When it was announced that The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards roadshow was coming to Melbourne, there were two dominant reactions in the local food and drink world.Local food writer, Dani Valent explains, with a look at Melbourne’s food scene through the eyes of four local experts.
There was certainly excitement about the talent soon to be in our midst, the big names and up-and-comers, the opportunities for collaboration and indeed partying – hey, we’re talking about the hospitality crowd here.
The second reaction burbled more slowly but it’s continued to build. That is, an eagerness to show the international community the Melbourne food scene in all its richness and diversity. Let them come here and witness our glee and our grit, our energy and exuberance, our Australian flavours and international outlook. We don’t want Melbourne to be our own cosy and delicious secret anymore. We are proud and excited to welcome the world to eat it all up alongside us.
But what characterises Melbourne anyway? We spoke to four local food and drink experts – a restaurateur, a chef, a writer and a wine guy – to set the scene and consider what might happen next.
What is Melbourne like?
It’s high quality
“Melbourne punches above its weight as a food and wine city,” says restaurateur Dave Mackintosh (IDES, Lee Ho Fook and more). He thinks visitors have an extremely good chance of eating and drinking very well. “Perhaps they are out wandering and see somewhere that looks like a nice place for coffee in the sunshine. They are likely to find that coffee is incredibly high quality and delivered with panache. The Melbourne magic is that people do a uniformly good job.” Quality doesn’t mean formality. “If it’s 3pm and you suddenly have the desire for a glass of wine and two things to eat, you can do that, and you can choose Asian, European or Middle Eastern. That sort of approachable quality has become a Melbourne signature over the last decade.”
It’s warm and welcoming
“Melbourne opens itself up for visitors,” says food writer and event organiser Hilary McNevin (PEP Events). “It’s easy to walk around and try different cuisines and styles of dining. Our city is condensed and user-friendly, a mishmash of beautiful flavours.” The food scene is “not at all cocky but certainly confident,” she says. “Melbourne dining is becoming more and more comforting. Many of our favourite places create the sense of a home away from home, a true welcome.”
It’s about education through experience
“People want access to chefs and winemakers,” says McNevin. “They want to ask questions, they want to hear the stories behind their food and drink.” Wine guy Dan Sims (Bottle Shop Concepts) says Melbourne hospitality is anchored in knowledge but the learning is delivered sip by sip in social settings. “Restaurants are not classrooms but we can’t help but learn in them because we are exposed to such interesting, fun wines through our everyday eating and drinking,” he says. “We love it, we live it, it’s all around us every day.”
Melbourne dining is beyond multicultural and way past fusion
Flavours, ingredients and techniques from different cuisines are employed creatively and without a straitjacket. Fire is used as a seasoning as well as a cooking method. Vegetables have become heroes. Chef Benjamin Cooper (Chin Chin, Kong and more) appreciates the challenges of cooking meat-free. “Sometimes I don’t even think about protein at all,” he says. “Where I would have started thinking ‘beef with’ now I talk ‘cabbage with’ or ‘cauliflower with’”. But you have to be clever to entice the diner. “Take the burnt cabbage we do at Chin Chin,” he says. “We take a quarter cabbage and char-grill the cut edges then flip it, put soy sauce through the folds, roast it and serve it with green chilli, peanuts and coriander relish. It’s simple but challenging and people are loving it.”
The drinking is amazing
“Australia has never made better wine than it is right now,” says Dan Sims. “The diversity of styles is unique in the world. We have world-class sparkling, pinot noir, shiraz, Italian, Spanish, crazy natural skin-contact wines… You do not find that in any other wine country in the world. It’s exciting and it’s reflected in the way we’re drinking and in our food culture as well.” It’s innovative and unbuttoned too. “We’re seeing a focus on drinkability, on wines you want to drink every day,” he says. “It’s about letting go and eating and drinking things that are delicious.”
New-style fine dining
“Casual quality hasn’t killed fine dining, it’s just done in different ways,” says Dave Mackintosh. “There are still chefs who are spending hours creating a single dish, who are using their knowledge and training and insight to create a refined experience. But they’ve shaken up some of the trappings of fine dining: you don’t have to be in a glamorous, celebrated location anymore. You might be in the suburbs or in regional Victoria.” We’re going beyond labels, says Benjamin Cooper. “We aren’t restrained by notions of fine dining or casual dining. There are young chefs doing amazing things in a cafe environment, and there’s a relaxation of the experiences in fine dining settings. Melbourne is saying, ‘This is who we are and this is what we do. We are not fine dining, we are not casual, we are this.’ It’s exciting. There’s a confidence in the identity of the city.”
What will happen next?
A new version of luxury
There’s nothing wrong with stripping back the trappings of formal dining but Dave Mackintosh believes there will be a swing back to comfort. “I want to see a modern homage to luxury,” he says. “It will be quiet and comfortable and – heaven forbid – it might even involve linen tablecloths. Certainly, you can have a conversation across the table and the food will be approachable and delicious.”
Dining as entertainment
Ben Cooper sees a confluence of entertainment and the dining experience. “Fifty years ago, people went to dinner and then maybe to jazz or the theatre,” he says. “Most people do one thing now: dining is their theatre, so we need to incorporate art and music and ambience to round out the experience.”
“Restaurants are such energy suckers,” says Hilary McNevin. Along with solar panels, recycling and composting, she wonders if we’ll start to see leftovers and trimmings on menus. “Perhaps there will be a menu section for fronds and roots and leaves and other elements that aren’t used for star dishes. Maybe it will be a more affordable part of the menu and it will be a way that people can afford to keep going out and fight food waste at the same time.” She also believes it’s time to talk about soil. “Sustainability is all well and good but we need to regenerate soil and make it part of the conversation. They do it in wine making but we need to do it more in agriculture.”
Getting closer to producers
“People have been interested in provenance for a while,” says Hilary McNevin. “The next step is to connect with growers and makers, not just chefs and winemakers.” She sees a place for restaurant events which highlight farmers, cheesemakers and other key cogs in the hospitality wheel.
“There has to be more meaningful recognition of indigenous culture,” says Dan Sims. “I’d like to see wine regions called by their indigenous names, native botanicals used in local spirits. That respect and grasp of our land is still missing and I would love to bridge that wide gap.” Benjamin Cooper sees increased use of indigenous ingredients as a multipronged benefit. “It’s about a connection to our environment and Australian culture, it’s about preserving the food chain through diversity and it’s about bringing in new flavours which then enliven our cuisine. It’s way more than just putting food into our bellies.”
Dan Sims thinks Melbourne in particular and Australia in general is only getting better. “Australia is positioned well at the moment but once people see it, experience it, they’ll be saying, ‘Well, we heard it was good but this is amazing,’” he says. “I look forward to us being unapologetically Australian. This is us. This is who we are. We’re just good.”
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