CHILLY WEATHER: Mercure Cairns Harbourside executive chef Markus Strieby hams it up at Rusty’s Markets in Cairns.
CHILLY WEATHER: Mercure Cairns Harbourside executive chef Markus Strieby hams it up at Rusty’s Markets in Cairns. Shirley Sinclair

Putting magic into fresh food

MARKUS Strieby is a magician. Right before our eyes, he throws a drizzle of something here, a splash of that there, a little more sizzle, sizzle, sizzle … and voila! Culinary magic.

But unlike most magicians who use a special bag of tricks and sleight of hand as their tools of trade, Markus is quite happy to share his secrets in a masterclass with a group of journalists who are mesmerised by his smoke-without-mirrors barbecue.

He has honed his craft in kitchens all over the world including Regent Hotels in Fiji, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, as well as others in Jordan and Egypt since beginning his career with Glattdoerfli Restaurants in his native Switzerland.

In that time, he has had its fair share of celebrity encounters – among them, serving “Fergie” (the Duchess of York) at exclusive Beddara Island Resort, and the Kings and Queens of Thailand, Jordan and Malaysia, as well as “Ol’ Blue Eyes” Frank Sinatra, “The Body” Elle Macpherson, and actors Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, and Uma Thurman.

He was only 25 when he first came to Australia as a chef de partie, sponsored initially by the Hilton Cairns.

He has been back in Tropical North Queensland just over a year now, making his influence and experience felt at the four-star Mercure Cairns Harbourside in Teshi’s Restaurant and Blue Mango Cafe Wine Bar and its conference and banqueting sections.

And while the friendly and easy-going executive chef likes to call himself a “world traveller”, he seems very much at home playing “Aussie” male with tongs behind the hotplate.

But in this open patio area on the Esplanade hotel’s top floor, Markus is helping to bring the wow factor to our barbecue.As if being wined and dined by candlelight with the twinkling glow of the city as a backdrop and a trillion stars overhead wasn’t enough. There’s butler service and a menu boasting two famous Far North Queensland seafood delicacies: freshwater yabbies from the Atherton Tableland and wild barramundi.

Like a human cyclone, Markus swirls around the barbecue, moving back and forth from his seasoning bowls to the main attractions. He seasons his pan-fried yabbies entrée with a combination of lemon myrtle, anise, sea salt and paprika and promises us a taste sensation.

And they are indeed, served with mesculin and rocket salad prepared using the “house” dressing of balsamic vinegar, honey and mustard plus a mango/passionfruit vinaigrette, and a little fresh pineapple salsa on the plate. The wattle and macadamia-crusted wild barramundi with rosella and mandarin dressing is another triumph, using fresh local ingredients to enhance the catch.

“I go to the market every morning at 7 o’clock,” Markus proudly announces. But we already knew this little “secret” because we had accompanied him earlier that day on a tour of nearby Rusty’s Markets. This is where Cairns locals shop from Friday to Sunday.

With Markus and our guide Graham leading the way, we are introduced to colourful sights as we touch and smell the produce while walking along the aisles, the sounds of stallholders spruiking their specials and chatting to customers, and glorious aromas from dynamic boutique food manufactuers such as Mungalli Creek Yoghurt, Gallo Cheeses from the Gallo Dairyland Cheese and Chocolate Factory at Atherton, and The Coffee Works’ fresh varieties from its Mareeba plantation.

And while most Queenslanders would be familiar with much of the tropical fruit on show, such as Kensington Pride (Bowen) mangoes, pawpaw and pineapple, some produce seems so big, we joke they must be on steroids.

The actual farmers – mostly from the Tableland, Innisfail and Mossman but also Port Douglas and as far away as the Daintree – may only stay a half-day or one full day because they must return home to work the farm.

People like Philip Pena, who drives the 60km from his farm at Mareeba, picks his crops from Tuesday to Thursday and arrives in the market at daybreak Friday morning. “You can’t beat it – it’s so fresh,” he said of his colourful, blemish free assortment.

Vietnamese Aussie, “Phat”, was a fine example of necessity being the mother of invention with the powerful grinding machine he had created to make fresh, pure sugar cane juice. We watched him again and again push the pieces of cane through the machine.

At $3 a small cup, the juice was a refreshing pick-me-up in the tropical Cairns heat. But we did wonder how we could fly some south to put zing in our cocktails.

With friends like that behind him, Markus is certainly the type of man you want adding a little magic to your barbecue.


209-217 The Esplanade, Cairns, overlooking Trinity Bay.

The hotel has 173 rooms, two restaurants, three function rooms, a swimming pool and spa. Phone 1800 079 131.

The Mercure Harbourside Cairns caters for functions, conferences and weddings. The top-floor patio is also ideal for private barbecues, cocktail parties and intimate dinners for special occasions.


Between Grafton and Sheridan streets, Cairns (next to Gilligan’s)

Opening Times: Friday 5am-6pm, Saturday 6am-3pm, and Sunday 6am-2pm.

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