Kung fu chef hunts elusive 'black gold' truffles

Ieva Tomsons

ONE WORD you’d never apply to master chef Alain Fabregues is ‘mediocre’.

After more than 50 years, Alain has stepped away from the hothouse of cutting-edge cuisine to concentrate on growing truffles on his Toodyay farm.

“I’ve had too many pans in the air,” he said, “and if it doesn’t happen this year – the experiment is over”.
It’s an uncharacteristic statement from a man who has been twice knighted, by French Presidents Mitterrand (1994) and Chirac (2004), for services to cuisine and who, in 1991, won the prestigious Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) a peer-reviewed honour for master craftsmen.

The fact that he was the first ex-patriot Frenchman to win the MOF makes the achievement even more remarkable.

Alain grew up in Pessac, Bordeaux where from an early age he was absorbing the smells and tastes of his grandmother’s kitchen. And, with a great-great-great grandmother who cooked for Napoleon’s army during the Italian campaign it’s fair to say that cooking ‘is in his blood’.

At 15, Alain started his three-year apprenticeship in a busy Bordeaux market workers’ restaurant learning the fundamental skills to master the 18 disciplines of the culinary arts.

“Anyone can learn to make one dish,” said Alain, “but by learning a technique you can make 100 dishes”.

The value of an available and disciplined apprenticeship is inestimable to Alain who lambastes the collapse of the apprenticeship system in Australia and France.

“Only 500 of two million get an apprenticeship and the retention rate after five years is only 20 per cent.”

In 1969 the newly-qualified chef packed his knives and sailed off on the SS Australis celebrating his 21st birthday at sea with 2000 other young passengers.

“It was the sixties – it was a lot of fun.”

After three months in Bonegilla migrant camp on the border of Victoria and NSW, Alain boarded the Indian Pacific for the three-day train trip across the Nullabor to Perth.

He started his first shift at the then newly built Parmelia Hotel on his first afternoon in town. 

In his 2010 book Degustation – A Master Chef’s Life Through Menus Alain recalls how the kitchen regime of Perth’s ‘premier hotel’ felt “like a ship without a captain” and that the most-used piece of kitchen equipment was the tin-opener – even a house specialty, kangaroo tail soup, came out of a can.

Along the culinary road Alain met Lizzie who he took home to marry in his home town before setting off on a year-long motorbike trip through North Africa and Central Europe.

In those days you had to have your wits about when travelling in North Africa, with or without a brand-new BMW1000 touring bike and, not to mention, a brand-new wife.

For defence, a chef would be expected to pack a meat cleaver or boning  knife but for Alain it was the martial arts weapon nunchucks.

From 1972 to the mid-80s  Alain practised the choy lay fut kung fu style, competing locally and overseas.

A martial arts trophy won in Hong Kong in 1976 stands front and centre on his bedroom dresser where the wall is covered with countless golden plates and other culinary awards.

Returning from their overseas adventure in 1979, Alain and Lizzie secured The Loose Box, a run-down restaurant in Sawyers Valley. After 36 years and a relocation to Mundaring the Loose Box set the standard for cuisine nouvelle in WA and was twice voted the best restaurant in Australia.

The Loose Box “we couldn’t afford to change the sign”, sighs Alain, led the charge  in establishing kitchen gardens, using seasonal produce and foraging for local ingredients such as mushrooms.

Alain’s pursuit of growing the ‘black gold’ Perigord truffle in Toodyay started in 2004 when he planted 1300 English and French oak tree hosts on his 15ha farm.

In 2011 he found his first and only unripe truffle which led to established Manjimup truffle growers crying ‘foul’ at the unseasonal discovery in an untried area.

Of the ‘great truffle kerfuffle’ Alain said: “If I hadn’t found the truffle, I would not have continued.”

After battling water shortages, mice and river snails Alain is concentrating on seven rows of inoculated trees which he hopes will produce the prized Perigord which retails for about $2500 a kilo.

If not? “Maybe I’ll farm pheasants,” said the indefatigable chef.

See A Taste of Toodyay 

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