I learnt from Phillip Searle and was inspired by the way he combined ice cream and sorbets in moulds; his chequerboard ice cream informed much of my early dessert work. My ‘Gaytime’, for example, is a dessert that’s evolved through many iterations over the years. In Paramount Desserts it’s a simple triangular log sandwiched between Florentines and given the full descriptive title: Honeycomb, Caramel and Bitter Chocolate Ice-Cream Sandwiches with Chocolate Florentines. In Fire it's the Universal Gaytime I did in London, rolled in a ‘gold dust’ of crushed nougat, honeycomb and chocolate and looking like a pyramid in the sand. Later it morphed into Gaytime Goes Nuts, the definitive dessert of Universal, spread over six pages of Dessert Divas, and featured in the final challenge in the 2012 season of MasterChef Australia.
One of Paramount’s most popular dishes was Five Spice Duck & Shiitake Mushroom Pie with Ginger Glaze. “We could never take it off the menu,” Christine says, “and people still ask for it all the time when I’m planning pop-up dinners.”
A new millennium brought a desire for new challenges for the ever-restless Christine and Margie. So, in 2000, they closed Paramount and headed overseas to immerse themselves in that global palette driving Christine’s culinary creations. Extensive travels and guest chef appearances set the scene for Christine to share her love of international flavours with like-minded travellers, and her food tours to India, South America, the Middle East and Europe have opened many eyes and palates to fascinating regional cuisines over the past two decades.
In 2003, Christine was given the opportunity to “fulfil a long-held desire of finding my place on the world stage” by opening a restaurant in London. It was an exciting time for Aussie’s in the UK – David Thompson had brought Thai food to Britain with his Michelin-starred restaurant nahm a couple of years earlier, and now Christine introduced a way of working with Asian flavours that London had never seen in the fine dining sector. It was like a repeat of Australia’s culinary coming of age twenty years earlier. “David’s nahm and restaurants like Hakkasan and Zuma were showing Brits that there was exciting food outside of Europe,” Christine explains. “Off the back of that phenomenon, celebrated English chef and restaurateur, Rowley Leigh, invited me to open an Asian restaurant in the heart of the theatre district.” [Rowley Leigh’s own memoir cookbook, A Long and Messy Business, is also available on ckbk.]
At East@West, on Soho’s West Street, Christine designed a menu inspired by the traditions and flavours of Vietnam, China and Japan. She offered a choice of four different five-course tasting menus with dishes grouped to ensure the flow and synergy of flavours and textures that are essential to appreciating these Eastern cuisines. East@West’s time was cut short when the property was sold in 2005, but not before Christine had won top accolades including best new restaurant and best restaurant in UK.
Returning to Sydney in 2007, Christine opened Universal on a small square in Darlinghurst, with a menu of same-size dishes listed in order of weight so diners could design their own tasting menu. It was the culmination of a lifetime of travel, with dishes gliding effortlessly from Japanese sashimi and Indian curries to Argentinian grills and Italian pasta.
Christine’s fifth book, Fire: A World of Flavour, reflects this way of cooking, with chapters organised by countries or regions and recipes that are her personal interpretation of traditional dishes. Some that she still uses regularly for pop-up dinners and guest chef appearances include Fish & Avocado Tacos in the Mexico chapter; Lamb & Pistachio Manti with Pomegranate Salad & Garlic Yoghurt Sauce from the Istanbul chapter; and Crab & Tomato Salad with Gazpacho Dressing which appears in the Andalucia chapter (one of three separate chapters covering the regional food of Spain). Fire, which includes many recipes for Christine’s favourite vegetable, eggplant, was also the beginning of her writing on India. Her delicious tamarind eggplant is based on a Rajasthani dish that she insists every guest on her Indian tours experiences.
For her seventh book, Dessert Divas, Christine returned to her love of architectural desserts, showcasing the sweet treats that Universal had become famous for, including the final iteration of her signature Gaytime dessert.
Feeling the tug of the old wanderlust, and always the perfectionist unwilling to put her name to a kitchen that she couldn’t constantly be in, Christine called time on her years as a full-time chef/restaurateur in 2013 to expand her tour offerings to India, the Middle East and South America and accept invitations for guest chef appearances abroad.
In 2018 Christine and Margie sold their Sydney apartment for a sea change to the Tweed Coast just south of Brisbane, where they live overlooking the beach. Christine now only offers bespoke tours to India for private groups, channelling her love of travel and her new environment into tours focused on regional Australia and wilderness food safaris highlighting indigenous culture. She says there won’t be any more restaurants, but she’ll never stop cooking.