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It's midway through the second of the two masterclasses fronted by Quay's Peter Gilmore as part of the Great Barrier Feast series at Qualia on Hamilton Island and 120 people are focused, teaspoons poised and lips smacking expectantly, on a large mixing bowl making its way along the rows of seating.
The group sits captivated while Gilmore talks them through the processes required to create just one texture of Quay's famed eight-texture chocolate cake - a rich chocolate mousse formed by beating into submission a mix of single-origin dark chocolate from Venezuela, Valrhona milk chocolate, egg yolks, sugar and vanilla bean.
But there's only so much food - particularly Gilmore's food - at which you can look and not touch. And that is how the most highly ranked Australian chef on the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best list finds himself being shouted down, more or less, by a group determined to get their collective hands on that mixing bowl.
So, as the Hamilton holidaymakers begin to gather at nearby One Tree Hill - the island's best vantage spot - for the nightly ritual of oohing and aahing at the sun setting over this sliver of Great Barrier Reef paradise, Gilmore relinquishes the mixture for the guilty pleasure of the assembled Feasters, who load their spoons with ribbons of mousse and then look at one another with brow-raised delight at the first taste.
And therein lies the unique charm of the Great Barrier Feast that has made it such a success. These thrice-yearly weekends bring leading chefs to north Queensland to share some of the secrets of their kitchens with people as fanatical about food as they are about tropical climes, plunge pools and private villas.
In an era when television, in particular, has elevated many chefs to rock-star status, getting to see and hear the likes of Gilmore talk candidly in person about their inspiration and ideas, watch Gilmore demonstrate (with intimidating ease, it must be said) four or five dishes from the Quay menu, and then taste some of his work during the boisterous showpiece dinner that follows is a genuinely exclusive, and exciting, treat.
These Great Barrier Feast weekends already existed, albeit in a less sophisticated guise, when the Oatley family purchased Hamilton Island in 2004, but they were put on ice as the new owners set about designing the island's overhaul: then hotspot of '80s ostentation, now multilayered experience par excellence.
Key to that renaissance was the construction of Qualia, a five-star retreat on the island's north shore that is as laidback as it is luxurious. In 2009 the Oatleys added the striking Hamilton Island Yacht Club, a curvilinear stunner at the heart of the island (note to visitors: battered reef fish and twice-cooked chips on the club's relaxed Bommie Deck is definitely worth a golf-buggy detour); more recently they opened the adjoining Yacht Club Villas, two- and three-storey self-contained apartments with views across to Dent Island, home to the new Hamilton Island Golf Club. (All this investment has been amply rewarded: Qualia scooped the pool at the 2011 Gourmet Traveller Travel Awards, clinching Readers' Choice awards for Best Resort or Lodge and Best Spa, while the island itself won the Getaway Best Family Experience award.)
In 2010, the time was right to Feast again, and the event was re-launched with Tetsuya Wakuda, Bécasse's Justin North and Attica's Ben Shewry as headliners. In 2011, it's Gilmore, MoVida's Frank Camorra and the Royal Mail Hotel's Dan Hunter getting top billing. You eat, you drink, you marvel at what it takes to create dishes of Quay's calibre. (It's at about step number 15 in a pickled-vegetable salad which Feasters can re-create at home, Gilmore assures them - dehydrating then frying off a mixture of beetroot purée and pomegranate molasses - that the crowd breaks into peals of "Are you serious?" laughter.)
Hamilton Island's group special events manager Nicky Tindill (nee Oatley) says providing Feasters with this up-close-and-personal interaction with the chefs remains the weekend's raison d'être.
"We chose to develop the concept further because more Australians had embraced quality food and we are now celebrating our local chefs more than ever," says Tindill. "The direction we chose to take was more intimate than ever before, giving our guests access to what happens behind the scenes."
Indeed, bonhomie abounds at Qualia during a weekend of Feasting. Guests arrive on Friday afternoon, in time for Veuve Clicquot by the pool and a welcome dinner with the resort's executive chef, Jane-Therese Mulry.
Mulry, who worked for Marco Pierre White in London, kicks off proceedings with a four-course dégustation, its emphasis heavily on produce from the surrounding area. A "sprouted garden" amuse-bouche, hidden in a shot glass and thus initially believed by many to be part of their table's decoration, is eventually revealed to be an intriguing combination of sesame sand, mulched minted peas and garden sprouts. A robust main course has at its centre braised roasted beefalo, a cross between an Australian bovine and an American bison lovingly farmed at nearby Prosperine by Cristina Della Valle. ("She plays them music and uses no hormones, they're all grass fed; they are like her children.") It's presented with richly truffled Jerusalem artichoke and pickled pear.
The Whitsunday beefalo is matched with a 2008 Robert Oatley Ovens Valley Shiraz by wine writer James Halliday, whose own tasting of 8500 wines a year makes him infinitely qualified for the job.
Getting to share the Qualia kitchen with Peter Gilmore is far less intimidating, and far more enjoyable, than Mulry expected. "It's actually been amazing… it's great for my team as there's some great guys in there [the kitchen] and they work hard so this is such a wonderful opportunity. It keeps you focused and it allows you to almost compare where you are in the industry."
For Peter Gilmore, taking his show on the road not only gives the increasingly busy chef some quality Whitsundays time with his family, but helps spread the Quay gospel of artistry, innovation and perfect execution. It also highlights a key aspect of life as a chef in this aforementioned television generation: the art of performance.
"It's part of the reality of being a chef these days. I've found that all I have to do is be passionate about what I'm passionate about. Some chefs are great talkers, some chefs aren't really that great at speaking or are uncomfortable in front of an audience, but I'm happy to get out there and do my talking, but also do my talking through my food."
And indeed, when Gilmore begins plating up for Saturday night's
showpiece dinner, the crowd is all ears. Quay's mud crab congee
with palm heart and split-rice porridge wins plenty of new fans
("It's the only dish I haven't been able to take off the menu and
it's nice to use it up here where it's local product," says
Gilmore), as does a new take on his famous pork and scallop
signature: 12-hour-cooked pig jowl wrapped in a sheet of maltose
crackling ("I came up with a brainwave of pretend, false
crackling"), served with prunes macerated in Pedro Ximénez vinegar
and cauliflower cream perfumed with prune-kernel oil, hints of
marzipan just detectable on your palate.
The sweet pork vies with the winter-richness of poached partridge breast with foie gras pudding for title of crowd favourite. That said, a tropical-toned dessert dubbed Son of Snow Egg - the dish Quay "could have set up a drive-through just to serve" following its moment in the TV spotlight - also has the room in raptures.
By evening's end, Gilmore's obvious enjoyment of sharing Quay's story earns him the type of applause usually reserved for a Twilight premiere. And for encore? A second dessert of chocolate crumble, coconut cream and cherry compote, its textures all velvety perfection.
Could Gilmore be persuaded to open a Quay Mark II, perhaps on Hamilton Island? Sadly not, although talk of a more casual Sydney side-project ("Low Quay") still has the room atwitter. "Quay is looking at doing a sister restaurant where we have really interesting food and great produce, but maybe a more casual, funky, young environment to serve that food, so I think you can do two restaurants well but when you go to more than that, up to seven or so, things get very difficult," says Gilmore.
"You have to be in the kitchen at least four services a week. A lot of great ideas happen when you're in the thick of it, when you're working away on the pass. You don't want to spread yourself too thinly, but you also want to make life interesting. Diversity is a great thing - you've got to mix things up."
The next Great Barrier Feast weekend is on 2-4 December, 2011, featuring the Royal Mail Hotel's Dan Hunter.
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