IT WAS A MOMENT OF TRUTH. The day the stockpot came off the heat. A weird day in the Three Blue Ducks kitchen. Earlier this year, chefs Darren Robertson and Shannon Debreceny were discussing a new duck dish. What it should be served with, how it should be plated. Robertson suggested it needed sauce. Debreceny said no.
''He's like, 'It just doesn't need it,''' Robertson recalls. ''I was like, 'Really - that's a bit out there, isn't it?' And he's like, 'No, it really doesn't need it.' I said, 'You're right, Christ, we're not going to have to make stock any more, that's going to be a bit weird.''
Since 18th-century French chef Marie-Antoine Careme identified his ''mother sauces'' - bechamel, espagnole, veloute - the stockpot has been the cornerstone of any self-respecting high-end kitchen and the quality of the sauce or jus the measure of the chef. Bones were roasted, the ''aromatics'' (carrot, celery, onion, parsley stalks) were chopped, stockpots bubbled. And then the sauces were made, laden with stock, heavily reduced, fortified with alcohol, thickened with flour or cornflour, or finished with cream and butter. Sticky, cloying, rich and often overpowering.
But sauces have taken a mighty evolutionary leap. Where as recently as a decade ago there were red wine sauces and sauce madeira, oxtail and rosemary jus, demi-glace and sauce bordelaise, top Australian menus now list nut milks and distillations, cheese stocks, creams, purees, juices, oils, emulsions, dressings and broths - drawing on an arsenal of contemporary ideas and techniques to put an anarchic array of moistures on the plate.
''Those old sauces were always many ingredients boiled together and then boiled down, which for me leaves a mishmash of flavours,'' says Dan Hunter of the acclaimed Royal Mail Hotel in western Victoria. ''The modern sauce or dressing, or whatever you want to call it, is often one-dimensional; it's trying to get one single flavour to come across strongly.''
In pursuit of a ''freshness of flavour, a vibrancy of flavour'' in his ''nature-based cuisine'', Hunter might char asparagus, juice it, thicken the juice to a puree, then serve it with charred asparagus and prawn sashimi. Or smoke buttermilk, infuse it with confit garlic cloves and thicken it with xanthan gum. ''The result is a creamy garlic sauce, very rich and with a great length of flavour.''
Like Hunter, Mark Best of Sydney three-hatter Marque has bad memories of sauces of yore. He recalls making pots of veal stock in the early days of his career that were reduced down with Leggo's tomato paste ''until it tasted like Vegemite''. ''We're used to being iconoclastic now, but it wasn't always the way,'' says Best, who threw the saucing rule book away in the late 1990s after spending a year working in the kitchen of L'Arpege in Paris.
''Everything has changed so much, it's quite incredible,'' says Quay maestro Peter Gilmore, who credits the work of French chef Michel Bras in the early part of the century for the origins of the new species of sauces. ''A vegetable puree or a light emulsion spread out on the plate thinly with a piece of protein is probably where it started - the whole sort of idea of smears.''
But the world has moved some way on since saucing was reduced to the now almost-prehistoric smear on a plate. The Spanish, led by Ferran Adria, turned their kitchens into laboratories and introduced new thickeners and gelling agents to contort and improve textures, while, more recently, the Danes and their ''new Nordic'' cuisine have sought to express the essence of ingredients. And a generation of Australian chefs moving through their kitchens were paying attention.
For Dan Puskas and James Parry of Sydney rising star Sixpenny, who between them have worked in overseas kitchens such as WD-50, Alinea, Mugaritz and Noma, it's about looking at traditional ingredients in a new light.
''As soon as you start standing still it gets boring,'' Puskas says.
The new saucing vocabulary gets a thorough workout at the little Stanmore restaurant Puskas and Parry opened early this year. They make a ''nut milk'' using a mixture of toasted and raw macadamia nuts that gets plated with a tumble of mud crab, use toasted buttermilk solids in a sauce for Coorong yellow-eye mullet, and deconstruct blue cheese to make an oil for hanger steak.
Where once the dairy component of a sauce was likely to be a swirl of cream to finish, these days it's more likely to come in the form of a buttermilk or cheese derivation. Puskas and Parry melt blue cheese in water, blitz the resulting liquid with a stick blender and let it separate into layers overnight. The next day they reduce down the fatty top one to an oil for their steak.
Gilmore believes the biggest change has been the increasing use of pureed vegetables, but he's also a big advocate of oils.
''Any way of transferring aroma and flavour is what we look at doing, and oil's a really good medium to do that in,'' he says. ''At the moment, I'm mucking around with an idea of a really beautiful grass-fed piece of wagyu, and I'm planning on dressing it with virgin black sesame oil, a 10-year-aged soy sauce and some rendered smoked bone marrow fat. It's a very simple, light little coating; if you like, a dressing - it's all about the beef. It'll be relatively sauce-free - it's really just about the aromas and the dressing.''
Of course, the stockpot is not facing extinction just yet. It's still there, trembling away in high-class kitchens throughout the land, albeit with new intent. For Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne's Ripponlea, it's all about ethics: ''We get hunters to shoot wallabies and we think, if you're going to take that animal then you should try to use as much of it as possible. So we use the blood for the sauce and we also use the bones for sauce, just because we don't want to waste those parts of it.''
But that's where the role of stockpot-as-dumping-ground in the Attica kitchen ends. Like many of his forward-thinking colleagues, Shewry makes ''white'' stocks to maintain maximum purity of flavour. ''I want the sauces tasting of the ingredient; if you put carrot and celery and onions and parsley stalks in your chicken stock, that's what your chicken stock will taste of.''
In Gilmore's Circular Quay kitchen, a row of stockpots takes out a section of stove space. But Marie-Antoine Careme might struggle to keep up. ''The classic stock making is still sort of there as an original base, but it then gets other flavours added to it,'' Gilmore says.
A veal stock might be infused with dried seaweed and shiitake mushrooms to increase its intensity and savoury flavours, before being clarified with veal mince and egg white, before getting another hit of dried shiitake mushroom and then being reduced. Or take the stock in which Gilmore cooks his ''golden tapioca'' to go with poached southern rock lobster, Tasmanian squid and ''lobster velvet'': squid, snapper heads, chicken, scallop trimmings and fennel are roasted off, simmered then as stock, clarified like a consomme and reduced until the result is an intense essence. Then, towards the end of the process, a bunch of clams are thrown in to extract their juices. It's an intense, pure expression of the sea that's a silky cloak for the tapioca.
Of course, high-tech kitchen gadgets are also playing their part in the sauce revolution. At the Royal Mail, Hunter renders pork fat in his sous vide cooker to create a clear liquid that he uses to dress broad beans or pak choy leaves in a fish dish.
Meanwhile, at Attica, Shewry's rotary extractor turns the juice of 50 punnets of strawberries into a ''strawberry oil''. ''If you want an example of an ultra-modern sauce, this is it,'' he says. ''In effect, its the essence of strawberries.''
Still, an old-fashioned kitchen can still deliver the goods. As in the case of Three Blue Ducks' duck dish. Darren Robertson says: ''We ended up serving the duck with a poached rhubarb puree, radicchio and liquorice from the garden.''
Quay's smoked white eggplant cream
What the menu says Fragrant poached chicken, shaved sea scallops, Chinese artichokes, silk noodles, smoked white eggplant cream, Korean virgin black sesame oil, watercress flowers.
What the chef says Quay chef Peter Gilmore suggests buying the freshest-possible new-season eggplant for this dish. At Quay, the eggplant is vacuum-packed in smoked eel oil and cooked sous vide, but for home cooks Gilmore recommends infusing bonito flakes in oil for a similar smoky effect.
At home, serve it with Seared sea scallops or grilled blue eye.
25g dried bonito flakes
1 litre grapeseed oil
4 medium eggplants (try to avoid using the brown seeds)
1. Place bonito flakes and oil in a saucepan and bring to 65 degrees. Remove from heat and allow to infuse for an hour. Pass through filter bag or fine strainer.
2. Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Cut tops off eggplants. Peel, cut into 2-centimetre thick slices. Immediately cover with oil.
3. To cook the eggplant en papillote (in parchment): cut four slices of baking paper (each about 25 centimetres square). Divide the eggplant slices between the layers of paper, laying them out evenly. Reserve any remaining oil. Fold the edges of the paper over the eggplant slices to form four parcels, and seal by crimping the edges of the paper.
4. Bake the eggplant for 15 minutes or until soft. Puree immediately, adding a little extra oil if needed, and seasoning to taste. Pass through a fine strainer.
Attica's Pyengana cream
What the menu says Raw chestnuts, salt-baked celeriac, Pyengana.
What the chef says The cloth-bound Pyengana cheddar, produced in Tasmania's far north-east for more than 100 years, is, according to Attica chef Ben Shewry, one of the best ingredients produced in Australia. In his new book, Origin (Murdoch Books), Shewry writes: ''It works well to give this dish the required depth of flavour and it brings coherence to a group of disparate ingredients …''
At home, serve it with Any root vegetable - try it with roasted sweet potato or celeriac - or smoked river trout. ''Basically, anything that you would eat with the cheese you can put with that cream.''
250g Pyengana cheddar, grated (aged at least 18 months)
400ml organic Jersey cow cream (45 per cent fat content)
Table salt, to taste
Combine the cheese and water in a saucepan and stir well. Gently heat until the mixture reaches 60C. Set aside until cooled and the solids have reached the bottom. Pass through a sieve lined with muslin (cheesecloth) and discard the solids. Combine the strained mixture with the cream and check the seasoning. When ready to serve, heat the Pyengana cream to 80C.
Sixpenny's blue cheese oil
What the menu says Coorong Hanger, smoky cabbage and mustard leaves.
What the chef says Dan Puskas's first job was at a Cronulla hotel. He remembers the chef searing a fillet of beef, plonking a chunk of blue cheese on top, then sticking it under the grill to melt. ''Not blue cheese and beef,'' was his reaction when his partner, James Parry, suggested putting the oil with a piece of Coorong Angus beef. ''The oil just gives it that slight sort of aged taste - we didn't want people to eat the meat and have it masked by a rich, heavy sauce.'' Using a pipette, the chefs drop the oil onto the steak. The dish includes a custardy ''cabbage cream'' - cream is infused with smoked cabbage, then set with gellan gum.
At home, serve it Brushed on a great piece of steak.
400g blue cheese (Sixpenny uses Bellingham Blue from Berrys Creek in Gippsland)
1.2 litres water
1. Heat water to 80C. Remove from heat and pour over cheese in a bowl. Blitz cheese in a food processor or with a stick blender and pour into a container. Refrigerate overnight. The mixture will settle into three layers - it's the top layer of fat you want. The next day, carefully skim off the layer of fat that has settled at the top and simmer it in a small saucepan for about 30 minutes, or until the mixture splits and a translucent oil forms. Filter the oil through a filter bag or fine strainer to remove solids.
Makes about 100ml