Melbourne Food and Wine Festival CEO, Natalie O'Brien, talks to Michael Harden about this year's highlights.
Natalie O'Brien has been home one night in the past 18, but she shows no sign of fatigue. In fact, she's exhilarated. The CEO of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival has just overseen her 13th festival and, in her mind, "probably the most successful one yet". "One of the things we've always managed to do well is showcase regional Victoria and at the same time celebrate things that are quintessentially Melbourne," says O'Brien.
"This is overlaid by the international guests coming here, not just to talk about what it is they do, but also collaborating with people here, which makes us truly global. I think all that intersected at the right place and the right time this year."
O'Brien is already well into planning festival 2016, which she says will "continue with the conversations that we started" about topics ranging from food security, safety and sustainability to increasing the engagement with artisan growers and producers in South East Asia, as well as increasing the reach of the festival beyond the 300,000-plus people who attended this year by running more events online and live-streaming.
She squirms when we ask her to name her top five events from this year's program. "Naming just five events is really hard," she says.
"I've heard so many stories, witnessed so many great collaborations, have gathered so much information." We didn't let her off that easily though and so here are her 2015 festival highlights.
1 Theatre of Ideas: Dan Barber
We'd waited many years to host Dan Barber [the award-winning chef from New York's Blue Hill and author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food] and his radical-yet-practical vision for a better, more sustainable and less damaging way to combine good food and good farming was an ideal fit for the kind of conversations we're having at the MFWF. Even better, his connections with people here like Joost Bakker [enviro-designer and radical florist] and farmers and producers who attended this event means that there will be an ongoing global collaboration around the issues Barber brings to the table.
2 Langham Melbourne Masterclass: The Essentials
Masterclass has always been popular, but many people were missing out because they were unable to commit to a whole day. So we broke it into components so people could sign up to one class, where they could learn to do one thing really well. We had Johnny Di Francesco [of 400 Gradi] sharing the secrets behind his award-winning pizze and learned that you can make friends with salad if you follow Matt Wilkinson's lead. We saw more first-timers this year, with more than 40 per cent of attendees being newcomers.
3 Quintessentially Melbourne
This year, we decided to knock on the doors of some institutions we haven't worked with before. It was a way to bring important thinkers with a different perspective on food together for the night. We had the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra perform at Cutler & Co, while a collaboration between Prix Fixe's Phillippa Sibley and milliner Richard Nylon, who matched hats with her Alice in Wonderland-inspired food, saw the MFWF and the Melbourne Fashion Festival join forces for the first time. We also held events at the State Library, the Jewish Museum and the National Gallery, all of which were sellouts.
4 Global Chef AND Wine Dinners
This is our home and away game, where chefs from all over the world bring their own sense of place to Melbourne. There's so much potential for the cross-pollination of ideas. This year, the dinners included Canadian chef Jeremy Charles, who brought a sense of Newfoundland to Woodland House, and Ruth Rogers, of The River Cafe in London, teaming up with Neil Perry [for the GT reader dinner at Rosetta].
5 Return to Terroir
Return to Terroir brought together nearly 40 natural and biodynamic winemakers from all over the world. I hosted the arrival party where the team did a barbecue using great Victorian produce. All I could hear was French, Italian, Spanish and German voices having conversations about their wine and soil and terroir, and I thought, wow, this is what it's all about.