My search for Mogens Bay Esbensen would be pointless, some people said. The man who had brought Thai ingredients to Australian cooking was dead. After all, he would be old if he were alive.
Others thought he was living reclusively in Far North Queensland, not far from where he had owned Nautilus at Port Douglas and presided over its kitchen, introducing fine food to Australia’s most backward gastronomic state. Supremely important in the development of Australian cooking, Mogens had left no trails, it appeared. Just vanished… Some years ago.
Then someone had heard he was either alive or dead – it was hard to be both, my informant conceded – but back in Denmark; he was either in or on his native soil. A few weeks later I interviewed Damien Pignolet of Sydney’s Bistro Moncur, who had once been Mogens’s business partner. He revelled in telling me that he had only recently spoken by phone to Mogens. He was clearly alive though seemed not terribly well, Pignolet thought. He was living on a quaint island halfway between northern Denmark and Sweden. I rejoiced at the news and made plans to visit.
As places to curl up and die in go, Laeso is as good as any and better than most. It begs to be left alone, as do its few hundred residents. Its fishermen still provide discerning European palates wth superb sole, turbot and small sweet lobsters, but artists have lately joined the trawlermen and their families, valuing Laeso’s peace and clean air. A low paver of sour soil, the island is less than 20 kilometres long and about seven at its widest. A few narrow sealed roads link the two tiny towns, a couple of hamlets, the ferry terminal and a fishing port, and where there aren’t smatterings of low, thick forest – oak, beech and fir – there are groomed fields of whatever crop is earning the highest subsidy from the European Community. Several compounds contain rows of hutches – miniature Dachaus – husbanding mink to warm the rich women of Europe, and a small factory produces salt, mainly as a tourist attraction, by evaporating hypersaline groundwater from selected bores. The beaches are used sparingly – Laeso’s weather is not Bondi’s. A car goes past your front door never more frequently than every couple of hours and your privacy is respected. Your visitors are infrequent, if only because the quickest way to Laeso requires you to fly from Copenhagen to Aalborg, get a bus to Frederiskshavn (about an hour), wait for a ferry (perhaps some hours), then cross to Laeso (90 minutes). Ring Laeso’s only taxi before you leave Frederikshavn if you need to get around.
On a cold and rainy six o’clock Saturday in early summer, at any rate, Mogens picked me up from the ferry terminal in a rusty Volvo owned and driven by Lai, a ferry engineer, his only friend on Laeso. His welcome was warm – guests were rare, he told me almost immediately. He was shorter and heavier than the blond and handsome culinary star who presided over the burners at Sydney’s Butler’s and Pavilion on the Park in the 1970s and 80s. His head was shaved, stubble of indeterminate colour. Small eyes shone. The impression was of an old wrestler or Star Wars sage. I had expected him to look sicker, too. Apart from a niggling back, he was very well, he volunteered, even if he had returned to Denmark nine years ago broke and apparently almost dead.
We headed off on the “long way” to his central-island home, wipers intermittently divulging low, scrubby foreshore and empty narrow sand. In 10 minutes we were outside a red-brick fisherman’s cottage in a saucer of high grass, a flowering cherry tree and magnificent rhododendron in purple flower. Pools of clear water broadened everywhere. Lai left us to scurry inside.
Naturally gloomy, the cottage was also a determined home. Its four small rooms were lined with an eclectic and wonderful library in bookshelves of old Queensland mahogany. They were once floorboards, said Mogens. An antique brass candelabra illuminated the sitting room. Unwired, its monastically stout candles were lit at dusk. Another similar candelbra with its matching ornate brass snuffer threw light over the dinner table. Covering the floors and between the bookcases hung primitive masks, framed needlework (Mogens’s) of cooking herbs, thick-piled rugs of abstract patterns and bright colours that he knotted from his dreams, he said. Fine line-and-wash drawings, one of a reclining nude youth, another of a Sri Lankan boy holding a rooster, hung proudly.
The table had been set – fabric napkins and best cutlery and glassware a pensioner can muster – and very soon we sat down to local crab and fish, each with their sauces, and drank what I suspected was the best red Mogens could afford. Next morning I turned on my tape recorder.
“What can you use bitterness for?” he spat, his throaty Scandinavian drawl and periodic chuckles departing him. “Nothing. You have to live forwards.”
We had ventured into the sensitive territory of his departure from Australia in March 1992. A combination of a bleeding colon and no money had robbed him of the future he had planned — kicked him out. Land taxes at Butler’s had accrued into an unexpectedly large sum, freeholder Beppi Polese had his own ideas for the restaurant (which was to become Mezzaluna) and an idylllic retreat he owned south of Cairns had been called in by the bank. Losing the seven hectares of rainforest in Cardwell he had bought from former South Australian Premier Don Dunstan hurt him most. He called it Gondwana – after the ancient south land – and he had spent $250,000 on a house of almost 300 square metres constructed of exquisite timbers on two levels.
He jumps up to find a photograph album and show me pictures. Its fine-wood structure frames vast windows; the wood and interior lighting give it an ethereal glow. His dream, he says, was to sell Butler’s at a good price and move to Cardwell, presenting cooking classes and maybe attracting “an international market while I still had a name”. Accommodation units were to be built in the rainforest.
He had sold Nautilus, and when he lost Butler’s he lost his capacity to earn. He tried to work at a Radisson beach resort but was too ill to continue. His bleeding colon was operated on in August 1990, and as he came around in the recovery room he was confronted with a court order from a finance company.
“I couldn’t face the music in Australia”, he says. “I felt ashamed at how it had gone. And I thought, `How can I have a good pension and health care?’ It’s important when you’re sick and old”.
Despite having spent no more than a day or two in Denmark over 30 years, he also believed that people had roots. His were in Denmark and, anyway, he didn’t think he’d be around long. So he left Australia, which had already been inordinately good to him and promised much more, to go — for want of a better word — home.
In 1930, the year of his birth, home was a prosperous mixed farm 60 kilometres south of Copenhagen. After having him, his mother “never got out of bed” and died seven weeks later. He hardly knew a brother 10 years older and “never agreed’ with a stepmother: “I spent more time under the spiral staircase in the dark in a cupboard than I did outside”.
And yet in all generosity he can’t tell now if his childhood was unhappy. He had no comparisons and was not allowed playmates. Nearby farming families were not so successful, didn’t reach his father’s financial and social requirements. Nor did Mogens meet his father’s demands. Rather than providing hugs, he constantly reminded him of what he cost. At eight he was packed off to a strict Protestant boarding school… “My father got rid of me”, he adds, laughing sadly and with some embarrassment.
So young Mogens lacked love, but he also lacked food. He had grown up eating a midday meal that had sat by the oven door for hours and was dry under its taut skin. Nothing improved at boarding school where – it was wartime – he had to guard his own jar of sugar.
He wanted to study literature and languages but his father wouldn’t contenance it. He couldn’t afford to pay for his own study so he became an apprentice chef to answer a simple question: did food exist that was better than that which he’d eaten?
He was 15, and the question was soon answered in a rapturous affirmative. By the age of 22 he was executive chef at the Hotel de France, one of Denmark’s top tables. To travel, he became a steward on board SAS’s Royal Viking flights, which in the days of propellor-driven DC-6s and DC-7s involved cooking air-light inflight omelettes and heating Escoffier’s sauces to accompany the best cuts of beef.
After having been stationed in Thailand for a year, he became food and beverage manager of a new Bangkok hotel. He would also have set up a floating restaurant in Hong Kong if a typhoon had not catapaulted it onto the colony’s airstrip. He opened a series of his own restaurants in Thailand before losing his life’s savings in an orchid farm. It was the 1970s, and the two savage hikes in oil prices and fuel rationing meant he could no longer run his diesel generators that powered pumps to run sprinkler systems.
He went back to his first hotel, which had become part of the Hyatt chain and it was as a Hyatt executive that he was sent to become food and beverage manager at the new Hyatt Kingsgate in Kings Cross. In the following years, La Causerie, Pavilion on the Park, Butler’s and Nautilus made his name. In Thailand he had seen the women buying food only when they needed to cook it – they had no refrigeration. And he had used their varieties of gingers, eggplants and fruit. In Sydney he demanded these things from suppliers and little by little they began to appear.
At the Pavilion and Butler’s commentators and critics described his cooking as “nouvelle”, a term he ridiculed. “Cuisine is always, if you cook like that (from fresh ingredients) always nouvelle”. He cooked lamb with walnuts, guinea-fowl breast on a ginger-flavored salpicon of its legs. (“Salpicon” means diced ingredients bound with a sauce.) The fowl would be boned, the breast marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, ginger and herbs. After roasting in a pan, the legs would be stewed, their flesh chopped up and mixed with roasting juices. On order, a fowl breast would be grilled pink, rested, sliced and placed on the diced stewed leg meat. Fresh slivers of ginger would garnish and a reduced cooking juices would surround the lot.
The dish I’ve described might be described as “contemporary”. Yet Mogens was among the few chefs then who were simply evaporating cooking juices to thicken them and adding butter for shine and body, the most common way of making 21st-century brasserie sauces.
(See my book Advanced Australian Fare – Allen & Unwin 2002 — for the continuation of my story about Mogens.)