Melbourne food festival frenzy

By Nici Wickes

Four days in Melbourne to pack in as much eating and learning about the latest food trends as possible? No problem ...

The Greenhouse exterior. Photo / Daniel Mahon
The Greenhouse exterior. Photo / Daniel Mahon

DAY 1

It's the usual rush getting to the airport but once I take my seat on the late-afternoon flight bound for Melbourne, I realise I'm in good company. On board are other food freaks and all of us are doing the exact same thing - clutching our colourful 2012 Melbourne Food & Wine Festival programmes and desperately plotting how we can fit in as many as possible of the master classes, speaking sessions and visits to Melbourne's fabulous eateries in the limited time we have. I have just four days and I'm not mucking around.

I throw my bags into my room at the Langham on Southbank, then jump in a cab that takes me to Pope Joan, one of Melbourne's hippest eateries in East Brunswick, where British chef Stevie Parle has taken over the kitchen for the night.

At 27 he looks like a young Stephen Fry and already he's a phenomenon, having created one of the hottest places to eat in London, Dock Kitchen, out of what was previously a pop-up concept.

What's so great about him? In his own words, "I cook food you want to eat more of".

Five courses later, myself and the other 80 or so diners agree. We feast on warm buttery toast topped with abalone, bowls of steamed clams drizzled with tahini, salads of torn-up samosas, crunchy chickpeas, heirloom tomatoes with tangy tamarind dressing and platters of slow-roasted mutton dusted with spices from the Middle East that take us on a journey far, far from Melbourne.

I put any sense of coolness behind me and ask him to sign a copy of his cookbook.

We bonded over the weird spelling of names and he scrawls "Great name Nici! Hope you enjoy the recipes. Stevie x".. I'm happy.

DAY 2

I'm up early to run along the Yarra in an effort to earn some points before a day of eating. Along the way I stumble across an unusual looking cafe perched on the river's edge just below Queens Bridge. Built from scratch in a mere three weeks using entirely recycled and sustainable materials, Greenhouse is the latest project of Joost Bakker, champion of sustainable, ethical design and building practices and it's only in operation for the duration of the festival - after that, it will be dismantled, leaving no trace of its existence.

The external living wall, made of hundreds of potted strawberries is spectacular, as are the herbs and vegetables growing in disused oil barrels on the roof. Inside chairs are made with kangaroo skin, mushrooms grow on tree trunks and all the drinking glasses are old jars.

I order rolled oats and yoghurt for breakfast, and what arrives is a flower pot of whole oat grains and a hand grinder that's then clamped to my table so that I can grind them fresh myself. The festival is designed to expand our thinking about all things culinary and already my mind is bursting.

I rush back to the hotel to get ready for the Friday Fire master class, a five-hour extravaganza featuring six chefs showing off their skills cooking with fire. On the way I tuck in a quick lunch at Mamasita, the Mexican place that is almost impossible to get into at night unless you're prepared to queue for a few hours.

I figure lunchtime should be less of a crush so arrange with four other food writers to meet right on opening time and try our luck. It's already busy when we arrive at two minutes past noon but we manage to secure a table.

We devour street-style chargrilled corn cobs smeared with lime juice and chilli mayo and dusted with queso; tostaditas - some topped with crab, avocado, tamarind mayo and habanero, others with flavourful pulled pork; soft shell tacos with fillings of marinated prawn, red chilli and almond salsa and grilled fish with zingy lime; salads of cactus and quinoa; bowls of salsas and guacamole. Punchy fresh flavours and staff who take the bustle in their stride - I leave feeling very happy.

The afternoon of fire is full of highlights but the stand-out is Ed Mitchell, barbecue legend from North Carolina.

His session is called The Whole Hog and he entertains us with stories of how he lives and breathes fire and smoke, the 300,000-strong block party he cooks at every year in New York City ("I travel to that one usin' a semi-truck'n' trailer unit to transport all ma hogs") and the time he beat famous Iron Chef Bobby Flay in a "throwdown", all the while preparing the coals and dressing a whole pig ready for roasting.

Watching him, I vow never to use gas again as well as making a promise to cook "the whole beast" next time I make a barbecue.

It's been a full-on day learning about butchery, grilling, wood and fire management and I'm beat but that doesn't stop me and two fellow fire-converts ducking into Movida tapas bar for dinner on the way home.

Even though I've eaten here more than a dozen times over the years, the food still dazzles me with the sheer brilliance of flavours and creativity. Smoked tomato sorbet and anchovy croutons; silky salted cod croqueta; tender-pressed quail and morcilla with apple; slow-cooked lamb with sherry and paprika; Spanish doughnuts and creme caramel. They may well be the best tapas ever, I think as I drift off to sleep that night.

DAY 3

I'm pleased that the master classes are hosted by the Langham so that all I have to do is get myself downstairs for the 9am start. First up for me is Cory Lee, the genius who spent nine years with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry before setting up his own restaurant, Benu, which has taken San Francisco by storm.

While I watch him meticulously prepare his dishes it occurs to me that, in some kitchens, tweezers have taken the place of tongs. He fiddles and gels, caramelises and turns to dust one ingredient after another and I am in awe.

As tasting plates are handed out I understand what all the fuss is about and why Benu has already been awarded two Michelin stars - the food is flawless and the flavours exquisite. Then it's on to the next session - Trinh Diem Vy (aka Ms Vy), a petite Vietnamese chef with a firecracker wit and wealth of food knowledge.

Going from Corey Lee's session to hers is like going from a chemistry class to cookery and I breathe a sigh of relief. As she works her way through three simple Vietnamese recipes, I pick up snippets of information from her that I know I can use at home - such as never using kaffir lime leaves in Vietnamese cooking - they belong in Thai food - and always shopping for your herbs first as these are critical to any Vietnamese dish.

"Never promise to cook a dish before you have been to the market," she tells us sternly.

A brief lunch break and then it's on to the Theatre of Ideas and it's here where my mascara begins to run.

New Zealand-born chef Ben Shewry of Melbourne's Attica, awarded restaurant of the year last year, puts on a heart-rending, four-act show portraying where his sensitivity and emotional food originates, including his father from Taranaki in the performance. It is an incredible session and shows us just how intense and full of integrity this man and his food are.

Following him is Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen's Noma, voted number one restaurant in the world, for the past two years running. He speaks of how he helped to turn a monoculture carrot farmer into a business that now supplies a huge variety of ingredients, including vintage vegetables.

He also reminds us that all chefs really do is "create something that 24 hours later turns to shit". Interesting to ponder that! But the main message he leaves us with is that food is precious and we need to respect the producers and growers of it more than we do the academics who talk about it. Sobering stuff but delivered in a highly entertaining hour and a half.

As soon as the afternoon session closes, a few of us head to St Kilda where one of Melbourne's most talented chefs, Andrew McConnell, has his latest venture, Golden Fields. Lobster in sweet buns, shredded duck with pillow-like steamed rice bread and plum sauce, moist pork dumplings, whole dory with ginger shallots, sago pudding, peanut butter parfait and salted caramel. All heavenly. Time to sleep.

DAY 4

It's my last day and I'm all too aware that time is running out so I dash from session to session - Brett Graham tells us about hunting and fishing for your own food, Christine Manfield talks about travelling by your taste buds, Stevie Parle on modern comfort food and more. Each of them are exceptional sources of information, technique and inspiration.

Then it's time to head out to a lesser-known Melbourne suburb, Footscray, for an event that turns out to be a true festival highlight - the Rickshaw Run.

We're loaded up into rickshaws to tour the centre's numerous authentic Vietnamese eating houses. We start with freshly shucked oysters followed by a visit to a Vietnamese market, you'd swear was in a back alley of Hanoi, then on to another for spring rolls, pho, bun cha, and a cooling jellied drink.

It's quite the way to spend an evening, being wheeled gracefully through the streets of this exciting and little-known gem of Melbourne where ethnic eateries abound. I've already booked my next trip back to suss out the wonderful Latin American and Ethiopian restaurants I spied along the way.

All too quickly my four days are up. My appetite is satiated for now, but I'm greedy for more so I vow to come for longer next year.

Nici Wickes flew to Melbourne with Air New Zealand which flies directly there daily.

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