Here in Sydney, there simply was no food scene until the late 80s. Before then, our congenital feeling of inferiority, the “cultural cringe”, was not limited to the world of refined aesthetics, but also enshrouded our culinary sensibilities
in a thick blanket of diffidence. This long winter of our discontent, our “Foodie Dark-Ages” had kept us detached from our sense of self and of community.
Prior to the 1990s, devoid of the immigrant infused depth, complexity and deliciousness to which we’ve become accustomed in recent times, the Australian food scene wallowed in a collective torpor born of two elements:
having no culinary heritage of our own to fall back on, and (perhaps because of this) seeing food to some degree in isolation from our lives.
The normalisation of what once was seen as exotic is a wonderful seam running through the Sydney food scene of the new millennium. A paragon of this trajectory is Michael Rantissi, the owner, driving force, and classical exemplar of Middle Eastern exoticism married to the “modern Australian” structure. His restaurants, Kepos Street Kitchen and Kepos & Co, exemplify what can happen when such elements are blended in perfect harmony.
“It all started”, he explains, “watching my mum work her way around the kitchen in Israel – the flavours and ingredients of my childhood plus the generosity and spirit of shared dishes was where the passion began and still lives”. For Michael, the sourcing, preparation, and consumption of food were indistinguishable from life itself; there was no compartmentalisation.
As would a food historian, with deliberation and insight, Michael takes me back to his childhood, to a time in Israel when “...a meal was always about a lot of people around the table, eating, drinking and sharing stories. Whether we were happy, sad or celebrating, it always involved eating.” This is the pervading atmosphere at Kepos Street Kitchen – the idea that life is a ‘moveable feast’, with deep roots tracing back to 1970s Tel Aviv.
Michael’s ancestral and cultural heritage is expressed in the menu at Kepos Street Kitchen. As we talked, he explained that during his childhood “food was never individually portioned, it was always about shared plates, very social and very relaxed. This has translated to my restaurants along with the essential spices of the Middle East which can be found quite readily in Sydney – cumin, sumac, cinnamon, saffron and the mixes for which they are the foundation, like za’atar, baharat, dukkah, and chermoula. Kepos Street Kitchen and Kepos & Co wouldn’t be the same without them”.
The menu items are composed with a delightfully manicured and subtle complexity using seemingly disparate elements. Innumerable inspirations are at play. “Multicultural Tel Aviv, he continues, (and) my time studying in New York (not to mention) years spent working in fine dining restaurants in Paris, Tokyo, London, and Sydney, constructing dishes that use all manner of influences feels like a natural progression”. Indeed, as a patron, each dish feels like what it is, in Michael’s words, “recollections of memories and flavours of food that I grew up with which has shaped the way I cook food today”.
Quality and provenance of food matter, no matter the style or passion behind the dish. Michael’s “ethos from day one was all about sourcing the best produce by using small boutique suppliers who pride themselves on quality and seasonality. This allows the opportunity for matching the menus to the seasons, which positively impacts flavour and sustainability”.
As the discussion turns to his core principles, Michael’s trust in the nature of his cuisine and his customers shines through. “It’s about having belief in what we are offering,” Michael says, expressing a quiet confidence in his art form and his team, “….and being honest to the cuisine and to our customers”.
From the cultural darkness of the 1970s and 80s, the Surry Hills food scene has fully matured and left the nest. We now bask in a multi-ethnic mosaic of sumptuous cuisine the likes of which our forefathers could have barely imagined. Kepos Street Kitchen continues that evolution. It’s become an obsession, an addiction. As Michael observes, gently sipping on a Victorian Pinot,
“It is amazing how Australia has created a new addiction called food – and what a great addiction to have. Seeing that progress, together with the variation of different cuisines being introduced and embraced by Australians makes this industry evolve and mature on a daily basis. We are proud to be a part of it and would love to see Kepos become an institution in the local and Australian food scene”.