There was a touch of "Where the bloody hell are you?" to Tourism Australia's big bash on the weekend, and more than a dash of "throw another shrimp on the barbie", but, for the most part, Restaurant Australia was made to a fresh and contemporary recipe, and the world kept asking for seconds.
Eighty-six influential figures from the global food and wine scene - chefs and writers, editors and critics, bloggers and broadcasters - converged on Hobart after spending the week scattered around the country separately exploring the best and most interesting restaurants, farms, cafés, bars, vineyards and fisheries. Tasmania won the bid to host the campaign's crowning event by putting MONA, the wild and wonderful Museum of Old and New Art, forward as the venue, and it didn't disappoint.
After crisp Tasmanian blanc de blancs and oysters shucked on the spot on the red carpet at Franklin Wharf, guests piled into a flotilla of speedboats and made their way up the Derwent with 750 horsepower of speed and style. Ahead of MONA, though, there was a stop at GASP, the fittingly named Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park at Elwick Bay, across the water from the museum. Stiff winds brought home the interlude's elemental focus, but it was the smoky paperbark envelopes filled with whiting, and the lobsters with kombu butter, and abalone with sake and mirin grilled by the score that drew the guests to the giant barbecues even more than the warmth of the flames. As the diners wended their way between campfires and musicians strumming guitars, the opportunity to share a glass of Clare Valley riesling with winemaker Jeffrey Grosset himself handling the generous pours, or talk marron and wasabi with Peter Gilmore as he crouched over the grill turning the skewers, gave the scene a sense of personal connection.
A quick jaunt in MONA's luxe catamaran brought revellers to the museum grounds, where they were greeted by an installation that shot flames high over their heads as they climbed the stairs to the complex. In the heart of the museum awaited a grandly set dining room, the vast tables curving, fittingly, under the 1620 panels of Sidney Nolan's Snake painting (pictured above). Here the buzz rose to a roar as Ben Shewry's tartare of red kangaroo with bunya bunya nuts segued into Peter Gilmore's lush confit pork jowl and blacklip abalone, and then onto Neil Perry's celebration of Blackmore and Rangers Valley beef, in the form of sirloin topped with giving pieces of cheek and paired with a little flavour-bomb parcel of tea-smoked oyster and oxtail red curry.
Service was remarkably tight for a dinner for 250 in a space unequipped with a kitchen of its own, the troop of local front-of-house talent bolstered by a crack team of veteran sommeliers and managers flown in from Quay, Attica and Rockpool, the restaurants of the three chefs chosen to represent Australia on the night.
"I just want to say how fantastic I think it is for Tourism Australia to get behind us as an industry and show what we can do here," said Gilmore, while Shewry said it had been "the greatest honour to represent the thousands and thousands of cooks and hospitality workers of this country, who work so hard every day". Perry paid tribute to the small army of people working behind the scenes to make the event special, saying it was a proud moment for Australia, but then put voice to what he and his colleagues in the kitchen were all clearly thinking: "I just can't wait to have a glass of wine."
A burst of opera from a diva who strode down the tables brought diners to their feet for dessert, roaming the museum's cavernous galleries to discover trees nested with confectionery eggs, waiters roving with stunning morsels of lychee, vanilla and coconut, bowls of salted caramel with prune and Jersey cream, platters of date tart and Ben Shewry himself, manning a mocked-up ice-cream truck with his fellow Attica chefs. There was no shortage of takers for the cheese station, where the best of the Holy Goat, Pyengana, Udder Delights and Bruny Island dairies was on show, and it was conveniently located next to the Tasmanian whisky bar, which made a very convincing argument for the island state's distilling with single-malts from Lark, Nant and Sullivan's Cove.
As giant balloons rained down from the ceiling, the hobnobbing began in earnest, with some of the top international names in food media bonding with local chefs and winemakers - the likes of AA Gill, American chef and broadcaster Eric Ripert and representatives from The Observer, Bon Appétit, Saveur, The New York Times, The Times of India and scores of other media outlets kicking up their heels with everyone from the MasterChef gang to the minister for tourism. Alice Waters, doyenne of American farm-to-table cooking, and her pals Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer were as thick as thieves, Matt Moran plotted intrigue with MONA owner, David Walsh, and more than a few guests snuck a fitting selfie with the museum's digestion machine, Belgian artist Wim Delvoye's Cloaca Professional.
Heston Blumenthal, soon to be a part of the Australian cooking scene himself when the Fat Duck moves to Melbourne for a stint in 2015, said that though he's been a fan of the country's food for more than a decade, he's still been taken aback by the leap in quality here in just the last couple of years. "I've never seen a food explosion happen in any country in the world like what's happened here."
This being a proper, no-holds-barred Aussie knees-up, outstanding wine, craft beer and spirits from all around the country flowed late into the night. This made the recovery breakfast for friends of GT the next morning all the more welcome. The brand-new Betsey café played host to a few of the key guests, who laid waste to a spread put on by Franklin's David Moyle, Sweet Envy's Alistair Wise, Rodney Dunn from The Agrarian Kitchen and Garagistes chef Luke Burgess. The coffee, fig-leaf kefir and magically tomato-less Bloody Marys flowed freely while smoked suckling Wessex saddleback pig, pies stuffed with rabbit in lobster sauce, artisanal charcuterie, a salad of duck eggs, broad-bean leaves and asparagus, burnt-honey ice-cream, sticky pecan caramel buns and more did the rounds.
The true test of Restaurant Australia's effectiveness will of course be seen in stories and broadcasts to come and the increased numbers of food- and wine-driven visitors coming to the country after that. But its quality as an event was, as we're all too fond of saying Down Under, truly world class, and something we can be proud of. It brought to the table the country's natural bounty and the maturity, expertise and vision of our cooks, producers and winemakers, and seasoned them with wit, daring, artistry and not a little irreverence, and left our guests hankering for another taste.
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