Eric Ripert and Jonathan Waxman are standing as close as possible to a long, black grill full of smoldering charcoal on a concrete jetty on the Australian island of Tasmania for two reasons: One is to keep warm on this chilly, windy late afternoon; the other is to get first crack at the immense split Tasmanian spiny lobsters that Australian celebrity chef Neil Perry's crew is lightly charring before cutting their meat into pieces in the shell and brushing them with kombu butter. The lobster is just one of the only-in-Oz treats on offer this afternoon; all are delicious, but the lobster is the star. Almost everyone agrees that it's one of the best things they've tasted in ages.
Australia is an essential destination for anyone who loves food and drink. It's packed with exciting restaurants, especially (though by no means exclusively) in the metropolises of Sydney and Melbourne; its range of culinary raw materials, both wild and raised, is encyclopedic; it produces wines of every sort, from almost every grape imaginable, both bargain-priced bulk (g'day, Yellow Tail) and exquisite vintages; its beer is iconic and its whisky is attracting ever more attention from connoisseurs.
We all know this, right? But apparently, not everybody does. When BDA Marketing, a Melbourne-based business consulting and consumer research firm, conducted a survey in Australia's 16 key tourism markets, they discovered that only about a quarter of the respondents who had not visited Australia associated the country with good food and drink. Among those who had visited, across those same markets, some 60 percent ranked food and drink as a major Australian attraction, placing Oz as the world's second-best destination for gastronomic adventurers, behind France but ahead of Italy (!) — and visitors from eight of those key markets (China, the U.S., France, India, Indonesia, Maylasia, the U.K., and South Korea) ranked it the number-one food and wine destination in the world.
Clearly, Australia's challenge was to get folks into the tent. According to Tourism Australia, "To narrow the perception gap between those who have visited Australia and those who have not, Tourism Australia is evolving its global campaign with the idea that Australia could be the world’s greatest restaurant — Restaurant Australia."
Well, okay. What this translated into was a $33 million (in U.S. dollars) advertising and promotion campaign culminating last month in a spectacular two-part feast in Hobart, on the Australian island of Tasmania. The idea was to showcase both indigenous ingredients — among them, such seafood as Sydney rock oysters, Moreton Bay bugs (slipper lobsters), and that Tasmanian spiny lobster; meats ranging from grass-fed beef to red kangaroo; and, of course, a full range of wines from all over the country — and some of Australia's top chefs to an international audience, who would presumably be dazzled and return home to spread the gospel.
The guests, besides local media and dignitaries, were some 86 "influencers" — chefs, food and wine writers, TV food personalities, and the like — from all 16 of the aforementioned key markets. I was lucky enough to be among their number, and I brought along my old friend and Daily Meal Council member Waxman (whose restaurants include Barbuto in New York City, Adele in Nashville, and Montecito in Toronto). Other U.S. representatives, besides us and Eric Ripert (of Le Bernardin fame) included Alice Waters (also a member of The Daily Meal Council); Ripert's sommelier, Aldo Sohm; Dallas-based chef Matt McCallister of FT33; and half a dozen editors and freelance writers associated with various American websites and magazines. The Hobart Mercury reported that Gwyneth Paltrow was also invited, but she apparently she decided at the last moment that she had more important things to do. Australia is an essential destination for anyone who loves food and drink.
The U.K. fielded a team including the celebrated restaurant critic A.A. Gill, chef Clare Smyth from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London, The Observer Food Monthly editor Allan Jenkins, and The Telegraph food columnist Xanthe Clay, among others. Noted Vancouver chef David Hawksworth was there, as was Davide Scabin of Combal.Zero near Turin and Mulino a Vino in Manhattan, and there were dozens of representatives from Asia — China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore — as well as visitors from Brazil, France, and New Zealand. Australia's own MasterChef TV team and food personalities Maggie Beer, Matt Moran, and Stephanie Alexander represented the host country.
As a prelude to the big feast, a "marketplace" was set up in a pavilion on the Hobart waterfront on a windy Friday morning, where various states and regions of Australia presented small selections of a few of their best products. The star of the Victoria stand was the absolutely impeccable espresso — dense and complex — from Melbourne's St. Ali Coffee Roasters. At the Queensland stand, chef Craig Squire of Ochre Restaurant in Cairns was dispensing lemongrass-skewered Moreton Bay bugs tempura-style, wonderfully sweet and crisp. Then there were cheeses from Bruny Island Cheese Co. in southern Tasmania, including an authoritative Tomme called "Tom;" Poachers Pantry kangaroo prosciutto, a little dry, a little sweet, from Canberra; saltwater barramundi from the Northern Territory cured with wattleseed (seeds from various species of acacia trees, an important native Australian foodstuff) and served on potato chips with finger-lime aïoli.
The wine booth poured everything from Fowles Wine's astonishingly named Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch Riesling from Victoria's Strathbogie Ranges to the legendary Grange (known as Grange Hermitage before the French stepped in) from Penfolds in South Australia's Barossa Valley.
The main event began in the late afternoon at Hobart's Elizabeth Street Pier with a reception featuring three kinds of Australian oysters and free-flowing House of Arras 2004 Blanc de Blancs, arguably Tasmania's (and Australia's) best sparkling wine. Then influencers and company boarded a flotilla of outboard tour boats for a fast, sea-sprayed journey to a gravel- and concrete-floored promontory extending out into Elwick Bay from the GASP! (Glenorchy Art & Sculpture Park) complex, just northwest of Hobart. Here, we huddled around fire pits and oversize grills — only marginally effective against the early evening chill — while servers passed generous platters of great stuff prepared by the evening's star chefs.
Ben Shewry, of the highly rated Attica in Melbourne, served delicate King George whiting grilled in paperbark wrapping and miniature charcoal-charred corncobs with forest anise. Peter Gilmore, of the acclaimed Quay in Sydney, warmed us up with roasted wallaby tail broth (savory and nicely seasoned, though nowhere near as exotic-tasting as its name might suggest; it could have been veal broth) and a real standout, grilled West Australian marron, a particularly meaty and delicious variety of saltwater crayfish, moistened with mild wasabi butter. Neil Perry, of the Rockpool restaurant group in Sydney and Melbourne, grilled not just those big spiny lobsters but also Tasmanian abalone, chopped up and dressed with mirin and sake. Sparkling and white wines were free-flowing (the standouts were 2005 Tyrrell's Vat 1 Semillon from Hunter Valley and 2010 Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay from Margaret River).
If it had been a little warmer, I think the whole group could have happily spent the entire evening eating this wonderful food in this dramatic setting, and gone away with a very happy view of the potentials of Australian gastronomy. But the main event was yet to come: a sit-down banquet for 250, cooked by Shewry, Gilmore, and Perry, at MONA — the Museum of Old and New Art. This is a four-year-old "subversive adult Disneyland," as its founder, Tasmanian professional gambler, art collector, and winery proprietor David Walsh, has called it. An elaboration of the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities, which Walsh founded in 2001, MONA is built into a cliff a mile or so from GASP!, with much of the exhibition space underground, down a daunting spiral staircase. The permanent collection mostly seems to focus around themes of sex, death, and excrement. The atmosphere is said to be intentionally ominous.
To reach MONA, the crowd streamed onto the museum's camouflage-painted ferry. I ended up on the aft deck talking with Heston Blumenthal, whose presence at the event hadn't been previously advertised. He was back there smoking cigarettes — "a bad habit I picked up from hanging around with all those Spanish chefs," he said. Blumenthal is closing his groundbreaking three-star restaurant The Fat Duck, about 25 miles west of London in Bray, for six months this January for renovations, and opening a six-month pop-up version of the place at the Crown Towers Hotel in Melbourne. (Tickets to dinners there were sold online in October for $525 AUS [about $435 USD] per person, not including drinks — but scalpers managed to nab more than 100 places under fake names, and resold them for prices approaching twice the original amount.)
Besides physically renovating his Bray restaurant, Blumenthal told me, he is thinking about ways to evolve the "experiential" aspects of the meals he serves. He's still thinking about what that will mean, he said, but he mentioned as an inspiration his famous "Sound of the Sea" dish, which seeks to evoke the experience of the seaside with bits of various kinds of seafood and seaweed, along with "sand" (made from panko breadcrumbs, powdered ice cream cone, baby eels, maltodextrin, and other ingredients) — and an accompanying iPod playing the sounds of crashing waves and seabirds.
For now, we had an experience of a different kind: We arrived at MONA at sundown, welcomed at the museum dock by sprays of fireworks and shooting gas flames illuminating the long staircase up to the entrance. Guests were ushered down into what David Walsh would probably appreciate hearing called the bowels of the building, to a long atrium room, the walls of which were covered with a series of 1,620 individual paintings by Sidney Nolan, one of Australia's most famous artists. Diners sat at three room-length tables chockablock with wine glasses and table settings.
The food was served efficiently and without too much delay: Shewry's salted South Australian red kangaroo with red carrots and bunya bunya pine nuts; Gilmore's smoked and confit pig jowl with black-lip abalone, koji (a Japanese fungus used in fermentation), fermented grains, shiitakes, and seaweed; and Perry's homage to Australian beef, with grilled sirloin, braised cheek, and oxtail, with tea-smoked oyster red curry — all of which demonstrated eloquently that Australian chefs can cook fussy post-modern food as well as anyone in the world. (Desserts and cheeses followed, one more level down into the ground.)
I later heard from an Australian food-writer friend that one of the star chefs, early in the banquet planning process, had argued for making the main event something "fiery and beachy and Australian and fun" — but that one of the other chefs had argued successfully for a more formal and conventional finale to the program, and that in any case the "stakeholders" (government officials and tourism advisors) were leery of serving up anything too informal, as it might not accurately represent the sophistication that Australian gastronomy was capable of. That's too bad.
Australia, as noted, is unquestionably one of the great places in the world to eat and drink, and I'm absolutely convinced that we'd all be streaming there constantly with appetites raging if it weren't so far away. (When one Australian tourism representative asked me how best to get more Americans coming there to eat, I said "Bring back the Concorde.") With their Restaurant Australia campaign and especially through this really remarkably well-organized and -executed multi-part event in Tasmania, the Australians have taken a giant step towards convincing "the world" that their nation is a gastronomic heavy-hitter. The next step they ought to take, if you ask me, would be to start trusting their Aussie instincts and showing visitors what's truly wonderful and incomparable about their food and drink — not through trying to be "world-class," but through being proudly and uniquely Australian.