"NAAAAAAAUUUUUURRRR!" After nine years of protesting its very existence, I finally stepped into the cultural theme park that is Outback Steakhouse... and it went VERY differently than I'd anticipated.
16th October, 2016
New York, NY
“Make it less Australian,”
he said from behind the glass. “Let’s go again, we’ll do three in a row this time.” I cleared my throat, put on my headphones, and wiped the sweat from my forehead before composing myself for the ninth set of takes. It was my third voice audition for the day. The commercial was for a company I’ve now tried to be “the voice of” four times.
I took a deep breath.
“Signature barbecue ribs and cheese fries on top of our Bloomin’ Onion!” I continued, in my best “Ocker” accent before landing on the button:
“Outback Steakhouse: Aussie Rules.”
Putting aside the fact that “Aussie Rules” is a sport, and that there is nothing more American than a plate of cheese fries and barbecue ribs…
…There is nothing less Australian than a Bloomin’ Onion.
We don’t even know what a Bloomin’ Onion is, much less serve them to our young. We would sooner eat a fucking Quokka.1
This ‘authentic Australian delicacy’ has haunted my existence as an American resident for nine years. I have never eaten one, much less been able to explain what the actual fuck it is, or how it is made.
The very concept of a ‘Steakhouse’ is also an atypical notion for Australia. There are no Ruths’ Chris, Wolfgangs, or Keens in Aussie cities. If you wanted to find one, you’d have to get a second mortgage and venture to a Rockpool inside a casino.2
We don’t even really say Bloomin’ in Australia. It’s a distinctly British mild-expletive from the 20th century. It’s as if someone asked a broken A.I. to watch the episode of The Simpsons where they go to Australia and generate a menu for a steakhouse.
I tried to bury my resentment as the guy behind the studio glass looked back at me and scratched his beard before leaning on the panel. “Aaah, I think we got it. We’ll let you know. Thanks.”
They didn’t let me know.
6th October, 2023
Wilkes Barre, PA
I’m on Interstate 81, en route to Williamsport, Pennsylvania for a comedy gig and the dog just expressed his glands in the back seat. The stench of dead fish and boiled pork is wafting towards the front of the rental car. We need to stop somewhere soon before I vomit on the dashboard.
Sophie has been in the passenger seat, starving and frantically Googling for dog-friendly restaurants for the past two hours with no success. Then she dials another number: “Yes, hello. We have a dog and wondered if we—
oh, you do? Oh, that’s great! We’ll be there soon. Thank you!”
“Good news!” she exclaimed, before delivering the worst news ever. “There’s a restaurant at the next exit that has a patio, but they said they also allow dogs inside.” I turn on my indicator to pull off at the next exit; the last one for ten miles.
She continues... “It’s …Outback Steakhouse.”
I turn off the indicator.
11th October, 2022
New York, NY
Who better to voice the ads for a non-Aussie restaurant than Non-Aussies?
In the final year I auditioned for it, the gig for The Voice of Outback Steakhouse would go to another non-Australian. For a while, it was New Zealander, Jermaine Clement from Flight Of The Conchords. At least that time it wasn’t an American doing a fake Aussie accent. Even the earliest TV campaigns in the 90s used American actors gawking at Rachel Hunter… another famous Kiwi.
Since then,3 the Outback gig has gone to several Americans doing a woeful Aussie accent and another New Zealander doing a decent enough cover of an Aussie dialect that is soothing to the American earhole.
I truly have nothing against New Zealanders —I have more Kiwi friends in New York than Aussie ones— but it does seem an impossible chasm to jump for Americans to discern a scintilla of difference between our accents. or Nations. It would be the equivalent of every Aussie assuming every Canadian is from Americ— (oh. Right. Sawry.)
At least Aussies get to make up the difference by snagging an outsized chunk of US-accent roles for the past 3 decades.
Yes, I know: Don’t worry, the Hemsworths get their own photo grid. So does Margot Robbie. And Rebel Wilson. and Rose Byrne, Sarah Snook, Yvonne Strahovski, Sam Worthington, Nicole Kidman…. you get the picture.
“Strewth Bloody Crikey, Me Dingoes!”
My Australian accent doesn’t actually sound like what Americans think an Australian accent is. If they gauge it off of Bluey, Kath & Kim, or Steve Irwin, I’m basically a South African. Whenever I’m on stage, I do sometimes Ocker-it-up to sell a bit about my parents, but I never go Full Crocodile Dundee.
Why did I want so badly to be the voice of an institution I so despised?
Why else? The almighty Dollary-doo. The money was insane. Also, spite.
I am riddled with schadenfreude at the news that all three Outback Steakhouse locations on the island of Manhattan are now permanently closed.
Was Outback Steakhouse started by Australians?
No. It was the brainchild of 4 drunk Floridians. Because of course it was.
In the late 1980s, four friends did too much meth for a Wednesday (even for Tampa) and had the divine vision of opening a casual-dining restaurant that offered completely confabulated delicacies that in no way resembled the local food of Australia.
Did they go ‘Full Outback’ and make it authentically Australian? Did they serve exclusively First Nations Bush Tucker? They could have made quite the culinary splash with Wagyu Wallaby with a side of roots, starchy tubers, seeds, fruits, and nuts. But, I suspect after doing the P&L on importing marsupials, the tariffs were too prohibitive. Don’t even get me started on the Emus.
They could have squeaked by with 20th-century Australian Cuisine, serving snags from the barbie, (No shrimp.) or some lamb chops with a side of Avocado Toast. (Yes, that’s an Aussie thing. You’re welcome, every café in LA.5)
But, no. In March 1988, they opened the first Outback Steakhouse in Tampa, Florida, serving the most bizarre combination of made-up menu items ever conceived. There are now over 700 outlets nationwide.
8th October, 2023
Wilkes Barre, PA
Popping my Outback Cherry (Soda)
After a very silent car ride home from Williamsport, I realise my long-standing resentment for this family restaurant has seeped its way into our marriage like the smell of Morris’ glands has seeped its way into our Hyundai.
Sophie had never been to Outback. Morris, an Ohio-born American had never been, and damnit, I had never been. It is raining. I am hungry. I decide to swallow my pride (not the worst thing I’d swallow that day) and pull off I-81.
I flick on the indicator. Sophie looks over at me, bewildered. I nod, and in a low, stoic Sam Elliott accent say, “It’s time for me to quit belly-achin’, and start belly-steakin’.”
Look, I’m not proud of that one either, but what followed was one of the most life-changing moments of all my years in America.
I pull into a space next to a sign with an upside-down kangaroo and turn off the engine. Morris pops his head into the front seat. He seems very excited. He licks his chops in anticipation of what he knows will be a lot of leftovers. This is really happening. I am going to eat my very first Bloomin’ Onion today. And so is Morris.
Just as I heave myself out of the car, a loud crack of thunder rings out from the heavens. (You think I’m being dramatic. This actually happened.) I look to Sophie, who is already racing inside to get to the bathroom, to see if I am imagining this. I am not.
We are greeted under an unusually bulbous light fitting that shows Australia as the bottom of the Earth. (Take that, Antarctica!) Our host’s name is Taylor. Our server’s name is Rhett. He leads us to a corner booth at the far end of the restaurant.
The entire restaurant is empty and quiet, save for the dull hum of Bryan Adams playing over the busted speakers. Once seated, Rhett brings us some water, and about eleven coasters before saying, “I’ll be with yinz* in just a minute”.
When he returns, this time with laminated menus, I ask him where he is from. “That’s a long story!” he chortles, “But the short version is— Virginia. But I was raised in Allentown. Then Pittsburgh. And I’ve been to Florida. Twice.”
He gives us three more coasters and asks if we’d like to start with any drinks.
“Diet Coke, please,” Sophie says, politely.
“Do you have any non-alcoholic beer?” I ask.
”Hmmm. We have Budweiser?” he replies. I laugh. He doesn’t understand why that was funny.
“Right. I’ll just have a Diet Coke.”
”I’ll be right back!”
An old man in a trucker cap shuffles in and squeezes into the next booth. He asks Rhett for a sweet tea (classic ‘Straya) before flicking through his menu. He begins whistling to himself as the buzzing speakers take a hard right into Kenny Chesney.
I guess they’re fresh out of Keith Urban.6
Rhett is back with a pad and pen before the end of the song, but not before I’ve finished pawing the sticky menus, each page eliciting a heavy sigh. Even the dog is upset.
“What on earth is a Boomarita?” I ask, incredulous.
“Oh! That’s one of our more popular drinks. Y’get 4 different margaritas on a boomerang.”
“Aren’t margaritas… M-mexic—?” I ask.
”Boomerangs aren’t.” He cuts me off with a big smile.
Morris hops down onto the tiles and goes to sleep.
“What about the Piña Koala?”
”Also good. It’s sweet, but it comes with an edible Koala garnish.”
”Of course it does.” I say through gritted teeth.
“and the Wallaby Darned?”
”That’s not my cup of tea, but it’s also very popular —Your beer is on its way, by the way.”
“Oh, I ordered a Diet C—”
Just then, Taylor appears out of nowhere, having deftly shifted from host duties to bartending duties, with a Diet Coke for Sophie, and a Non-Alcoholic Budweiser for me.
After skimming the remainder of the menu without inducing further apoplexy, I decide it is high time I find out what in the living fuck a Bloomin’ Onion is. It stares back at me from the page, at only $9.99.
“How big is it?” I ask, not looking up from the menu.
”Oh, it’s big.” It’s sort of an appetizer, but it’s huge. It comes on a big raised wooden stand.”
”Why?” I gasp.
”I’ve never asked.” he says, quietly.
I snap the menu shut.
”Let’s do it.”
“One Bloomin’ Onion, please.”
He nods and scribbles in his pad with a big smile. “Great.”
“I’ll share it,” Sophie says.
“And for Entrée?”7
Sophie is ready with a main. And Dessert. She memorised the entire menu in the car. I hadn’t considered eating more than an onion the size of my head, so I quickly blurt out the first thing I can remember— “FILET SHEILA!”
”Medium.” I say.
”No.” Just the sheila.
With that, he yanks the menu from my grasp and vanishes in a puff of irony.
I look over at the bar. The beer taps are a maddening cosplay of Australiana.
“It’s Australian for Beer!”
Nobody drinks Fosters unless it’s out of a brown paper bag on an Amtrak to Philly. Australians don’t drink Fosters. Self-respecting adults don’t drink Fosters. It is not Australian for beer. It is an invitation to be punched in the sternum.
I take several long, angry gulps from my tankard of non-alcoholic Bud and wipe my lip like a pirate. I sink into my booth looking around at everything America thinks of my home country.
Sophie reminds me, “Hey! You said it was time to start belly-steakin’."
It’s true. I did say that.
I get up and shuffle over to the toilet doors that say “Blokes” and “Sheilas”.
The walls inside are adorned with made-up designs of what they might imagine an Australian stamp looks like. They feature animals like the cockatoo and the platypus, and a currency we haven’t had in circulation since before the Prime Minister was chugging beer at the cricket.
Anyway, we don’t use pennies. Everyone knows the national currency of Australia is the dollarydoo.
I look over at the Koala Kare changing table (which appears in most bathrooms around the US) and realise it may be the only time it’s ‘on-brand’. It is, of course, next to a giant poster of another made-up Australian stamp featuring an off-model koala.
On behalf of anyone who has also designed stamps for Australia Post (clang!), I am offended that they didn’t do the true blue thing and download a jagged JPG of a real Australian stamp and glue a print onto some cardboard.
I return to the booth with a vein popping out of my neck that wasn’t there before. Sophie looks worried. I’m the only one with a driver’s license and it’s a long way back to New York.
Just as she puts her hand across the table to loosen my clenched fists, a strong smell hits my nostrils. (And this time, it isn’t from Morris.)
I look up at Rhett, who is holding a giant raised wooden thing with what looks like a deep-fried alien egg that has burst open.
He puts down six more coasters and presents the masterpiece:
“Your Bloomin’ Onion.” He says, proudly.
Sophie’s head nearly blows clean off. I haven’t seen her look at something like this since the morning Morris arrived on our doorstep. I’m in trouble. I fear this will be our first Bloomin’, but it will not be our last.
Time’s up. Tines down. I sit with my cutlery nervously hovering over a solar system of onion-sticks orbiting a lopsided cup of dipping sauce. How does one tackle such a puzzle?
Dear reader, what happens next is both deeply embarrassing and altogether incredible…
I put down my knife and fork, abandoning all attempts at basic restaurant etiquette. Sophie reaches in and yanks off a hefty chunk of onion and devours it, dipless. Her eyes roll back in her head. Morris shits himself.
As she reaches for another, I grab for a single “Bloom” and dip it in the sauce. I raise it to eye level, close my eyes, and crunch down past the salty deep-fried casing into the onion skin beneath. As the pure fat hits my bloodstream, my eyes blow open. I can see through time.
I’m so angry.
It’s fucking delicious.
I grab for another chunk and scoff it with the fervor of the old man in Groundhog Day eating soup. I can’t stop. I’m in a tailspin— I’ve lost the ability to moderate my bloomin’ appetite! Sophie gobbles away and tries to speak between mouthfuls “We’re… gonna… need…. *guh*…more sauce!”
Rhett appears out of nowhere like a sprite, “How are yinz enjoyin’ your Bloomin’ Onion?”
I look deep into his eyes.
“I’ve been… …such a fool.”
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