Phillip Searle happily admits to being a fanatic.
"It is a quality I inherited from my mother. I have to do things well. It would have applied to anything I did, but the direction I chose was cooking," he says.
After travelling widely in Europe and Asia and reading and intensely studying the classical cookery texts, the opportunity arose for Phillip to start a restaurant, Riley's, in Adelaide at the start of the 80s. Now, he wonders why he did it.
"I was fanatical about cooking, and I wrongly assumed that cooking in a restaurant had creative potential," he says. "I was a complete novice, and started by doing very naive stuff whilst learning and trying everything I could. I studied technique and I tried all the methods. I was determined to master all aspects of cooking. Then, after that period, my intuitive sense as a cook began to develop." Phillip worked at Riley's for a couple of years before establishing Possums in partnership with Barry Ross who had been working with Cheong Liew at Neddy's. Possums soon became wildly successful.
"Adelaide is very small, but the group who did go out were very adventurous for the time. If you were doing something new, you received incredible support," he explains.
News travelled and, with the brilliant Cheong Liew at Neddy's, Adelaide became a Mecca for the foodies of Australia. Phillip and Barry sold Possums in 1985 and took a couple of years off. They travelled widely, and then set up Oasis Seros in Sydney in February of 1987.
"Oasis allowed me to pursue my ambitions as a cook, not as a restaurateur," says Philip. "It's expensive to produce good food. For the first five years at Oasis, I was absolutely relentless in the pursuit of what I was after, and to perfect whatever it was I had in mind. I was determined to formulate a style that was distinctive, and my own.
"When I attempt a dish, I look for an instinctive harmony that exists between things. I look for the thread, the juxtaposition, the contrast; the link in palate that joins, say, the pineapple, the licorice and the star anise in my chequerboard icecream, for example. I've always tried to do this very carefully."
Unfortunately we could not witness the actual creation of Phillip's icecream at Mietta's. He made his masterpiece in Blackheath and transported it in containers filled with dry ice.
Thanks to the extraordinary patience and understanding of the Ansett team (from the marketing department in Melbourne through to baggage controllers through to the freight section), he was eventually allowed on board. But the icecream travelled on a seperate plane. As we were meeting Phillip at the airport and were aware he may have trouble boarding with his icecream, we pestered staff to find out if and when he was arriving. They could not tell us which flight he was on but we did manage to learn that he and the icecream were seperated. Panic set in. Neither Phillip nor I had the sense to carry a mobile phone so had no means to connect. We circled the airport looking in vain either for Phillip or his container. Neither could be found. I left panic messages on his answering machine, kept on ringing ours to check if he left a message there and stood up Donovan, Phillipa and Iain Hewitson for dinner. We had planned a dinner discussion to go through Iain's menu, he was the next chef in line. Anxiety mounted, by this time the dry ice would have gone and the icecream would be . . . melting. Much later that night we found out that Phillip had landed safely and was staying with friends. We had no phone number, it was too late anyway to call, but, what about the icecream.
The following morning a relaxed Phillip arrived and the icecream was deposited in our freezer. When he had arrived at the airport and could not find us he went straight to his friends and secured the icecream in their quite large freezer. Hysteria disappeared for the moment. But that day there was a big lunch on and the kitchen momentum was frantic. Too much activity for Phillip (he'd been taking it easy away from the stoves in the mountains for some months) who quickly disappeared for a smoke, "too hyper for me". He did come back, borrowed an apron and started to instruct Simon and Jem (our kitchen hands) in how to smash open the blue swimmer crabs and painstakingly extract all the meat, "an awful job".
Going back to tracing his career, at Oasis Seros, Phillip felt he had achieved his goal. But when the recession began to bite and, with it, the enforced cost cutting at the restaurant, Phillip found he could not maintain the drive for perfection which had propelled him to such dizzy culinary heights.
So he stopped cooking, and began to paint again; it was the first time he had picked up his brushes for more than two decades. "Barry was amazed when he saw what I was doing," says Philip. "He had never seen my work."
The restaurant was sold successfully at the end of 1994 and Phillip retired to the Blue Mountains to devote himself to painting and gardening. He has enjoyed his retreat, but has occasionally been lured back to Sydney for the creation of some special event catering.
Now Barry and Phillip have a new project, they have taken over the old bakery at Blackheath in New South Wales, and are opening a cafe bakery called Vulcans. Talking of the plans an even more intense heat and fervour seems to have taken Phillip over. He is now set himself the task to become a great baker, "I'll learn everything about it, I'll become a master of that and I'll work through everything," he says.
For Phillip Searle is never happy until he has discovered every nuance of whatever task he has set himself. With his painting, however, he feels that there is a difference.
"I can be analytical about the cooking process, but with drawing, it is a mystery, it comes from the infinite. With painting, I still don't know my intention when I start," he says.
So painting is again on the back burner as Vulcans gets a floor, gets some plumbing, gets the old baker's oven fired up and Phillip learns about lamingtons.
The Blackheathens have been watching the conversion of the old bakery and the one delicacy above all other baked goods they seem to be craving are lamingtons. The fanatic is back. Watch out for the giant Searle lamington to take over.
A 1999 interview (and recipes) with Phillip Searle, Phillip in 1991 and a review of his restaurant Vulcans.
Smoked eggplant with crab sauce
Salmon or swordfish with sambal coat
Steamed blue swimmer crab with tamarind and "angel's hair"
Roasted salmon with glazed eggplant
Oysters with cucumber in ham jelly
Chocolate and mandarin parfail