We came straight from the UK, James “Jocky” Petrie, the Fat Duck’s pastry chef of seven years, and Kyle Connaughton, who runs the development kitchen, and myself, so we were struggling a bit with jetlag on the first day. Lunch at Cumulus Inc helped: fantastic tuna with crushed peas and goat’s cheese, and the black pudding with the parsley salad was delicious. Dinner was at Rockpool Bar & Grill. We shared the “four raw tastes of the sea”, and a pasta with clams which we had without the pasta because we were saving ourselves, then we had the braised octopus with pesto – again, delicious – before we hit the burgers.
I had a bit of a problem, actually, because I was working to an itinerary that was out of date. It was a problem in two instances: we were meant to go to Café Di Stasio and MoVida, but we didn’t know anything about it because we had different restaurants on our itinerary, and I think somebody said we didn’t bother showing up, but really we had no idea we were supposed to be there.
Friday for us was lunch at Gingerboy. The son-in-law eggs, beautiful crab dumplings, braised pork with star anise – yeah, it was good. Because I know Neil Perry very well, I didn’t have to say anything about the kind of restaurants I wanted to visit, he just took us around. I didn’t want to be seen to be not going along with the [Melbourne Food & Wine] festival events; we got involved because we did this Starlight Foundation event with Neil and Thomas [Keller] three years ago and we had a really good time. You do things like this because they’re for a good cause or they help get a message across, and then sometimes you do something you actually really enjoy doing, and in this case it just happened to be for a really good cause as well. So we said we definitely wanted to do it again. I’d gone to Identità Golose in Milan and seen one of the festival organisers there, and he invited me to come over and do the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, so I checked with Neil to see if we could move the date of the dinner, which he did, so it was Neil who arranged for us to fly out, and he took care of us in Melbourne as well. We just left ourselves in his hands.
What I really liked about the MasterClasses was that they were kept small. Some of the big European festivals, they’re so big they’re like trade conventions. I did a discussion thing with Ferran [Adrià] at Madrid Fusión this year and I flew in in the morning and flew out in the afternoon. Melbourne reminds me why I do what I do, why I enjoy all this food-related stuff.
I didn’t know my Melbourne restaurants that well before I came this time. I knew I wanted to go to Vue de Monde, so we went and had dinner with Shannon [Bennett] on the Friday. That was an eating dinner, not a cooking dinner – we were in the private dining room and it was just a lovely evening. Saturday lunch we did the Flower Drum with Neil – that was the only other restaurant I requested we put on the schedule. When I was out for the Gourmet Traveller awards in 2000, Flower Drum won Restaurant of the Year, and ever since then I’ve wanted to go back there. It was everything I’d hoped and more. Ate too much of course; the texture of the Peking duck pancakes was amazing, so light. We met Anthony Lui, the chef/owner, and his son Jason, who runs front of house.
Saturday morning we did the presentation at the MasterClass at the Langham. What I liked about that, too, was that there was a real mix of amateurs and professionals in the room and everyone seemed interested. We had a book signing afterwards; signed a few body parts as well, and there was one bloke who said he was too tight to buy a book, so I signed his train ticket instead.
That night David Blackmore, the wagyu farmer, came down and we all had dinner at Rockpool Bar & Grill. He’s a great guy, just one of those people you can listen to for hours. We had the abalone méuniere, which was really beautiful, and then we had four different pieces of beef, including Blackmore’s Mishima.
Sunday we had lunch at Bistro Guillaume, and what he did, and it was so great, was to put some pâté, parfait and bread on the table, and then roast chicken with a chasseur sauce, pommes purée, gratin dauphinois. But basically it felt like you were eating in someone’s house, and it was just wonderful. Lemon tart, some great wine, the works. And after that I did the discussion panel with Neil and Thomas [Keller] – he said it was one of the most enjoyable things he’s done, presentation-wise, and we didn’t solve the world’s problems but we had a laugh trying. We covered an enormous amount of ground, just three mates bantering. Afterwards we walked into the big closing party at Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons and this chef from New Zealand came up to us and said it was one of the most inspiring things he’d been to and that it changed the way he thought about food. To hear that, it really makes it all worthwhile. We snuck out of the party and went to Rockpool again for a burger.
Sunday was also the night we went to Gerald’s Bar in Carlton. What a lovely thing to do: you’ve got all these trendy new bars everywhere, and then you’ve got this proper, proper old-fashioned sort of bar. We were there with Shane Osborn, Marcus Eaves and Sat Bains. We got to play some records, Monkey Man from The Specials, Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove, and some of the more Bootsy Collins-driven tracks from a Parliament album.
As you can imagine, I’ve had to do a lot of exercise just to make a hole somewhere so I could fit more food in. I had a lovely run down the Yarra for an hour, and I had a couple of good games of squash with Shannon. (He’s good, too.) All chefs are competitive. Did the gym a couple of times, and then in Sydney I ran three-and-a-half miles from the Park Hyatt past the Opera House into the Botanical Gardens. I was listening to music on my iPhone as I ran, but when I got there, I heard this noise underneath it all and couldn’t work out what it was. I pulled my earphones out and saw there were literally thousands of bats in the trees above me. Amazing.
Sydney has been amazing. The location of the Park Hyatt couldn’t be beaten. We landed here Monday morning, had a light lunch here at Rockpool Bar & Grill, and Monday evening we hit Spice Temple. I said to Neil if he opened up in London, if he has any energy left, he would clean up. We had the hot and numbing chicken, the quail with steamed egg custard, the lamb dumplings with the fennel seeds, the lamb with salted chilli. Fabulous. And the pickles. It was so diverse, and the balance of pepper, chilli and Sichuan pepper was something else. I was astounded.
We had a wonderful meal at the original Rockpool, and then today we had lunch at Fratelli Fresh. I’m headed home tomorrow, and the Ultimate Dinner is tonight. We’re doing a Black Forest gâteau. It’s got six or seven layers: there’s a biscuit base, there’s sponge, there’s ganache, there’s sponge that’s sort of freeze-dried so it can soak up kirsch syrup, chocolate mousse, kirsch mousse, a cherry compote, a layer in the middle a bit like an Aero bar, and then the whole thing’s sprayed with chocolate and a particular type of sour cherry. It comes from a dish I did for In Search of Perfection. We’ve even done dodgy kitsch chocolate shavings, not proper professional curls, so it looks very 1970s. Then sour cream ice-cream for acidity and then we’ve got the smell of the Black Forest. I went for a run when we were at the Black Forest, and people round there make kirsch in the garage, so as I was running I got this whiff of fermenting cherries from the kirsch at various stages of its making. So for me, the smell of the Black Forest is kirsch, so we’ve got atomisers of kirsch for spraying. My main hope for the night is that we raise as much money as possible. [The event raised $225,000.]
And the Sydney and Melbourne question? This is my third time in Sydney and only my first in Melbourne. I haven’t seen much of Sydney, but I’ve been out to Bondi, I’ve been on a boat on the harbour, I’ve done the bridge walk, so as a city, I’d say it’s only here and Cape Town and maybe San Francisco in the beautiful-city stakes. Food-wise, again, I’ve had a lot more meals in Sydney than in Melbourne, so I can’t really say, but I had a great time in Melbourne. I thought Melbourne’s population was more like 1.5 million, so I didn’t realise quite how big it was, yet it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. In the three days that I was there, it seemed a very clean and healthy city. And the festival itself had as nice, as organised and as caring a group of organisers as you’ll ever get. Will I be back? Any excuse I can get. Thomas and I were saying that the Ultimate Dinner could be a bit of a regular thing because we have such a good time. I love it here, that’s it.
PHOTOGRAPHY ANSON SMART
This article appeared in the June 2009 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.