Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Genius of Tom Samek

The wood relief pictured above is part of Tom Samek's current exhibition at the Handmark Gallery in Salamanca Place Hobart. The plate pictured below is also one of Tom's creations but notably - so is the food on it! Mary and I have known him for over 30 years and we have enjoyed both his food and his art for as long. In 1989 he combined his artistic and culinary genii to present the most unforgettable dinner of our lives. It was a game dinner in the Chandelier Room at Hadley's Hotel and the food attacked the guests.

We first encountered Samek food at St Andrew's Inn at Cleveland when Mary and I were living in Launceston in the late 1970's and early 1980's. We would stop the old Rover 3500 at St Andrews on the way down and on the way back on our many trips backwards and forwards between Hobart and the Northern Capital to eat such new (for us then), dishes such as jugged hare, rabbit rilletes and moules mariniere. It was such an awakening.

Tom's food was , like his art, dark, brooding, intelligent and perfectly executed. It was as though a new world had opened for us. In fact it had, as his food caused us to later travel to Europe eating with some of the great chefs of the day - Alain Chapel, Fredy Giradet (Gault Millau Chef of the Century) and the Haberlin brothers and to tour the world's foodhalls - memorably Les Halles at Lyon and fish markets - memorably London, Paris, St Malo and Venice ( not to mention the KaDeWe - then the largest foodstore in the world when Berlin was still a city divided by the Wall ).

When Tom moved to Prospect House at Richmond we were devastated. He left us no choice. We had to follow him. We would drive down to Richmond from Launceston and eat dinner with him on the Friday or Saturday night, stay at the House, eat his unbelievable separately coloured yellow and white scrambled eggs for breakfast the next morning and then drive home.

If we were devastated when he left St Andrew's Inn we were in mourning when he left Prospect House to concentrate on his art. What were we to do? The answer came in the form of him succumbing to the pressure of his followers and agreeing to cook periodic "game dinners".

These were organised as and when various of us found interesting game and seafood and Tom would cook it. They were usually held in the grand dining and ball rooms of Hadley's Hotel with him being given the run of the kitchens at a time when the Hotel did not do a dinner service.

This was bliss. Such a privilege. We would take our own wines and he would perform his food miracles.

He was a produce driven genius long before it became fashionable to focus on fresh local and seasonal ingredients.

It was (and is) his skill at simply treating these ingredients and his quirky sense of humour that made and make him such a great chef. By way of example nothing could be simpler than crow, but the notion of serving it up to Hobart's establishment at a game night at a gentleman's club is what sets Samek apart. Let them eat crow!

We have had such dishes as wild goat, hare, venison, kangaroo, native hen, ducks, geese and swan all cooked with Tom's distinctive touch. A menu he cooked at home for Mary and me and some friends to mark my 55th birthday last year will serve to illustrate.

As a birthday gift he and his partner Tracy designed and had fired 12 dinner plates embossed with my "family crest" comprising the heads of a duck, a hare and a tuna mounted on a rosemary stalk. On these plates he served 13 courses which were detailed in a "souvenir" menu book in which he had painted a water colour satirical representation of each dish.

The dinner started with whiting roulee (pictured) served with Gosset rose 2003.

It continued, still under the influence of the Gosset, with a prawn and leek roulade and successively, a quail rillette and rabbit rillete. Then a cucumber leek oyster cup and a spinach and Gorgonzola delice.

The meal then ramped up a notch with a yellow fin tuna tartare served with quail's egg (pictured above), accompanied by a 1992 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay.

Then came Tom's signature cold mushroom souffle, usually made with personally gathered local Slippery Jack mushrooms. This course washed down with Vosne Romanee "Les Chaumes" Robert Arnaux 1999.

Wild duck and bitter Damson plums "swan about" followed with an Echeraux Mungeret Gibourg 2001 before an unbelievable and totally seasonal (for March) tomato and basil sorbet intervened.

The piece de resistance was his baron of hare, a dish he had developed over 25 years, on this occasion accompanied beautifully by a 2000 Bandol, a Tardieu - Laurent.

The cheese course was a memorable collection of French and local cheeses married with an old Australian red - a 1982 - yep, a 26 year old, Henschke Hill of Grace which was just perfect.

And finally individual fresh fig tartlettes brought us all to our knees with a Fritz Haag Brauneberger-Juffer Sonnenuhr auslese - a long gold capsule from 1998.

I digress of course. The Samek game dinners during the late 1980's were truly masterpieces of food and art. People watching Heston Blumenthal's current television series could be forgiven for thinking that the Fat Duck chef cum food scientist invented the notion of food theatre but Tom was putting birds in pies and musicians in cakes years ago.

His take on the mythical Cockatrice, like Blumenthal's after him, was stitched together by a plastic surgeon in surgical gown and mask. The Samek version comprised a large salmon, a duck and quail for the wings of the monstrous flying marine creature. So terrifying was it that when baked and served some guests at the dinner could not bring themselves to eat any part of it!

At the time of the Hadley's Chandelier Room game dinner in 1989 Tom was serving us dishes such as olive within quail within duck, pheasant neck sausage and quail legs in bread pudding. On the night the main course was horse, accompanied by root vegetables and an exquisite glossy, earthy, beetroot reduction such as only Samek the master can, in my experience, produce, and which he often pairs with his Baron of Hare. (The horse was a fit young animal that was haplessly injured and euthanised - we do not advocate the killing of horses for meat but the alternative was pet food and the opportunity for interested food fanciers was not to be missed)

But it was not the main course that marks this dinner as the most memorable we have ever attended. No it was the table setting and the dessert. The print below which depicts a chef as the centrepiece for his live ingredients hangs in my kitchen and the image is used by Shannon Bennett at the Vue de Monde in Melbourne. The irony of the chef's situation was paralleled by Tom at the Hadleys dinner with the food attacking the guests.

The long table was set for 40 and was dotted along its length with 5 Matthew Bolton Sheffield Plate meat covers from 1820, lent by wine expert Greg Melick. The dinner started out unremarkably but as entree was served the waiters lifted the meat covers to reveal under each a pastry dome. Ah, we thought, the pastry is to be broken like bread and eaten as an accompaniment to the first course.

Then something very strange and to some (not Mary and me), discomforting occurred. There came a tap, tap, tapping from inside the pastry domes as though from a birds beak seeking escape. No it wasn't a bird, it was a human finger breaking through, followed by a human mouth eating the pastry from the inside! As the 5 heads broke through we were treated to 5 faces painted brightly in solid colours after the fashion of Goldfinger or Marcel Marceau. With hair slicked down, only the heads were visible as though detached like John the Baptist's presented to Queen Salome. They rotated like Linda Blair's in the Exorcist. The scene was surreal. Dali would have been proud of the effect.

These five heads were attached however to five very much alive human beings who proceeded to behave, as they ate their pastries, as though the dinner was theirs and we the guests were intruders. "What are you doing here", "What are you staring at?", "I suppose you think you are pretty clever", "Take a look at yourselves". Some of the guests foolishly fought back but the heads had been chosen by the maestro for their skill at talking underwater and they were armed with endless literary quotations aimed at the unfortunate diners.

Some, like us, thought this was hilarious, particularly as some others rose to the bait and were solidly hooked and landed. The exchanges became heated and the waiters , under instructions, replaced the meat covers as required over the heads. Finally everyone, well almost everyone, saw the joke and the actors were invited from underneath the tables and applauded for their show stealing theatre.

That was not the last act of the evening however. The Samek finale was the dessert. This comprised cakes that floated in from the kitchen suspended from balloons whose flight path was directly along the length of the table where they landed at intervals to be consumed by the now exhausted diners!

So next time you are watching Heston Blumenthal proclaiming his skill in the egregiously arrogant manner of the modern day television chef, spare a thought for the genius of Tom Samek whose food as art and art as food has modestly graced Hobart for decades. And next time you are in Melbourne keep your eye out at the best restaurants for his art which is synonymous with the food of greats such as Shannon Bennett of Vue de Monde and Guy Grossi of Grossi Florentino.


  1. So many wonderful food (and art) moments from Tom's brilliant brain!

  2. I'm a great fan of Tom Samek - particularly his combination of food and music for the TSO.

  3. What a wonderful experience, and obviously very memorable..

  4. Gasp. Stephen - this is a great post. Equally great time and memory of Tom's work, artistry and creativity. Brilliant. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks Victor. I appreciate that coming from you - Blogmaster!

  6. Great post Stephen. I wished I had been around to have enjoyed the theatre of it all. Your point on the modern chefs thinking that they've invented these interactive experiences at table shows a degree of arrogance as you suggest. Too many are not aware of those who had broken ground before them, like Tom obvioulsy did. Your celebrated dinner reminds me of a few I read about in the early days of the Symposium of gastronomy dinners in Adelaide.
    Maybe Tom might plan another?

  7. Thanks for sharing Stephen, Tom's artwork is amazing and so diverse. His sense of humour is a constant delight. We have a few at home and they make me smile every time I walk past them.

  8. Would he ever do it again Stephen?

  9. Wow! A very informative post Stephen, I love reading about Tasmania's culinary provenance. I've always wondered about St Andrews Inn, such a gorgeous old building. Wonderful to hear of the delicious feasts cooked in its kitchen by Tom. I too have one of Tom's artworks on my wall, so its good to know a little more about him and his work as a chef, and that it goes way beyond the infamous "road kill" dinner!

  10. Just discovered Tom's art and I can't stop laughing. I look at the images on line and I just giggle. Visited Hobart few weeks ago and saw some of his work. Loved Tassi. You are so lucky to know him. Sharon


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