Melbourne: More than just Kangaroo Burgers

Hippy gourmet meets hipster-chic. Sustainable, recyclable, biodynamic. And always – unabashedly provocative.

Greenhouse by Joost could be a metaphor for the recent Melbourne Food and Wine Festival as well as contemporary Victorian cuisine. A living ‘pop up’ restaurant, the Greenhouse is as flamboyant as it is conscientious. As rooted at it is rebellious. As avant-garde as it is traditional. Sounds as pretentious as it is ephemeral? You’re in for a surprise. Starting with our waiter (who in that uniquely Melbournian way, looks like he spends every lunch break at the gym), flaunting a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘Greenhouse takes the piss.’ Quite literally.

Created by Joost Bakker, Dutch florist turned artist turned eco-warrior, this restaurant set beside the muddy Yarra river has a life span of just 20 days, which is how long the festival runs. One of the focal points of the festival, it’s famously self reliant. To the extent of creating its own energy by harvesting urine from the men’s toilets. It will be used to fertilize 20 hectares of mustard crop, the oil from which will power next year’s Greenhouse.

Entering the restaurant’s Lego-like arrangement of three shipping containers, I weave through vats of basil and stop to admire Joost’s signature ‘plant walls’ filled with pots of strawberries. This building is the culmination of years of research by designers, builders, engineers, scientists, farmers and chefs. Inside, it’s fragrant with the scent of fresh wood shavings. In the flickering yellow light of beeswax candles, muscled chefs flex their tattoos under meticulously ripped t-shirts. The beer is artisan. The food local. The structure cozy. “Our walls are filled with straw bales to keep interiors warm. The floor’s made of old conveyor belts from a factory,” smiles Joost, who pops by to say hello. “And all our wine, beer and milk come in returnable kegs.”

Drinking water from a clunky jam jar and eating baba ganoush off a wine bottle that’s been reheated and reformed into a serving dish, I can almost hear the restaurant breathe. Graffiti above the bar reads “Imagine buildings that grow food.” This is a model building for urban agriculture. Mushrooms spurt from logs along the wall. Above us, the roof garden is lush with lemon grass, basil and rocket. And then of course, there are those strawberry walls. Rene Redezpi, commonly acknowledged to be one of the world’s best chefs and inspiration for the current food foraging trend, cooked a meal here for the festival. It’s a good place as any to start unraveling Melbourne’s unique food style.

Australia’s multicultural immigration program enables it to absorb authentic food cultures from around the world. Being ‘Down Under’ seems to have worked to its advantage. With a wide array of lush seasonal ingredients and a crop of young talented Chefs, instead of being buffeted by transient trends of world cuisine, Australia’s absorbed various ethnic influences, melding them together to create its own distinctive style. It’s not all Crocodile steaks, Kangaroo burgers and Vegemite sandwiches, as the Food and Wine Festival proved.

The event began with the ‘World’s Longest Lunch’ set on a sun dappled long table, along the river. The setting’s earthy, rural, sophisticated. Hats and pearls, sunglasses and summer dresses, a canopy of trees and a carpet of damps twigs and crisp yellow leaves. About 1200 people sit along a 500 metre long table to enjoy the bounty of a very Victorian autumn, cool and sunny.

The meal begins with a delicate tangle of leafy vegetables and herbs, served with smoked trout the colour of coral. It’s followed by Chef George Biron’s Turkey with tomatillos. Over dessert, a vacherin featuring rich cream stained pink with rhubarb, Biron tries to explain the essence of contemporary Victorian food. “This is a cerebral city,” he says, talking of how it’s embraced visitors. “The gold rush brought us Chinese food. The Italian immigrants came next. Now the Africans are here… We’re so lucky. In Melbourne we can travel the world in one evening. One street is Hanoi, the next is Ethiopia.” His Turkey and Tomatillos, inspired by Mexican cooking, are an attempt to showcase new world food. “They were all picked yesterday from my gardens. That’s the ethos here: everyone bringing their best to the table.”

CEO of the festival, Natalie O’Brien, talks of how they’ve hosted over 70 Michelin starred Chefs over the 20 years of the festival. “This is best of Victoria, but it’s also the best of the world. We want to show the spectrum we have: East African, Afghan, Middle Eastern and Asian food.” It’s more than just a database of traditional recipes and venues. “It’s the sum of the small things. The experiences people share.”

Making Passata with Mangia Mangia is all about the experience. In Carlton, the Italian quarter of town, where families sit at pavement cafés eating gelato, we’re introduced to ‘Passata’ at the Museo Italiano courtyard. Despite the incessant drizzle, spirits are high as Angela explains why her family gathers together every year to make this rich sauce of poached tomatoes and basil. “It’s about preserving our tradition. Food is the very essence of who we are. It transcends culture and individuals,” she says, passing around jugs of coffee and a platter of biscotti. She adds, “In two generations there have been so many changes. We used to spend time cooking together. If we lose our tradition it would be a tragedy.” It’s slick marketing, no doubt. The process is embarrassingly simple for a cooking class. Poach, pulp, bottle. So much for “families’ secrets and techniques.” But there’s an all-pervading sense of goodwill in the air as people settle down for a simple, and hearty, lunch of pasta served with generous shavings of sharp Grada Padano cheese and home cured olives.

Food in Melbourne is about celebrating variety. The city’s most popular chefs blend traditional and contemporary influences. At the Carlton Wine room we sit in a private dining room in the style of an old-school Gentlemen’s club. Croatian Chef Matthew Silovic’s food is ‘Modern European,’ rife with Melbournian influences. More about meticulously sourced and intelligently combined ingredients than convoluted techniques. The star’s a mixed tomato salad with brittle toasted almonds, puffed brown rice, unctuous blobs of burrata cheese and a sticky olive oil jam. Later in the week we eat at Coda by Chef Adam De Silva, who’s heavily influenced by South East Asia, particularly Vietnam: Rice paper rolls with smoked duck, prawn and tapioca betel leaf and – his signature dish – sugar cane prawn.

Variety isn’t limited to what’s on your plate. The city’s rife with surprising venues. Mathew Bax, who runs the legendary bar, Der Raum, and well as the well-hidden Bar Americano, says Melbourne is a competitive market, but one that appreciates quality. “Anyone can create a short term buzz with a gimmick or nifty location but the real trick is to keep them coming back.… Bar Americano was designed to be fad proof, the interior is very classic. Many of the features are based on the great “old rattler’ wooden trams of Melbourne… Our carpenter restores the old trams and works to create furniture from them.”

Early in the week, we stumble upon another pop-up, the Broadsheet Bar, humming with activity despite, or perhaps because of, its exposed pipes, wobbly makeshift shelves and industrial vibe. Walking along the Yarra later that night, we’re chatted up by the cheery bouncer at Ponyfish Island, a floating pop-up turned permanent bar under a bridge offering crocodile skewers, kangaroo kebabs and Sichuan smoked quail.

There are other festival highlights. DJ’s playing at food truck jams and a lecture titled ‘“How Not to Drink Wine like a Wanker’’ by Dan Sims. Culinary rockstar, the 34 year old David Chang of Momofuku, a Michelin starred serial restaurateur and pioneer of cross-cultural cuisine, takes a Master class on the ‘Flavour of Fire’ and there are reports of journalists bumping into Antony Bourdain wandering about the hotel lobby. We drink champagne at a cocktail party with eight Michelin Chefs, including Tokyo’s Jun Yukimura and France’s Thierry Marx, at the Crown Casino. Stumble upon ‘rooftop honey,’ a project that aims to bring bees back to the city, thus addressing issues of sustainability. And attend a very soggy ‘Cellar Door and Farm Gate’ event, where with wet hair, slushy feet and frozen fingers we sip samples from boutique wineries, specialist brewers and artisan producers.

The taste of Melbourne – and in fact Victoria – is unique because it’s an expression of so many different factors. A multicultural populace. A bounty of fresh local ingredients. An active conscience. What we eat is who we are. What makes Australia so exciting is the fact that this is tantalisingly transient. And proudly so.


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