The ethical vegetarian

New leaf ... Simon Bryant has released his first cookbook.
New leaf ... Simon Bryant has released his first cookbook.

Simon Bryant is the unlikely offsider to Maggie Beer on ABC TV's The Cook and the Chef. She is larger than life, wide open with laughter and as familiar a name as any in Australian food; he has less-obvious appeal, is more edgy, a chef with a scrubby bit of beard, an earring, and metal and what might be leather around his wrist.

You can imagine him more easily in the job for which he first trained, as a mechanic with a motorbike habit, or behind the scenes in the kitchen, where he spent much of his career. Bryant, 47, spent more than a decade at the Hilton Adelaide (of Cheong Liew fame), rising to executive chef. He ran the meat section for three years and was relief butcher two days a week, as close as you can get to the reality of meat outside the farm or the slaughterhouse. The ethical vegetarian in charge of the meat section. That brought much hilarity for other chefs, he says.

''I love that. All of these sort of weird inconsistencies in your life.''

Bryant has been largely vegetarian since his teens, after growing up on a hobby farm near Adelaide, where the killing of animals for food (albeit little ones such as chickens) ''just bothered me''. Bryant is now ambassador for the Animal Welfare League and the Animals Asia Foundation. This work brings him great satisfaction, he says, but ''satisfaction is a weird word because it's very distressing at the same time''.

Committed as he is to animal welfare, Bryant believes there are times when personal feelings must take a back seat. ''If I go to someone's house and they've cooked for me, you shut up and you bloody well eat it,'' he says. ''I think it's beautiful that they've cooked for me.''

A visitor to his home would get a vegetarian meal - he doesn't feel the need to provide a special meat option, but, by the same token, Bryant says, why should someone be required to provide a special vegetarian option for him?

Yes, he finds it hard to eat meat, especially where he knows the ''backstory might not be perfect'', but says Australians are in the privileged position of being able to choose what they eat.

Put more bluntly: ''If I'm marooned on a desert island, jeez, I'd rip the head off a pig and suck the eyeballs out. But that's survival.''

This straight-talking, gloss-free persona is one you'll recognise from The Cook and the Chef, and in a different way, ordinariness and openness also explain the appeal of Maggie Beer. The partnership worked on screen, so much so it was the highest-rating 6.30pm show in 30 years, Bryant says. They made 155 episodes across four years, with the final series in 2009 and repeats still played.

Born in Britain, he came to Australia in 1972 but, as the son of ''ping-pong Poms'', they were back and forth. After training as a mechanic, he began an economics degree, then diverted into the kitchen. He worked in Thai and Indian restaurants in Melbourne, gravitating towards Asian food because it involved less meat.

Cheong Liew was the poster boy for high-end Asian food fused with European techniques and, when he opened a restaurant at the Hilton Adelaide in 1995, Bryant knew he wanted to work there.

At the Hilton, Bryant surprised management by sourcing local food, a philosophy in tune with Beer, whom he held in awe. ''I love her - she's just a force of nature,'' he says. ''There's no stopping that woman, she was banging on about seasonal food and local food years before it was even on the radar.

''I love people who don't follow trends and just do what they believe in, and she's been doing that since day one.''

Her simple food is the bravest kind of cooking, Bryant says, because you have nowhere to hide, no sauces to disguise substandard technique or produce.

When he met Beer, his cooking style could have gone in any direction, he says, but she reaffirmed the important values - simplicity and flavour.

Despite his high profile and a 25-year career in food, Simon Bryant's Vegies is his first cookbook, and only written after Beer came to his house, opened his computer and declared, you talk, I'll type. It's made up of ''everything I've cooked for the last 20 years'' - vegetarian dishes from menus and ''just the stuff I would cook at home that I wasn't brave enough to put on menus''.

Simon Bryant's Vegies, published by Lantern, $39.95.

Carrot, farro, coriander, mint and orange soup


Carrot soup runs the risk of becoming one dimensional if the sweetness of the carrots is allowed to dominate. This recipe acknowledges the sweetness, but it's rescued by the cumin and coriander, which nudge the flavours more to a savoury spectrum, and the yoghurt and orange zest, which deliver tang. The farro brings an earthy dimension to the dish and almost turns it into a complete meal.

I don't get too fussy about the quality of the carrots for this. I believe very strongly in buying the best ingredients I can, but in this case I would rather spend the money on a great extra-virgin olive oil to finish the dish.

Farro usually requires quite a bit of soaking. You can get away without it in this recipe, if you're in a hurry, but make sure you rinse the farro a few times under cold running water, then add a ½ cup of water and 15-20 minutes to the cooking time.

Oh, and a note about using wine in cooking: if you wouldn't drink it, don't cook with it. You will notice undesirable flavours in your dish if you skimp on the wine. In this case, you are after something dry. I often use sparkling white if I don't have a suitable dry white wine on hand.

Simon Bryant

3 tbsp cracked farro, soaked overnight in cold water
Salt flakes and cracked black pepper
100ml extra-virgin olive oil, and a splash for drizzling
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 cinnamon stick
1kg carrots, diced
4 tbsp dry white wine or sparkling white wine
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 orange
1 handful each of mint and coriander leaves, chopped
1/2 cup (140g) Greek-style yoghurt

Drain the farro, discarding the soaking water. Place it in a heavy-based saucepan with ¾ cup of cold water and one teaspoon of salt and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook the farro for 20 minutes until it's tender to the bite, then drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over medium heat and sweat the onion until it's soft and translucent. Add the garlic, coriander, cumin and cinnamon and saute for five minutes, then add the carrots and 3 teaspoons of salt and saute for a further five to eight minutes until the carrot is coated with the spices and slightly coloured. Deglaze the pan with the wine. Add 800 millilitres of water and simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes, until the carrot is tender.

Remove the pan from the heat and discard the cinnamon. Blend the diced carrots with a stick blender until smooth. Stir in the orange juice, then check the seasoning.

Fold the orange zest and chopped herbs through the yoghurt and add a pinch of salt. Place a large spoonful of farro into four warmed soup bowls and ladle the carrot and orange soup over the top. Garnish with a dollop of the herb yoghurt. Finish with an extra splash of olive oil and black pepper.

Serves 4

This story The ethical vegetarian first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.