For culinary enthusiasts, says Nici Wickes, there's no better place to get a fix than at the masterclasses and workshops of the various festivals celebrating all things delicious.
I can still remember clutching the brochure in my little hot hand, dreaming that maybe, just maybe, I'd be able to get the funds together to get to Brisbane for the weekend. A weekend where acclaimed chefs from all around the world would assemble to talk about everything to do with food and wine, to cook incredible dishes in front of audiences of more than 400 and then, in smaller groups, share their cooking techniques, joy and passion for food.
That was over a dozen years ago and since then MasterClass Weekends have boomed around the world, many as part of bigger festivals. In New Zealand we are lucky that some of the world's best programmes happen on our doorstep with the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival - now in its 20th year, a 20-day celebration of all things food and wine - as well as in Noosa and, for the first time, there's a South Pacific Food & Wine Festival being staged in Fiji. All of them have a common theme - bringing people together to celebrate the best of food and wine.
These are events for serious foodies where you get to rub shoulders with the talented chefs who are shaping the world of gastronomy. There are local heroes and global superstars and it's less about scoring free stuff and more about adding to your own knowledge, gleaning secrets from these game-changing culinary professionals.
Being able to observe, listen and taste what they have to offer is nothing short of inspiring. Since that first weekend back in Brisbane, I've frequented numerous similar events and have always felt privileged to be privy to these forums where robust discussion and debate is had about the future of gastronomy. After all, more often than not these foodies are creating their magic far from prying eyes behind kitchen doors.
The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, in March, is the biggest, - and some say the best- of the festivals, with a MasterClass programme hosted at the Langham Hotel which attracts the big names.
It has gained so much popularity that getting tickets to some of the events and classes can feel like winning the lottery.
Take the Friday Fire experience - sold out in under two hours. Or Corey Lee from San Francisco's Benu and our own Simon Wright from The French Cafe - both sold out. But with more than 300 events in the programme, there's always plenty of others to snap up in the line-up that are just as exciting - and if you're lucky, and quick, you might be able to score a last minute ticket or two to a MasterClass.
Last time I checked, Stevie Parle hadn't sold out, so I booked myself a ticket to this 26-year-old hot-shot chef from Britain because I love what he's doing. Voted Young Chef of the Year in 2010 and owner of one of London's hottest restaurants, he started Dock Kitchen as a pop-up restaurant that roamed London, gaining a reputation for outstanding food inspired by worldwide cuisines, before settling in one location and offering a no-choice menu that changes depending on where Parle's latest travels have taken him. Inspiration plus.
Or, if you've ever wanted to know what all the fuss with Denmark is about, since Noma in Copenhagen was voted the world's number one restaurant, you can book in to experience Christian Puglisi who worked with Rene Redzepi at Noma before opening his own establishment Relae, also in Copenhagen.
His motto? "It's all about the mouthful" and one of the things I love about these sessions is that not only do you get to see these masters cooking but at the conclusion of each demonstration, individual tasting plates are handed out to the audience so the full flavour of the event can be experienced.
I'll never forget the line of high-hatted chefs who streamed into the room on my inaugural masterclass experience back in Brisbane, ferrying hundreds of beautifully presented tasting plates to us, the hopeful audience, so we might sample what we'd just watched being whipped up in front of us. Sensational.
But I don't confine my own programme at these festivals to merely watching the chefs do what they do best. I've also booked myself on one of the sell-out tours from the last Melbourne festival - the Rickshaw Run. It takes in the best of Vietnamese cuisine in the suburb of Footscray, home to such amazing food and markets, like Little Vietnam and the fresh fish market, that you'll swear you've travelled much further than a mere 20 minutes from the Melbourne CBD. As your rickshaw makes its mad dash through the streets of Footscray, you take in five courses of sights and scents of Vietnamese culture and food. Guaranteed to be fun.
I'll also squeeze in one of my favourite overnight trips from Melbourne - to Phillip Island. It's a must for foodies (and surfers!) with great paddock-to-plate eateries, producers, wineries, farmers markets and the best curry house you'll find this side of Sri Lanka.
Aah, MasterClasses. I have never understood those conventions for sci-fi and Xena enthusiasts but I guess this is my version - spending three or four days with people who all share the love for my two favourite obsessions, food and learning.
Melbourne - March 2-21 (MasterClasses run Mar 10 and 11)
Noosa - May 17-20
South Pacific Food & Wine - March 14-17, Fiji