How I Melbourne: Raf Epstein

Published on 3 February 2021

Photo: Raf Epstein, host of Drive for ABC Radio Melbourne

Raf Epstein is the sound of afternoons in Melbourne. The energetic and incisive journalist has hosted ABC Radio Melbourne’s Drive program since 2012, interspersing current affairs with local history, culture, the arts, and a weekly food segment on Tuesdays. He started his career with the public broadcaster and has worked on both ABC TV news and Radio Current Affairs in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, and in Europe as a correspondent. He’s earned two Walkley Awards for his reporting and published a non-fiction book, Prisoner X, in 2014 about a young Australian who got caught up in the world of international intelligence. Epstein is also an avid cook who swears by Marcella Hazan’s recipe for Bolognese, and he has a daily habit of several cups of Melbourne coffee.

My defining food moment in Melbourne was my first coffee. I never used to drink coffee and when I got my cadetship at the ABC at the end of 1994 my then-girlfriend, now-wife said to me, “Now that you’re a journalist, you have to start drinking coffee”. She took me to Caffe e Cucina in Chapel Street and I had my first latte with her, and that was my gateway into a lifelong addiction and love affair with coffee.

I know I’m in Melbourne when I see women wearing asymmetrical dresses. You don’t see them in many other places. A woman with salt and pepper hair and the asymmetrical dress, really snappily dressed and she looks like she’s late for a meeting: for me that’s a Melbourne thing.

The best new thing I’ve found is focusing on vegetables as the main part of the meal when I cook, with some protein on the side. I’ve been making lots of recipes by Hetty McKinnon and Alice Zaslavsky: baked cauliflower, barbecued broccoli, adding lots of spices like za’atar and making lots of dressings with whole lemons or limes blitzed with other ingredients.

When I want to go crazy on a meal, I don’t have an exciting answer to this. My go-to is to look up an Ottolenghi recipe. I’ve got most of the Ottolenghi cookbooks, so I just get one out, look in the vegie box, and go from there. To really splash out, I’ll go to Prahran Market for the ingredients.

There’s no better value in Melbourne than buying expensive ingredients and eating at home; it’s a far more satisfying experience. Buy a really expensive piece of meat and cook it at home. Buy seafood and eat it at home. It’s much better value for money most of the time. I love going out but I can’t afford to do it all the time and I can’t take my children with me because they eat like vacuum cleaners. The number one question that comes through on Foodie Tuesday is “How do I cook well?” And the answer is buy sparingly and spend a bit more on the key ingredient. That’s how you get value for money.

And when I want to dazzle friends from out of town, there are only three or four places that I’d take them: Maha, Taxi, Lake House and, until recently, Bar Saracen, which I’m very sad has just closed. There’s lots of good food in Victoria, but when I’m showing people around, I have to ask myself a) is it worth the money and b) will it impress people? Taxi and Lake House have both impressive food and a nice setting, and I always choose Maha for the surprise factor, the I-can’t-make-this-at-home factor.

To me, the sound of Melbourne, apart from my own radio station, might be when I saw Richmond get into their first grand final for ages in 2017. It was insane seeing 80,000 people shouting “yellow and black” at the top of their voices. They beat GWS and because it was a preliminary final, there weren’t as many corporate ticket-holders there; it was just fans. I’ve been to the soccer World Cup but I’ve never heard anything like that yellow-and-black chant after the siren. It was very, very unique and awe-inspiring – and I’m not even a Richmond supporter.

In the mornings you’ll find me making breakfast and lunch for myself and everyone else at home. For lunch, it’s usually some good-quality sourdough, good cheese and good dips, if they’re lucky a decent salami, and if they’re not so lucky the meat from last night or the night before. We went through a bread-making phase but that’s now long gone. We really like Firebrand bread; it’s the original and the best on that side of the city. Bread is one thing that distinguishes Melbourne and Sydney from the rest of the world. You can’t get bread like we can get. I have not been to a city in the western world that has the choice of bread and coffee that we have.

If you looked in my fridge, you might be surprised to find a whole lot of things I’ve used for Asian cooking that I’ve used once and never used again. There’s a drawer that’s got four or five preserved pickles, tofu pastes, odd chilli pastes, preserved bean pastes, and things that I’m not quite sure what they are. I’m sure they’re good; they don’t go off; I’ve just lost the recipe. There’s also a hell of a lot of alcohol in the freezer for people that don’t drink much. There are four or five bottles of gin and vodka that are barely touched, that we’ve accrued as gifts and things.

The last awesome Victorian thing I drank was coffee. Every day of my life I drink coffee from Monk Bodhi Dharma. They are disciples, they’re coffee hustlers. It is the world’s best coffee.

My local is Shyun Ramen on Koornang Road in Carnegie because everyone needs a trusted takeaway spot that delivers a consistently satisfying and tasty experience, every time. For me, ramen is the Japanese equivalent of chicken soup. You just feel that life is better after a bowl, and Shyun Ramen does that every single time I have it.

If I could change one thing about eating and drinking here it would be giving myself more time to eat and drink at home. I’d love more time to prepare each meal.

But the one thing I hope never changes in Melbourne is the coffee. It’s amazing. There’s nowhere else in the world where you can walk into a place nearby and you’ve got a high percentage of the coffee being amazing.

You can hear Raf hosting Drive each weekday on ABC Radio Melbourne from 3.30pm to 6.30pm. Tune in to 774 AM or stream it online. Follow Raf on Twitter @Raf_Epstein.

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