Melbourne Food and Wine Festival 2012’s Theatre of Ideas and Chef Jam provided an opportunity to hear some of the world’s best chefs speak on everything from their early inspirations to “searching for a special moment on a plate”. It gave us a chance to chat to some of the finest chefs in the world about Australian cuisine.

I have to confess that the main reason we headed down to Melbourne for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival 2012 was because we were working on a long feature (a whopping 5,000 words!) for a new European food magazine* on contemporary Australian cuisine. We were telling the story of Australian food through four of Australia’s finest chefs: Peter Gilmore of Quay, Mark Best of Marque, Ben Shewry of Attica, and Dan Hunter of The Royal Mail (updated: now of Brae.)

The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival 2012 gave us the chance to catch up with those guys but also to interview chefs René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, and David Chang of the Momofuku restaurants in New York and Sydney, about the four Aussie chefs and contemporary Australian cuisine.

Melbourne Food and Wine Festival 2012’s Theatre of Ideas and Chef Jam

The World’s Best Chefs on Australian Cuisine

Redzepi, Bottura and Chang all have connections to Australia, through their friendships with chefs, through food festivals, and in Chang’s case through his Sydney restaurant. It was truly a delight to meet them, but most of all it was reassuring to hear them speak about how amazing the food in Australia is right now.

René Redzepi called Australian cuisine “super-vibrant”, saying Gilmore, Best, Shewry and Hunter “all have a very strong understanding of putting ingredients on a plate.”

“Ben’s cuisine is rooted in local place, Mark’s is European-inspired, and Peter’s is rooted in Asian immigration and culture,” Redzepi said. “But in essence, we’re all the same… searching for a special moment on a plate.”

David Chang, who said he’s stopped going to Australian restaurants now that he has a restaurant in Sydney, because he didn’t want to be influenced, said he’s been impressed by the quality of the produce being put on plates, and by the producers and suppliers.

“I’ve been floored by the abundance of quality produce,” Chang told us. “David Blackmore is an artisan at what he does, as is Anthony at Victor Churchill’s who does my butchering. Mark Eather is an artisan fish purveyor. It boggles my mind, the abundance of quality food here.”

But it was Massimo Bottura — the passionate, philosophical Italian chef — who really seemed to ‘get’ what the Australian chefs are doing and what the very best expressions of Australian cuisine are about.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “These chefs are doing a beautiful job of using techniques to fully express the cuisine. It’s not about ego. It’s much more about the produce and the ingredients, the way they express themselves and their land, and their sense of place.”

The Theatre of Ideas and Chef Jam

Many of the same insights emerged later that afternoon and over following days in Theatre of Ideas, a series of presentations by Massimo Bottura on The Future of Food; Ben Shewry on Time and Place; René Redzepi on Why Nordic Chefs Dig Nature; and David Chang on Discovering Australia (and MSG).

And again at Chef Jam, another series of talks and demos from thinking chefs like Gilmore, on Eating with Your Eyes; Shewry, on Abstract Creativity; and panels with the likes of the legendary Neil Perry (Rockpool Group), Julian Gerner (Melbourne Pub Group) 
and 
Paul Mathis (The Sharing House, Melbourne) on the secrets to success and longevity in the Australian restaurant industry. Redzepi, Claus Henriksen (Dragsholm Castle, Denmark) and Christian Puglisi (Relae, Denmark) talked about The Nordic Experience and (Re)discovering a Native Culinary Voice.

Redzepi spoke about the essence of a place and moments in time and wanting to distil a moment in time in a mouthful, “to show guests where in the world they are and distil the place on a plate”.

He talked about how producers and their produce inspire dishes and shared an extraordinary story about how an ugly two-year old carrot a farmer gave him resulted in one of the most intensely flavoured dishes he’s ever created and inspired a range of vintage vegetables.

But once again, what really struck a chord with us were Redzepi’s thoughts about cuisine and place. (Confession: we’re working on a long-term project on chefs and travel as inspiration.)

Australian food writer Terry Durack prefaced a question to Redzepi with “You’re Scandinavian and your heritage is Scandinavian…”. René corrected him, “Actually, my father is Macedonian”. Earlier that day he’d revealed his father was a Muslim and his mother Jewish.

Heritage is important to Redzepi. His cuisine is a result of that mixed heritage and his connection to place, and the distillation of all of that in a mouthful.

“You’re all immigrants, too,” René had said, “So how do you express that in a mouthful?”

Ben Shewry on Time and Place

The most memorable, thought provoking and poignant of the Theatre of Ideas talks was Ben Shewry’s very arty, intellectual presentation. Redzepi’s presentation followed Shewry’s and Redzepi, wowed by his friend’s effort, began with a warm “You bastard!” It was a tough act to follow.

Indeed, Shewry’s presentation was divided into Acts and incorporated film, music, sound, art, performance, and, of course, food. Everyone agreed that the form was groundbreaking for a food festival.

Act 1 opened with Shewry’s father at an easel painting the Pukeko, a “cheeky bird” that, like Shewry, forages by the roadside for food, and provided the Shewrys with hours of family entertainment. As the Attica chefs demonstrated how to create The Pukeko’s Egg, a dish inspired by the iridescent blue bird, Shewry spoke about the importance of being a thoughtful cook and connecting to one’s culture, heritage and place.

Act 2 opened in darkness, a spotlight shining on a potter at a wheel (Shewry later revealed that the potter was the creator of the stunning ceramics at Attica) while during Act 3, a demo of a dish called The Plight of the Bees, Shewry’s dad sawed wood while the Rooftop Honey beekeepers collected honey from their hives on the stage.

Shewry’s final act, The Bastard Strawberry and Its Watermelon Seed was the most provocative, with Shewry and team appearing in protective outfits, spraying pesticides, and assembling the dish on a conveyor belt.  Lastly, Shewry showed a touching, tender, lyrical film that he and filmmaker Johnny Abegg made about his friend, mussel farmer Lance Wiffin. More on that to come.

Confirming Bottura’s observation about the lack of ego, Shewry talked about the things that are important to him, how he finds fame repugnant, a distraction from his cooking; how he doesn’t feel that work and home are separate: “what I do for a living is live”; and how his resolve to create great food is stronger than ever: “when we stuff up, it cuts me to the core”.

Shewry’s sentiments epitomise the thoughtfulness, philosophy, intellect, dedication, and passion of the Australian chefs we’re profiling in our story, the chefs who best represent where Australian cuisine is at right now.

Where Is Australian Cuisine At Right Now

Australian cuisine is in a good place, a really good place.

Having spent more of our adult eating years overseas than in our birthplace, and having eaten at more restaurants around the globe than restaurants in Australia, it initially came as a surprise to us on our return that the food was now so extraordinary, that it was even better than it was before we left in 1998. And in the heady late 80s and 1990s Australian food was phenomenal.

Back then, when we ate at Tetsuya’s (in the old Rozelle restaurant), Rockpool (when Neil Perry helmed the kitchen at Rockpool), and David Thompson’s Darley Street Point, a meal of modern Australian, or ‘Mod Oz’ as we called it could be world-class.

Now, Australian cuisine is even more interesting, more inventive, more dynamic, and more progressive than some of the world’s best cuisines. For us, Australian food is perhaps the most exciting food on the planet right now.

Let’s see what the rest of the world thinks, because tonight the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2012 will be announced. At the moment, Peter Gilmore’s Quay is the highest placed Australian restaurant at #26, Ben Shewry’s Attica is at #53, Tetsuya’s is at #58 (Tetsuya’s was the Chef’s Choice at #1 for 2004), and Mark Best’s Marque is #70. Best of luck, chefs!

Melbourne Food and Wine Festival

If you’re planning a trip to Australia, time your visit so you can attend the next Melbourne Food and Wine Festival (or any Australian food festival for that matter; we compared Taste of Melbourne and the MFWF here), and if you write or blog on food or work in the industry, make sure you get along to Theatre of Ideas, Chef Jam, or any other industry events for an insight into Australian cuisine and the food scene.

*UPDATED February 2017

Sadly, that European magazine I mentioned above, Sabor, from the Netherlands, struggled to stay afloat, published two issues, and suspended publication before publishing our story. When they re-booted three years later under a new editor, our emails went ignored. A first for us, it was disappointing as so many chefs gave so much of their precious time. We weren’t alone apparently. Sabor published once more in late 2015 and hasn’t published since.

The good news: Four Seasons Magazine published a shorter albeit still in-depth piece (2,000 words) based on the same material and many of Terence’s beautiful images. I wrote a further story on the subject that elaborated on that piece, which you can click through to read here: Contemporary Australian Cuisine, Food Worth Flying For.

End of Article

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