He’s cooked for billionaires like Bill Gates and the who’s who of New York. And now former head chef at Sage Dining Rooms, Thomas Heinrich, has opened an intimate chef’s table dining space in Wanniassa.
Table by Canberra Gourmet may be a bit hard to find for north of the lake people like me, but the journey is worth it. My girlfriend and I got lost on the way and ended up driving round in circles. When I got home and showed it to my husband, he had a chuckle.
“Oh, I remember that place,” he said. “I used to cycle as a kid to the (then) supermarket next door to buy smokes for mum. It used to be a takeaway shop. It had a space invaders game out the front, and I would often stop to play it. Sometimes I’d splurge and buy a bag of hot chips for 30 cents as well.”
But now, it hosts an intimate chef’s table experience.
Thomas left school at 17 to start working as an apprentice chef. He then decided to follow his dream and, with only $500 and some chef uniforms, headed to the big apple. In New York, he was soon offered a role working at the iconic Four Seasons restaurant in New York.
“We had lots of famous guests,” said Thomas. “But probably the most famous and regular was Bill Gates, who used to come for lunch every day. And every day I would cook for him.”
After working there for several years, headed home to work at the Deep Blue Bistro in Coogee before heading back to the US to work at Four Seasons Chicago, then the Hyatt. Along the way, he met and married Larah, a talented chief originally from The Philippines. The two have three young children and a shared love of good food.
Until a few months ago (read, until COVID), Thomas was head chef at Sage Dining Rooms, famous for its high quality and innovation.
Suddenly without work, Thomas and Larah have pivoted to a new business model providing quality, home-cooked meals frozen meals during lockdown from their home in Tuggeranong.
“The meals mean that you can have top restaurant-quality meals at home, which is perfect for people who are busy,” says Larah. Pre-COVID, Larah had been making and selling specialty Filipino sausages. During COVID, Thomas and Larah expanded the range to include other dishes including duck confit, pork adobo, slow-cooked lamb shanks, Balinese chicken and beef cheek.
Then Thomas decided, once again, to take a leap of faith. This time opening his own micro-restaurant in Wanniassa.
When I arrived at the opening night at Table by Canberra Gourmet I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Firstly, the table. It’s wooden and handmade by Thomas and a good friend. Basically, it resembles a real kitchen table, but one decorated with pink candles and flowers.
Then there’s the food. It’s innovative, playful and pretty with lots of surprises. It’s basically a six-course degustation experience where Thomas cooks and waits on you.
First up came Hervey Bay scallop butter topped with caviar, served with homemade crumpets. Yes, crumpets which were yummy and perfect for scooping up the butter. It was followed with a dish of truffle expresso, with generous shavings of The Truffle Farm truffles. Then a super soft kingfish sashimi in a citrusy -tamarind dressing, topped with puffed rice and flowers. It’s one of the nicest sashimi dishes I’ve ever tried – and certainly the most flavoursome.
Then to a dish of tapioca nori sheets served with a deep green oyster aioli, which was kind of like an upmarket dip and chip.
Moving into the meats, and my favourite dish of the menu was a pretty dish of kangaroo and beetroot tartar with buttermilk, citrus and pistachio. Kangaroo is notoriously difficult to cook right, and Thomas nailed this perfectly.
Drawing on his wife’s cultural heritage, Thomas then presented a skew of dukkha-dusted Philippines roast chicken, served on a plate of black stones, which gave it a Zen look.
The main dish was a spectacular slab of 18-hour slow-cooked beef cheek slathered with truffles and served with parsnip mash and pickled quandongs. The table went silent as we all contemplated the robustness of this dish.
Then desserts. Apple and cream was much more tantalizing and than it sounds; flavour pumped and frozen shards of apple atop a rich cream sauce with apple gel and finger limes, decorated with flowers. Then the finale – a type of deconstructed Ferror Rocher with goats milk pannacotta cubes, which Thomas created to honour his wife’s love of the chocolate.
“I like desserts to be light and not too heavy,” he said. “I used to notice that many dinners were so full from the other courses that they couldn’t finish dessert.”
And he is right; it was the perfect finish – sweet, yet not cloying, and filling yet not leaving me feeling like a glutton. Well, not much anyway.
The food was stunning, but the star is the chef. Until now, Canberra has lacked a high-level chef’s table experience. And now we have one who also celebrates bush tucker and Australian produce. He’s not hidden in the kitchen, but rather cooking right in front of you – and serving you as well. So there are plenty of opportunities to interact and observe him at work.
Eating beautiful and expertly prepared food is sheer joy. But even better is the opportunity to do it in good company. The chef’s table experience offers the opportunity relax and mingle with a group of people. Even if you worry you won’t know anyone, just buy your ticket and before the end of the evening, you will have made new friends.
Table by Canberra Gourmet can comfortably seat ten, but at the moment, Thomas is choosing to limit to eight to ensure more than adequate social distancing during COVID. The degustation experience is available Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and Saturday lunchtime. Frozen meals are available during the day from Tuesday to Friday and can be ordered and purchased online.