Best New Talent 2009: Elvis Abrahanowicz and Ben Milgate, Bodega, Sydney

"This is nothing like we expected," says Elvis Abrahanowicz. "We just wanted a nice place that everyone liked, which is, I guess, what we've got, but it's all out of proportion to what we thought would happen." He's talking about the rampant success of Bodega, the mostly Spanish tapas restaurant he and co-head chef Ben Milgate opened in Sydney's Surry Hills in August 2006. Both had worked in establishments of note - Milgate at Bistro Lulu and Ten Buck Alley, among others; Abrahanowicz at Aria, Bécasse, MG Garage and Restaurant VII - before meeting in the kitchen at Paddington's Four in Hand hotel. Neither had headed a kitchen before but food-lovers wasted no time getting behind the quality of food and freshness of ideas at Bodega.

For all the rock-star styling, the pair have a work ethic that pays dues. Watching them cook together, bobbing and weaving fluidly behind the counter between plancha and fryer, raw fish and hot pork fat, is almost hypnotic. They are impressively intuitive, both in how they work together in the heat of service and how they plan their menus.

"It's Spanish, but we're not in Spain so we do things a little differently. People come in and say, 'This is not like it is in Spain', and we say, 'We're not in Spain.' The way of eating and the influences come from there… We take our direction from Spanish and South American ideas, and we're increasingly South American. We try to do what we do Sydney-style, with a feel for what's happening here, now." 

"Elvis's brother-in-law gave us some money to start up," says Milgate. "This was the first site we looked at; we looked for another three-and-a-half months, and this was it. It paid off. There wasn't really anything else around here at night except for [Warren Turnbull's] Assiette, brothels and homeless shelters." The original concept was tapas at the bar, with pizza, but "the part that survived was the open kitchen, bar, and the whole restaurant being built around us and our personalities. That was always going to be the key thing, and the food just evolved to go with it."
 
Support from other hospitality people has been unflagging. "Industry people get it," says Abrahanowicz. "When you've worked in a big restaurant, you're used to everybody sitting down and sharing lots of food from one big plate [for staff meals], so they're comfortable with that. We try to encourage people to eat straight from the dishes as they're served, and just hook in."

Bodega, 216 Commonwealth St, Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 9212 7766, bodegatapas.com

WORDS PAT NOURSE

This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.







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