By S Haslam
Unlike the historical situation of denizens of ‘country’ areas who had to make do with one Chinese and a pizza shop for gastronomic variety, the modern diner in the Byron region can sample a variety of cuisines, and experience some of the culture behind the dishes, every day of the week.
One of those chefs with an interesting cultural background is Francisco Smoje, who will be cooking at the sold-out Sample lunch on Friday 6 September alongside Federico Zanellato (Lumi Dining), Jason Barratt (Paper Daisy), and Alastair Waddell (Harvest Newrybar).
Francisco Smoje grew up in Argentina with three Italian grandparents and one Croatian grandparent. ‘That’s a pretty normal mix in Argentina,’ says Francisco. ‘At least where I grew up in Buenos Aires there were more Italians than people of Spanish heritage. Italian food is ingrained into Argentinian culture. But my restaurant in Byron is called Barrio, a Spanish word for the neighbourhood; in Buenos Aires like Byron there is a mix of cultures.
‘Rather than a particular dish, what to me brings back memories of home is cooking over coals. In Buenos Aires people love to cook steak, and have little V-shaped parilla grills with coals, even on the balconies of apartment blocks you can see them cooking with little bits of coals. You can smell the aroma in the streets of animals burning being cooked over the fire.
‘One dish I like to make, that I’ll be serving at the Sample lunch and on Saturday at the festival is faina, a crunchy flatbread made of chickpea flour that is served everywhere in Argentina on top of pizza, for example on top of a margarita. It is gluten and dairy free, so I’ve found it’s very popular over here.’
Francisco will be making his own chorizo, with charred onions cooked over coals, and salsa with green peppers and jalapeño for the opening lunch. And for the Saturday at the Barrio stall he will have traditional corn and beef empanadas, with some charcoal-cooked chicken and delicious sauces.
He has a simple style, trying not to manipulate the food too much, but concentrating on flavour and high-quality produce. He came to Australia as a 21-year-old and worked at Rockpool, then started working with David Thompson at Darley Street Thai, but after travelling and working around the world decided that Australia was where he wanted to live, and raise his children.
For Francisco the festival is ‘an opportunity to let people know who we are, to let people know what I’m about’.
So, what is he about? ‘In our restaurant we have managed to create a warm environment. Unlike a lot of Byron places where there are backpackers serving you who are just passing through, we have a front-of-house crew who really care about serving people. The smokiness and the warmth are other special things at the restaurant that are hard to replicate at home. I think in Byron you really need the support of the people who are regulars. We have really busy lunches and we really feel honoured that we have people who come back so often; that’s important in a tourist town.’
Whether you are a local or a visitor, you can meet Francisco Smoje at Sample or drop in to his restaurant Barrio any time in the Byron Arts and Industry Estate.