All Hail the Melbourne Food Scene
It was an exercise in professional eating which demanded endurance, a keen appetite and comfortable clothing. The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, celebrating its 25th birthday, was a hugely inspiring – and filling – event for the group of NZ food writers who made the journey across the pond.
It started on a high note, with the traditional ‘World’s longest lunch’ which saw 1,700 diners lined up at long, white-clad tables down the centre of tree-lined Lygon St. The menu was designed by Italian icon Antonio Carluccio, starring recipes from his latest book. As well as delicious food, the lunch featured roving Italian mamas singing folk songs; an army of waitstaff; and military-level efficiency from strategically positioned kitchen tents, and was a fun way to kick off the week.
This year’s festival was extra special, with the inclusion of the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards as a highlight event. That meant Melbourne was host to even more rock star chefs than usual, and we were treated to some of their creations in the Masterclass weekend. Italian star chef and Masterchef Italia judge Carlo Cracco declared eggs “one of my great obsessions”, and demonstrated a ‘smoked egg’ involving a smoking gun, agar agar and black vegetable carbon powder. Tokyo chef Zaiyu Hasegawa perplexed us by looking as if he wasn’t going to cook at all; but eventually created his own quirky take on fried chicken, “DFC”. Thai cooking guru David Thompson made perhaps the most accessible dishes; spicy pork with aromatic rice cakes and a smashed prawn curry which smelled so good to those of us in the non-tasting seats that I was forced to head to his restaurant Long Chim later in the day to try it.
Many of the visiting overseas chefs were involved in collaborations with local Melbourne restaurants for special festival events. Melburnians were completely spoiled for choice with too many lunches and dinners to possibly attend everything; a unique kind of first-world problem!
I was fascinated to attend one such lunch at contemporary Turkish restaurant Lezet, with special guest Mehmet Gurs, whose Istanbul restaurant Mikla is number 51 on the list. Host chef Kemal Barut explained the collaboration of four chefs was designed to show people that Turkish food goes beyond kebabs and souvlaki; so along with Turkish wines we were treated to highly creative dishes demonstrating the diversity of Turkish cuisine. This included lamb shoulder smoked in hay, served with a delectable puree of eggplant, soft cheese, parmesan and chilli oil. Gurs’ unusual dessert of candied pumpkin with saffron yoghurt ice-cream made me smile; veges were not a prominent feature of many menus I sampled during the week so getting them so deliciously at dessert was a bonus.
I had my second taste of hay later that same day at one of my favourite events of the week. The Conscious Deliciousness dinner at Grub Greenhouse was another collaboration of chefs; this time local chefs who all have an interest in and focus on sustainability. Grub’s chef is Kiwi Scott Blomfield (by no means the only Kiwi in top Melbourne kitchens), who’s worked here at several of Nick Honeyman’s ventures before heading to Melbourne and cooking at well-known spots there including Supernormal. Scott presented a moreish dish of meltingly soft tea-smoked eggplant with white miso and rice crisps. Scott told me he likes to focus on veges - a man after my own heart - and to treat meat as more of a garnish.
More meat-focussed is Peruvian chef Alejandro Saravia, who is widely credited with introducing Australians to Peruvian cuisine. At his Melbourne restaurant Pastuso, Alejandro likes to use every part of the animals and vegetables he works with, to the point of cooking down all his vege scraps, dehydrating and powdering the result to use as seasoning on other dishes. These ‘underrated veges’ were served as a surprise addition to Alejandro’s dish of ‘Hay Cow’: Gippsland natural beef bud aged in hay (there it is again) for 30 days.
Melburnians love their breakfasts, and another highlight – even for this non-morning person - was a brilliant breakfast event at the House of Food and Wine, the Festival’s home base in a Melbourne laneway. Here we got to sample breakfasts from a range of Melbourne cafes; dishes ranged from Higher Ground’s buffalo yoghurt chia puddings to breakfast ramen with 62-degree eggs from Tokyo Tina.
The Festival saw our group disperse to different events throughout the week. I’m told the Monday Family Dinner and the Celebration of Masterclass events attended by other food writers were fun and delicious evenings. And of course we all ventured independently to our favourite spots and new openings.
I enjoyed seeing NZ food and wine promoted to Melburnians at the Made in New Zealand dinner organised by Winegrowers NZ, featuring food by Michael Meredith and wines curated by Stephen Wong MW. It made me quietly proud that these two events were sellouts; the food and wine were at least on a par, to me, with anything else I experienced during the week.
My overriding impression of the Melbourne food scene is a hugely vibrant, competitive and innovative environment, supported by a discerning and knowledgeable audience. I’d recommend the festival to any Kiwi food writer looking for a spark of inspiration and the opportunity to meet interesting food-focussed people. My head is still buzzing with ideas. And my pants are slowly starting to feel more comfortable.