Today's great culinary talents converged at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival to explore the cuisine of tomorrow.
How can we make our food better? There's a lot of high-minded talk at culinary congresses these days. You even hear the word "philosophy" trotted out from time to time. And that's a good thing - just so long as that essential question is still being addressed in some form. With this in mind, we grilled the class of 2014 at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival for their suggestions, abstract and concrete, practical, fanciful and otherwise, on how we can do just that.
Perhaps it was this year's theme of water (following on from earth last year and fire in 2012), with its reflective, Piscean associations, but this year's chefs seemed like a particularly thoughtful and considerate lot. This is not to say that there wasn't the occasional moment of unscripted mayhem (the early morning call to head out to Lorne was, for some of the visiting international talent, something of a challenge after a particularly intensive session exchanging ideas over patty-melt smashes, confit duck wings and whiskey at Collingwood festival favourite Rockwell & Sons), but perhaps it speaks well of the individuals shaping the cuisine of tomorrow.
"The festival acts as a forum for us like-minded chefs from around the globe," says New York-based pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, saluting its spirit of collaboration and friendly exchange of ideas. "We learn so much from each other both in technique and in passion; it's an expression of Melbourne's obsession with good food, a leading international food and wine event with its own original and unique identity."
Christopher Kostow, chef of Napa Valley three-star Meadowood, gave a particularly engaging session at the GT-Langham Melbourne Masterclass. His clear-eyed approach was epitomised by the observation that restaurants are here "to do things for the guest, not to them". Speaking after the presentation, he said that he thinks restaurant food could be improved by a better understanding of the connection between emotion and perception. "With such a focus on chefs as personalities and what's on the plate as the beginning and end of people's perception of a restaurant, we're forgetting what it means to take care of people," he added.
"Our food can be better when we remember our roles as stewards and hosts."
Juan Luis Fernández, of Spain's Aponiente restaurant, punched out some superb food for the MoVida-GT-MFWF reader dinner, and said that the cook is always intimately connected with what he or she cooks, whether at home or in a restaurant. "I always say to cook well and to cook rich, delicious food, the most important thing is to have your love in both your dish and the time you spend cooking it. Cook with heart and cook with love."
Matt Jennings, of Farmstead Inc in Rhode Island, was a convincing advocate of the produce-first line. "These days I think we all have access to equally good ingredients by virtue of things like farmers' markets, the small Asian markets I've seen here in Melbourne and other places where food is delicious, fresh and affordable," he said. "For me, when I cook, the food can never be any better than the quality of the ingredients that you start with. That's the bottom line."
Ryan Squires, chef of Brisbane restaurant Esquire, said that nothing came into his kitchen without being tasted first that day, whether it was blueberries or beef, and Sydney chef Dan Hong said he's always looking for umami in his cooking. The right dose of fish sauce, soy, miso, dashi, konbu, chicken powder, MSG or oyster sauce, he said, "could make a tyre taste delicious".
James Stapley, of Whare Kea Lodge in New Zealand, is concerned that home cooks still don't season their food enough. "And seasoning doesn't finish at salt and pepper," he said. "The lack of acidity generally makes food taste flat; a few drops of really good vinegar or citrus can lift just about anything."
Meanwhile, Aaron Turner, late of Victoria's Loam, and now cooking at Husk in Nashville, said the thing he'd learnt this festival, after a colourful session sharing his Tennessee cooking discoveries at Chef Jam, was that cooking Nashville hot chicken for 300 people wasn't as easy in reality as it was in his head. His corollary suggestion for the home cook? "Learn restraint."