The 21st Melbourne Food and Wine Festival went back to basics this year. Its ‘Earth’ theme followed on from last year’s ‘Fire’ theme, and respect for nature and seasonality was evident.
For me, this festival is the ultimate one-stop weekend: along with like-minded foodies, I can immerse myself and be inspired by a fantastic line-up of chefs from across the world, sharing an interest
in sustainability, traditional techniques and heirloom ingredients.
This year more than any other, one could sense that chefs were eschewing the stuffiness of fine dining and embracing the natural connection between the land and the plate through the seasons.
Their passion for cooking was infectious, even if some of the more ambitious recipes would require two days in the kitchen along with
at least two staff on hand!
The chefs with the most enjoyable presentations offered a combination of entertainment, innovation and inspiration, and there wouldn’t be many people who left the weekend without having earmarked several recipes in their MasterClass bible to try out in
their own kitchens.
With a roving pass, I had intended to pop in and out of several classes on both Saturday and Sunday. But in each session the chef shared such personal stories about their life and cooking that leaving halfway through didn’t enter the equation.
How does one begin to describe a man who makes cakes and desserts called ‘Fat Elvis (The day the cream-between got punched in the face by a rock legend)’, ‘Arnold Schwarzwälder (The macaron gets terminated)’ and ‘Wigwam and a Gooseberry Trifle (It’s the business) Gooseberry and Elderflower Gelée’? This certainly wasn’t your average baking class. Alistair Wise and his pastry chef partner Teena Kearney have a pastry shop called Sweet Envy in Hobart, Tasmania, along with Big Bessie, their original 1963 Commer Mr Whippy van that cruises around selling the world’s grandest ice cream. They both grew up and took bakery and pastry apprenticeships in Hobart, but really honed their skills in London: Alistair with Gordon Ramsay, and Teena under an Alain Ducasse protégé before moving on to couture cakes as a cake designer.
Combining their talents with European travel experiences, they returned home and opened Sweet Envy, the likes of which not only Hobart, but also the rest of Australia, had never seen.
Funny, witty, inspirational, it was a brilliant session that has given me much food for thought. Is he a bit mad? Definitely. But that’s what makes him such a genius. Now all I have to do is try and score a trip to Hobart so I can try more of what Alistair describes as “all the good stuff”.
Dan Lepard is an Australian-born, London-based baker who I’ve followed through his weekly column in The Guardian. I love his down-to-earth attitude, and the fact he fronted up to several hundred people in Melbourne and told the audience to completely disregard the advice in his own cookbooks: don’t let your dough double in size, it’s a myth. Bakers only let their dough rise by half, no matter what the recipe might say. Learning this one tip means wannabe breadmakers might be tempted to try ‘Lepard’s Black Olive Sesame Bread’ that he demonstrated, or his light-as-air ‘Babas’, drenched in dark rum and served with a cloud of whipped cream. His simple, gluten-free ‘All-Almond Florentine’ was soon demolished by even non-flour-eating attendees (although one wonders why they would be in a bread class to begin with!).
I’m always torn about putting Australian chefs on my ‘must-see’ list at the festival, as the opportunity to see a Peruvian or French chef is much more rare. But Melbourne chef Karen Martini certainly didn’t disappoint and was the only presenter who prepared everything from scratch. Her enthusiasm for good home cooking and her love of shared table dishes, while also juggling a young family and a restaurant, saw her demonstrating recipes that inspired the whole audience. ‘Burrata with White Anchovies, Pine Nuts, Currants and Parsley’ and her Greg Malouf-inspired ‘Kingfish with Cumin Labna, Walnuts, Pistachios, Mint, Watercress, Cucumber and Pomegranate’ will certainly find a place on my table this year.
Sean Brock was my star pick of the weekend. Born and raised in rural Virginia, South Carolina, he grew up learning to grow, cook and preserve food – which developed into a deep respect for the history of where food comes from.
His passions are cooking, farming and preserving Southern culinary heritage, and one could say he’s obsessed with the desire to resurrect Southern ingredients that have fallen out of favour. He grows heirloom and often-endangered seeds on his own farmland, and his produce goes into the kitchens of his restaurants, dictating what’s on the menu each day.
With an armful of tattoos depicting heirloom vegetables with anatomical accuracy, you know this man’s passion for food will be awe-inspiring.
Each of Sean’s dishes tells a story and is linked to the renaissance in Southern cooking – once the most delicious and interesting traditional cooking of America. His ‘Shrimp and Grits with Preserved Tomato, Fennel and Crispy Pig Ear’ was outstanding. Unfortunately we had to have it with polenta, as the grits didn’t make it through customs – but it was still an amazing combination of flavours and textures. (It was interesting, though, to see how many people left the crispy pig ear on their plates!)
Next up was ‘Roasted Catfish, Cornbread Pureé and Butter Bean Chow Chow’. Turning day-old cornbread into a silky smooth sauce and topping it with tender fish and the earthy flavours of the chow chow was a lesson in how Sean takes food from his childhood and updates it, while still retaining its heritage.
Some people feel pork belly has been done to death, but Sean’s last dish of ‘Pork Belly, Herbed Farro, Pickled Elderberries, Chanterelles and Sumac’ would probably draw them back into the fold. He told a story about convincing a friend to raise pigs that was the inspiration behind this dish. Elderberries that grow on the farm, pigs foraging for the mushrooms and herbs: it summed up the passion this man has, and hopefully one day I’ll be lucky enough to dine at one of his two restaurants, Husk or McCrady’s, in Charleston, South Carolina.
Andrew McConnell has long been one of my favourite Melbourne chefs. Finding he was part of the MasterClass line-up, I looked forward to him demonstrating dishes from any of his six fantastic Melbourne restaurants.
Golden Fields was the chosen one and I relished the prospect of getting my hands on recipes for dishes I’ve enjoyed while dining there. These are the food and flavours from Andrew’s younger days, when he spent 10 years as a chef in Shanghai and Hong Kong. It was clear his passion for Asian-influenced cuisine has not diminished, as he showcased in the three chosen recipes.
His ‘Rice Noodles, Shredded Chicken and Sesame Paste’ is apparently so popular it can’t be taken off the menu, and I was intrigued to discover why. Ably assisted by head chef Todd Moses, they demonstrated the art of making rice noodles – fascinating to watch, but I’ll definitely stick to buying fresh rice noodles. The perfectly poached chicken was delicious, but it’s the sesame dressing that really rocks and turns this into a dish that rightly deserves its permanent fixture on the menu.
The little tips that one can learn from chefs make a class memorable, and satisfying because you can take them home and put them into practice. ‘Shaved Cuttlefish, Mussels and Black Pepper’ was demonstrated by slicing the cuttlefish horizontally so it’s wafer thin. The only cooking required is to cover it with boiling water to obtain soft, tender flesh. But once again, the dressing (black pepper this time) was at the heart of this dish and I will certainly be adding it to my repertoire.
And then to the dessert. What’s not to like about ‘Soft Meringue, Lychee Sorbet and Rose’? Inspired by a macaron from Pierre Hermé’s famous pâtisserie in Paris, Andrew’s interpretation was a stunning combination of flavours and textures, crowned with dehydrated raspberries that burst in the mouth like pop-rocks.
Virgilio Martinez is a former pro skateboarder, and now head chef and owner of two restaurants: Central in Peru and Lima in London. A passionate forager, who has spent time trekking through the Andes and drawing inspiration from this amazing landscape, Virgilio tells of one excursion where he and others found bacteria that looked like spherified algae, and another when he poisoned himself! Visit www.materiniciativa.com/en to view the field trip Virgilio and the researchers embarked on.
His mission is to redefine traditional Peruvian cooking and highlight the incredible diversity of produce in Peru. The three dishes demonstrated in the MasterClass showcased traditional foods such as the eco dry potato, which is freeze dried at high altitude. Combined with a modern and innovative approach to plating and cooking, we tasted: ‘Arapaima, Chia Seed, Sacha Inchi Oil, Amazon Fruit’; ‘Maca Root, Cañihua, Muña Powder, Aji Amarillo Tiger’s Milk’; and ‘Eco Dry Potato, Cacao Amazonia, Red Amaranth’.
Virgilio’s presentation on the plate was stunning. Perhaps not so easy to translate to home cooking, but a huge treat to sample the food of someone who has just taken the #50 spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
This year, compared to any MasterClass from previous years, one really felt these chefs are ‘walking the talk’. Spending time with some of the world’s most exciting chefs is indeed a privilege, and in turn they were passionate, inspirational and most of all, humble.
Claire Aldous stayed at the Grand Hyatt Melbourne – visit www.melbourne.grandhyatt.com
For more information about the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival visit www.melbournefoodandwine.com.au