Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Melbourne Food and Wine Festival 2011


For my 21st birthday last year I was given an exceedingly generous gift: a full day pass to the Langham Melbourne Masterclasses, part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. Nearly two months on, the experience still resonates in my mind... and mouth! 

During the delicious day, renowned international chefs and wine experts bestowed their culinary knowledge and anecdotes upon an eager, salivating audience. Among them sat business folk, head chefs, hospitality staff, media representatives, bloggers and the general food obsessed public - all self-confessed gourmets reaping the benefits brought to their taste buds by the masters.

Having never attended any part of the festival before, I was unsure what to expect. But as I was greeted by the smiling faced representatives and escorted to the entrance of the hotel ballroom, I knew I was in for a treat. While we waited for the doors to open, we were surrounded by silver steel punch bowls of designer mineral waters and offered coffee  Five obviously skilled baristas worked quickly in a production line, one taking orders and topping up the machine with 5 Senses "Dark Horse blend" beans, two making coffee, and another two pouring milk.

The doors opened: it was time for the first demonstration. Chandeliers hung over immaculately set round tables that faced an open, modern red and white kitchen, heavily decked with Miele appliances. Wearing thick-rimmed square pink glasses complimented by an equally toy-like orange watch was Zakary Pelaccio of Fatty Crab in New York.

He started his theatrical restaurants that involve "a lot of meat, a lot of booze, and a lot of fun" on a post-college trip to Chang Mai in southeast Asia in the mid 90s. Pelaccio was working in a Westin Kitchen, he assured us, for nothing. The other chefs held up his now-favourite ingredient: chillies. After much taunting that the Westerner would not be able to stomach the spice, Pelaccio went for it. Little did he know his competition would then eat a chilli as well, and insist he mimicked him every time another one burned its way down his oesophagus. This sequence was then repeated, multiple times. 

"I was freaking out, my ears were on fire but I held it together," he explained, "I earned their respect."

After running out of money, Pelaccio went back to New York for a while before his passion for the East overcame him. After working in Kuala Lumpar in Malaysia, his adoration for Eastern spices and flavours became entrenched in his cooking. Upon returning to the U.S, he attended the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, working for "a bunch of famous chefs." In 2002, he started up Chickenbone Cafe in Brooklyn and so began the gastropub trend in New York.

When a friend of Pelaccio presented the idea of opening up a small sandwich shop, he could not resist. But the very next day he knew he had to  do something different. He called up his friend and suggested they add a Malaysian flair. "That sounds great Zak," his friend responded, "but what is Malaysian?"

Pelaccio said he had introduced aggressively flavoured food in a way people "were not used to at that time." In 2005, Fatty Crab became his much-dreamed-of reality. Today Pelaccio still embraces the Malaysian flavours but merges them creatively with Western cuisine. To achieve this he smokes primary ingredients, especially meats, before constructing traditional Malay dishes.

As we heard about how Pelaccio's successful career unfolded, we watched as he assembled three different dishes. The first was smoked mackerel nam prik - prik meaning 'chilli' in Thai. As he chopped and mixed, Pelaccio was sniffing sporadically. While he claimed that he was slightly under the weather, it was more likely a side effect of all the spice he was handling! 

We got to sample the dish, often eaten as a snack or an entree. The mackerel 'paste' came resting on a leaf of fresh asian cabbage with a slice of cucumber, coriander and raw beans. Initially the smokey taste was dominant but the 'fishiness' of the the fish sauce and mackerel  was not too overpowering. This was immediately followed by a warming sensation at the tip and sides of the tongue caused by the chilli - the kind that makes your mouth water in anticipation of more to come. The greens were a cooling, refeshing contrast to the spice.

Next was slow-cooked cincalok and wine marinated lamb racks, served with a cincalok and lemon emulsion. What on earth is cincalok you ask? So did the audience. Cincalok is a fermented shrimp sauce whose smell is not for the faint hearted. To further scare you away, whenever a bottle of it is opened it always explodes, sending fizzing liquid spurting like a seafood volcano. But Pelaccio assured everyone that the substance, although disgusting in appearance, is irreplaceable in terms of taste.

Fermenting is common in Malaysia and Pelliaco explained that it is just another way to get a salty taste without actually using salt. As he wiped up the errupted remains of the cincalok, he joked, "they ferment durian in Malaysia. It's like, what, Is it not stinky enough?" 

After brushing the lamb with the cincalok and combining the ingredients to make the emulsion, it is fair to say that some were hesitant to try the dish. But after easily cutting through the tender lamb chop with only the supplied butter knife, the sound of sparkling, clanking cutlery soon filled the ballroom. Despite being tender, the lamb did not lose it's texture, and the Vietnamese mint that came layered on top cut through the fattiness of the emulsion, which was surprisingly mild.

Unfortunately, our two taste dishes were then used up for the demonstration. But there was still one more to go: Yabbies with a fresh tumeric and pork emulsion. In true exhibitionist, Fatty Crab style, Pelaccio seized the thrashing blue yabby and proceeded to massacre it. This aroused the audience to voice sympathetic cries of 'aww' and 'ohh,' to which Pelaccio responded by reminding the most vocal of the bunch that they were currently chowing down on a lamb chop.

"Unfortunately if we eat meat, these things have to die," he sighed. Although I very much doubt that Pelaccio has ever, or would ever, consider giving up meat. By the time the yabbies had sizzled and turned red in the pan, the smell was making the audience salivate for a sample. Pelaccio barely had time to plate the dish for its photoshoot before the demonstration was ten minutes overtime. 

Just as stomachs were filling from the first round of demonstrations, we walked into the foyer of the ballroom to discover an array of sweet pastries, escargots and pain au chocolat provided by the Convent Bakery. There were also sausage rolls, with a mushroom vegetarian alternative. The only problem was eating a pastry, then lining up for a 5 Senses coffee to go with it, only to find that by the time you had your coffee your pastry was finished and you required another. This cycle was soon brought to an abrupt end when people started lining up to see the man himself: George Calombaris.

I have to pause in my otherwise glowing review to comment on the ten minutes I spent at the door, waiting to secure a place inside. While it is no fault of the organisers, some people in the crowd were overly pushy. Perhaps impatient from waiting a few minutes more than expected, as the doors opened one man began verbally abusing the young woman at the door checking tickets, shouting at her to "get on with it already." Murmurs of disapproval echoed throughout the queue and the experience resembled squeezing into the mosh pit at a rock concert.

It was interesting to see how George Calombaris epitomises the 'celebritising' of the industry and, unfortunately, the effect that this can have on some people. But when asked about what it was like being a 'celebrity chef' he answered modestly. "I'm a restauranteur and I wouldn't be on TV if I wasn't. I am very lucky, and don't get me wrong, it's weird, but my credibility lies in being a chef," he said.

Back in the ballroom, Calombaris now stood where Pellico had earlier, this time next to his mother Mary, and old friend and head chef of Hellenic Republic, Travis McAuley. But perhaps the standout was Matt Preston, who sat on a stool in a salmon pink shirt, necktie, tight white pants and cowhide printed boots. Preston joked that "the stuff on his (George Calombaris') menus that is the best comes from his mum, and the worst from him."

After introducing Mary, who admitted that she was nervous, Calombaris gestured to his heart and said genuinely that his mum's recipes were from 'here.' The recipes that they cooked together stemmed from Calombaris' childhood memories, and it was lovely to see him show that by including his family.

First off was a watermelon sweet, or 'glyko karpouzi.' Mary went about separating the pink flesh of the watermelon from the rind and then peeling the rind so that only the internal, hard white part was left. "We don't like to waste anything," she explained. Meanwhile, Calombaris offered his assistance, which was always rejected, while sharing his family's history. My favourite story was about how his grandmother had her mortar and pestle confiscated when she came to Australia because the authorities thought it was a weapon.

Despite being soaked in water containing builder's lime, of all things, the watermelon lolly was a huge success. It had the same light, crunchy texture as watercress and was as sweet and sticky as honey. As a preserved sweet stored in a jar, an audience member asked Mary, who is obviously used to cooking for others, how long they lasted for. She responded, smiling, "oh they never last long!"

Next, Calombaris recreated what he described as a wake-up-from-siesta-nap-dish: watermelon and feta, but with a gourmet twist. "It is very important to me for my food to have memories of childhood, or places I've been to, or Greece," he said as he sliced A-grade tuna with surgical perfection. The dish resembled a work of art: a perfect rectangle of juicy watermelon with the thin tuna slice on top, then decorated with tiny purple flowers that cost 20 cents each ("I've got a few like that in the garden," said Mary, "I'll sell them to you!"). On this impossibly beautiful composition, Calombaris then placed a scoop of wasabi ice-cream, which he finished with whitebait. The plate was spotted with a black olive caramel paste and leaning against the magical construction was a sesame crisp, just like little George used to snack on with his father at soccer on Sundays.

While we unfortunately did not get to pull apart the creation with our cutlery, we did get to sample traditional 'koupes;' cracked wheat pies with mince. As Mary was mixing with her hands, she began to open up to the audience. 

"I believe what ever you feel with your hands, you feel with your brain and your heart," she motioned passionately. "Give to people and you get the satisfaction out of it... this I believe in my heart."

You could taste the love in those pies. Apart from your taste buds telling you how unbelievably 'Greek' they tasted, the feta sauce had a delicious bite to it. The pies themselves had a lovely homemade quality to them. They were doughy with a thin crunch on the very outer layer and as you bit into them the meat, parsley, onion and cinnamon transported you to a whitewashed, blue-roofed home somewhere off the Mediterranean Coast.  

Mary then quickly qhipped up some 'Kourabiedes;' a Greek almond shortbread biscuit that looked like a mini football coated in icing sugar. It was simple, light and crumbly - the kind of biscuit you had with your siblings and dared each other to whistle while you had a mouthful of them. They were handed out by McAuley, with his daughter on his hip, to a few lucky tables near the front.

After the demonstration was over, Preston handed out a few cooking books and Calombaris gave away a jar of watermelon sweets after finding out it was someone's birthday. Although the food was to die for and Calombaris was gracious, the most admirable part of the demonstration was his obvious love for his family, especially his mother. He paid tribute to the adorable, blushing lady as well.

"We argue a lot, because we are so similar to each other. We both run 100 miles an hour and we butt heads, but it doesn't matter at the end of the day because I love her a lot," he admitted, but not reluctantly.

After the second demonstration the pastries in the foyer were replaced by an impressive buffet lunch. There was mango, pear and prawn spring rolls; roasted eschalot tart with mint harrissa; seared duck breast and fennel with duck sausage and berries with a Grand Mariner reduction; tandoori lamb skewers with saffron, ginger and coriander; a selection of sushi; gourmet rolls with roast beef or roast vegetable; manchengo cheese squares and quince paste; and an array of salads including buffalo mozzarella and tomato, spiced roasted eggplant, asparagus and feta. Keep in mind that after eating non-stop since breakfast it was very difficult to try almost everything. But fear not, I managed. 

My tasting job was made somewhat easier when the food was washed down with wine from Yering Station in the Yarra Valley and Pizzini in King Valley. However I was disappointed  when I was informed that the KitchenAid 'bake-off' was cancelled due to the heat. Apparently the the previous day the meringue tower sweated and collapsed while the pavlova liquified to an eggy mush.
My next class felt like a private event reserved only for a few special people. I took an elevator down a few floors to the Swanston Room. Inside were two long, rectangular tables in white linen, each place set with three wine glasses, two water glasses and corresponding bottles of Acqua Panna and S. Pelligrino.

"It's the Melbourne WINE and food festival as far as we are concerned down here," a voice rang.

The select few took their places and were introduced to Janet Clarke, who was filling in for Nick Stock, and Scott Wasley, owner of The Spanish Acquisition. Considering I know little about wine, I was eager to learn. We sampled three brackets of three different wines: red, white, and dessert. The twist here is that they were all Portuguese wines, hence the name of the Masterclass, 'Portugal's Phoenix Rising.' We were given a pen and a sheet with the names of the wines, their region, and a corresponding map of Portugal. A sheet was also provided explaining when to drink carbonated or still water.

The whites came first. We tried Quinta do Ameal Loureiro, 2009, Vinhos Verdes; a light, young wine with a zingy floral lift that was saliva-inducing. To be honest, it was a bit sharp for my taste. Next was Quinta de la Rosa Durosa Branco, 2007, Douro; a blend of indigenous grapes with a slatey undertone, reflective of the mostly terrain in which it is grown. It was much easier to drink than the previous wine and was my favourite out of the three. The last wine in this bracket was Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas, 2009, Vinho Regional Beiras; the heaviest of the whites with a subtly fermented taste that coated the palate. Typically the three range from $30-$36 per bottle, my favourite of course being the most expensive at approximately $36.

The majority of the decent red wines in Portugal are blends. We tried three, beginning with Alvaro Castro Dao Tintio, 2008, Dao; a chalky, smooth red made with fruit tannin that had hints of cherry and was very gentle on the palate. The next red, Quinta do Vallado Douro Tinto, 2008, Douro; was sharper than the previous red with a very appealing dark, spicy scent. This was an earthy wine that was sweet and then very dry, I preferred it to the Dao. But the best was the final red, and so it should have been at $100 a bottle! Luis Pato 'Vinha Pan,' 2005, Vinho Regional Beiras was a light wine with a heavy taste, it was everything a vintage red should be: fiery and oaky, it was prickly as you took the first sip and gentle as it went down. Whilst we were sampling the reds it was explained to us how there is currently a shift from using wood to flavour and texture these wines to using fruit tannin and natural fruit acid. Clearly, from the snobby sounding adjectives I seem to be using, I learned a lot.

The final bracket involved ports and reds. Maybe it is because I have an underdeveloped taste for wine, or perhaps it is just because I have a sweet tooth, but all three were delicious. Apparently, everyone else agreed with me. You could tell because there was not a drop left in anyone's glass, unlike the whites and reds. The first was a ten year old Henriques & Henriques Serical, Madeira; a light caramel coloured liquid with a warming, burnt toffee aftertaste. It was dry, rich, and left traces of honeyed macadamia. Next was a Niepoort Ruby Port, Porto; a young, lively port with an uplifting plum scent. Lastly we indulged in Quinta do Noval LBV, 2003, Porto; a heavy, vintage port that drinks more like red wine. Dark and heady with hints of spice and cherry, as Janet Clarke pointed out, "They're not cheap, but you get what you pay for." 

At the conclusion of the wine tasting, I felt suddenly lighter, and made my way back upstairs to see what awaited me outside the ballroom. Sure enough, there was a selection of small, colourful pastry bases filled with colourful custards and passionfruit and lemon curd. They looked almost too pretty to eat, but not enough to stop me... they were delicious.

Sadly, the time had come when it was time for my final MasterClass. I took the elevator to the 25th floor where in the Alto Room, Thorsten Schmidt of Malling and Schmidt in Denmark awaited me. As part of the festival he produced a special dinner at Attica with head chef Ben Shewry, who was moderating this demonstration. This room was more intimate that the last two, with tilted mirrors above the preparation bench, displaying to the audience the process going on beneath them.

Schmidt creates new Nordic dishes by asking, "How are we going to leave a regional footprint?" He does this with four 'ingredients': Landscape, Passionate Souls, Seasons, and Culture. He gets inspiration from landscapes, whether they are fields, lakes, forests or the sea. For example, the first dish he made started with a plate sprinkled organically with sand. On top of that, a bag filled with real sea water acts as a translucent pillow, swaying like the ocean on the crockery and holding the 'seafood' and salted herbs.

Atop the contained ocean, Schmidt dotted a seaweed emulsion (after hearing this word all day, Schmidt reassured the audience that 'emulsion' is just a fancy word for mayonnaise). He rested oysters and clams on top of these dots before sprinkling them with seaweed dust. Then he garnished with a selection of locally gathered seaweeds including sea lettuce, pig face, red algae, beach spinach and sandfire. Finally, 'beach sand' made of breadcrumbs, seaweed, anchovy oil and tapioca is sprinkled on top, completed with an oyster foam. The final result looked like an inside-out rock pool.

Schmidt went on to explain the precaution that must be taken when collecting ingredients such as these in terms of not harming the environment and not taking too much. He pointed out that when you collect ingredients yourself, you nurse and respect them more so than bulk boxes of produce. He estimated that it takes up to five hours  extra a day per person (two people collecting and three people cleaning the produce) to find and collect such ingredients.

When Schmidt isn't gathering food from the wild himself, he relies on local suppliers, the people he referred to as 'Passionate Souls.' "One thing that inspires me," he said, "are passionate people, because there is always something to learn." 

Seasons are also important. Using the example of a plant, he explained how each season brings something new and exciting to food. As a seed, you can fry it, as a shoot, you can put it in salads. Then it grows into a little, "what you call it?" Schmidt placed his thumb and index finger together to indicate something small, "straw?" "Stalk!" corrected Shrewy and the audience. Schmidt laughed and continued: "then you can use the flowers, and if you leave it long enough the fruit, eventually the centre of the mature stalk, and then when the first frost comes you can use the root. And all of this is one plant," he said arms raised with contagious excitement.

The final ingredient is Culture. Schmidt told his audience that the knowledge of food has been around forever. But Schmidt adds his own touch, revelling in the idea of something being utterly simple but very tasty. In Denmark, the national tree is oak, which of course, is inedible. Or is it?

"The way to make people eat something unpleasant is to put it in an ice cream, because everybody loves ice cream," he said. 

He then produced oak shavings, then he proudly exclaimed that they were one of the few things he managed to sneak through customs. And so, he created wood shaved oak ice cream with 'salted' shavings. As the audience passed around the shavings and smelled them, Schmidt explained a revelation his wife had  experienced when he was creating the recipe: she knew of no one who had negative memories or feelings towards wood shavings. Instead, the smell of wood elicits notions of camping, family, enjoyable walks and holidays. In the restaurant, the ice cream is served on top of a vacuum bag filled with oak shavings. Guests are given a scalpel, instructed to slice the bag, smell the wood, and then eat the ice cream. 

"For me, cooking is about giving something personal. The taste and smell should somehow represent where you are," Schmidt said.

We were able to sample the ice cream, which came served in an oak shaving shaped as a boat. It was a highlight for me. The beige coloured ice cream was the smoothest and creamiest I have ever had. With paper-fine shavings of 'salt' (oak), one would not imagine they were from this planet. Eating it was like smelling concentrated oak but through your mouth. As you take the first spoonful there is a slight delay and then the taste hits your tongue and resonates through every olfactory sense once it is swallowed. It is truly more than a simple 'taste.' Eating that ice cream was an experience that needs... well, to be experienced.

From that point, Schmidt continued to impress with his remaining dishes. The next one we tried was ox 'fried' over a bonfire with roots, dark berries and 'ash.' The dish consisted of melt-in-the-mouth-tender beef cheeks atop a bright beetroot puree with finely sliced beetroot and cranberries. There was black 'ash' made from burnt, sifted vegetables and white 'ash' made from smoked butter that was sprinkled on top to complete the bonfire. 

But with Schmidt, everything is an experience. In his restaurant, the plate of food comes with a plate of kindling that is set alight at your table by a chef bearing flint. As well as this performance, you are given a napkin of wild herbs that you can smell, or even add to the dish yourself. To eat it, you are given a boy scout cutlery set, inspired by guests who would speak of how memories of their boy scout days were ignighted by the meal.

"It's nice food... and we are geeks, but it creates an experience. It is a frame and the main ingredient is the guest," Schmidt explained.

As an added bonus, not mentioned in the MasterClass guide, Schmidt took boiled and peeled forest pigeon eggs and injected them using a syringe filled with forest pigeon broth. Then he sprinkled the eggs with dried black trumpet mushrooms and added a touch of salt before grating dried salted pigeon breast finely on top. When they are served they come in a specially replicated nest that I thought was so impressive that it would probably make the person eating the eggs feel a pang of guilt.

He also put together a delicate dessert of bright orange sea berries coated in icing sugar and placed back on a branch 'planted' in a bed of sugar. They are usually served without a plate and with a wooden tweezer-like contraption for picking and eating. Lastly, Schmidt produced a fancy black jewellery box which is normally placed in front of a woman at the table. Upon opening it, she will see half a dozen metallic rocks. Like most of Schmidt's dishes, they look too good to be true, and in some sense they are. Small chocolate rocks are made with various herbs and then painted with gold, silver and bronze to look like "viking currency." While they probably taste incredible, they have the appearance of precious nuggets, and would make you think twice about eating them if you have any tooth fillings!

Schmidt's demonstration was more than multi-sensory gastronomy, it was an other worldly experience, and it was the perfect end to a busy, gastronomic day. My only regret is that I was not able to see all the demonstrations simultaneously. Perhaps the best aspect of the MasterClasses, aside from being fed all day, was the personal approach that was apparent throughout. Those who were there were able to catch a glimpse of a side of the hospitality industry that most do not get the chance to, that is, the person behind the creations. When you get to see a master chef doing what they love and with such passion, it translates clearly through their dishes. Although the demonstrations I saw were varied, all had one common theme: the notion of sharing knowledge and the sensory food experience with others.

On the day, George Columbaris summed it up well when he said, "I was born a servant and I will die a servant, and that is what I love, I love to serve." 

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  1. Sofia, could we please use your picture of Zak Pelaccio in the guide for our local arts festival? Thank you,

  2. As long as there is some form of accreditation, go nuts! I can send you the full sized photo if you provide me with an email address?