Melbourne Food and Wine MasterClasses
It’s that time of year again, folks. When diets are put on hold and our minds and belly swell with knowledge and food respectively. All together now: “It’s Langham Melbourne MasterClass time!” Or at least it was the weekend just gone and this is my take on it.
We rode our bikes in this year, a superfluous effort to counter the food we planned to ingest. If nothing else, the ride avoided waiting hours for a Sunday train and we enjoyed a breath of fresh air on a beautiful Melbourne day.
Before and after the MasterClasses, Five Senses were on coffee and San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna on water and soft drink, all of which we managed to consume before the first MasterClass with Corey Lee.
Now, you know a chef is serious when he pulls forceps from his apron instead of a wooden spoon. This was Corey Lee’s first time in Melbourne. He was Thomas Keller’s three Michelin star chef at The French Laundry and now owns an 18-month-old restaurant in San Francisco, Benu, which boasts two Michelin stars. Benu is actually Egyptian for ‘phoenix’, a bird that symbolises longevity and rebirth in many cultures.
“It was important to come up with a name that didn’t exactly place you in any one area,” explained Lee, whose food takes cues from a mix of cuisines.
The MasterClass began with a short video about Benu and a few words from moderator Andrew McConnell (Cumulus, Cutler & Co. and Golden Fields) before the cooking got underway.
During the video, we saw how fastidious Lee and his staff are when they make their soup dumplings. Pat Nourse, editor of Gourmet Traveller, commented about how much fun it is to watch people burn themselves on ‘Xiao long bao’ and while Lee agreed, he said that getting your fingers dirty is all part of the fun.
“When you’re eating for three hours you’re going to make a mess and I think that’s a sign of a good meal.”
We had fun, but our fingers remained clean. Spoons of Lee’s anchovy, peanuts, lily bulb and pickles dish were served. But simply naming those ingredients hardly describes the final result. Tiny sour cubes of anchovy and kimchee flavoured gelée were tiny bursts of flavour, topped with tiny, caramelised anchovies and garnished with fine ribbons of chilli and baby coriander.
“Did the Langham team pee their pants slightly when you showed them the plating notes?” joked Nourse when he saw the dish.
He had a good point: each of Lee’s dishes could be described as artistry. Every element is placed purposefully on the plate, which just happens to be custom made.
Lee also whipped up glutinous rice cakes with crunchy pine nuts and pine needle infused honey (infused for 100 days, thank you very much). The rice cakes had the most amazing gummy texture, balanced by the brittle pine nuts and fine hairs of celery.
So what does Lee eat at home?
“I’m a single guy with no kids so I have water and alcohol in my fridge… and some frozen dumplings, that’s it!”
But Lee more than makes up for his marital status with the relationships he nurtures with his suppliers, who according to Lee, “know what you’re looking for”.
I imagine it would be difficult to be Lee’s partner; no one could possibly receive as much love and attention from him as his food does.
Morning tea was served thanks to La Madre Bakery and included friands, rich chocolate brownies and garibaldi biscuits. It didn’t quite compare to Lee’s creations, but we were more than happy to eat them anyway. We also grabbed another coffee while we had a peek at the cookbooks.
For the next MasterClass, we headed up to the 25th floor of The Langham Hotel to the Alto Room, where Peter Gilmore of Quay in Sydney was cooking his ‘earthly pleasures’. Quay is Australia's highest ranking restaurant on the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list, coming in at number 26. His secret? Working closely with farmers to source the best ingredients around. He has laid claim to three hats and three stars for ten years, so he must be doing something right.
Again, a video was presented at the start of the MasterClass. It showed the creation of a seafood ‘coral garden’ dish inspired by a family trip to the Great Barrier Reef, where Gilmore went snorkelling. You can watch it here and you should because the techniques are incredible and the dish is beautiful.
The first dish we tried was a progression from the coral garden in the video, this time served warm. A gentle braise of thinly sliced radishes, barely cooked prawns, shaved octopus, fine strips of squid, fleshy diamond shell clams and pink turnips balanced on top of a circle of garlic custard. A prawn consommé, reduced until dense with flavour, was poured over the seafood sculpture. Gilmore tested the consommé with his “finger thermometer”, which he claimed is fairly accurate—“it’s pretty precise, if you put it in (the broth) and it hurts, it’s too hot!” The ingredients were crowned with edible purple flowers. Divine.
“It’s really important with food to combine different textures… for me, texture is as important as taste,” said Gilmore as we slurped away. His statement was clear in what we had been served.
Gilmore sources a lot of his produce from a farmer in the Blue Mountains, NSW. He started buying berries from the supplier about six years ago. After seeing purple carrots in Europe and failing to find them down under (heirloom veggies weren’t trendy yet), Gilmore asked the farmer if he would grow them for him. The farmer agreed and he now supplies at least ten of Sydney’s best restaurants. Gilmore mentioned “a little win” for him when last year, he saw Woolworths selling purple carrots due to popular demand. He has been a keen gardener himself for eight years and grows everything in his “test garden” before asking his farmer to supply it. Why gardening?
Next on the menu was smoked and confit pig jowl served with shiitake, shaved scallop and Jerusalem artichoke. Inspired by Chinese dishes, Gilmore started combining pig and scallop twelve years ago. Instead of the traditional pork belly, he currently uses jowl. The succulent oval of pork was piled high with slithers of shiitake mushroom and almost raw scallops slices, the latter of which were seasoned with white soy that had been infused with bonito and seaweed. The crisp-fried artichoke chips posed as crackling and garlic flowers were strong enough to be used for more than just decoration.
Like Lee, Gilmore’s dishes were stunning to look at. But to Gilmore, the evolution of a dish over years and betweens seasons is a personal journey.
“If I cooked the same food all the time, it would be boring for us as well (as the customer),” he said.
Lunch gave us a chance to collect (and stuff) ourselves. It was put on by the Langham and included an interesting mix of sushi, sausages in mini rolls, duck and leek pies, roast beef sandwiches, gourmet salads, calamari, chicken skewers and other finger foods. There were also olive products by Mount Zero Olives, which went splendidly with the complementary vino.
After lunch (like we needed more food!) was the most entertaining MasterClass of the day. Moderated by the cheeky and charming Matt Wilkinson (Pope Joan, Bishop of Ostia, Spud Bar), the demonstration was full of giggles. The chef on show was Stevie Parle from Dock Kitchen in London. Parle became famous for his pop-up restaurants before the word ‘pop-up’ made our heads implode with boredom. He hit the jackpot and popped up for good with Dock. Parle’s vast culinary repertoire has been inspired by his travels.
“That’s one of the things I try to do with my food, go travelling without actually going anywhere at all,” he said.
“That’s one of the things I try to do with my food, go travelling without actually going anywhere at all,” he said.
Take the moilée for example, a distinctive fish curry made with barramundi, freshly prepared coconut milk, chillies, fresh curry leaves, coriander, turmeric and black pepper. The sauce was almost buttery it was so rich and the fish was firm and perfectly cooked.
There was also a grilled leek dish with a chunky, aromatic romesco sauce that was passed around. We had a nibble of the sauce, but the chicken liver dish that followed was even tastier. The golden brown livers were cooked in butter and seasoned with seven spice and sweet pomegranate molasses. It arrived on a bed of pea pilaf and made even the non-liver eaters who tried it blurt compliments.
Parle’s dishes are more about how something tastes, rather than how something looks, a stark contrast from the other MasterClasses. He tries to cook food “that’s so delicious, you want to eat some more.” As Wilkinson said, “At the end of the day, cooking is about eating”.
Parle regularly works with well-trained chefs who come to Dock from another kitchen and construct good-looking towers of food. Apparently it’s a hard habit to break, so what does Parle do? He pushes their piles over, and then serves them.
He doesn’t “do” aesthetically pleasing, although his recipes are hardly off-putting. He also believes the whole “environmentally friendly” thing in cooking is a buzz phrase, a no-brainer.
“Eating sustainable and locally is just obvious, chefs have been saying it for years… if no one is doing it, we should just, well, shut up!” Eloquent, Stevie.
“He’s only twenty-seven, really tall, very successful, which doesn’t make me jealous at all,” said Wilkinson, with a touch too much sarcasm.
Parle and Wilkinson bounced off each other for the entire hour. Despite the comical height difference, they made a brilliant pair. The MasterClasses at the Langham, while fantastic, have been in serious need of humour. Perhaps this is a sign of more to come.
Afternoon tea was a selection of gorgeous cheeses, none of which I took the time to write down. Being surrounded by food all day is tough work—you should try it some time.
The last MasterClass for the day was Christian Puglisi, moderated by Attica’s Ben Shewry. Puglisi owns Relæ in Denmark, but draws inspiration from his Sicilian roots. His restaurant is small and of his own making, just the way he likes it.
“We cook with liberty… we don’t have to fit into criteria that would give us a Michelin star… when guests come in, the come and visit us in our house” he said of Relæ.
Pat Nourse, whose wit I should mention was one of the highlights of the day, agreed that Relæ is a “very personal and honest restaurant.”
After being trained at elBulli and Taillevent, Puglisi had a stint cooking with world number one chef Rene Redzepi in Noma. It was here he learned that the kitchen should be electric.
The poached skate dish we tasted looked like a piece of Japanese nigiri. The base consisted of grated celeriac and wrapped around it were fine lengths of brined, slow-poached skate, only just cooked on the outside. A vibrant puddle of pea and spinach emulsion brightened up the plate.
It was beautifully prepared, but Puglisi drilled home his opinion that “if you can cook, you can cook at all levels”. He walks the walk too, and has closed down his restaurant a few years in a row to set up a food stall at a local music festival. Unfortunately, the return isn’t ideal, so this is the last year his team will do it.
The final dish we wrapped our tongues around for the day was, well, tongue! Tongue of veal, to be precise. It was sliced ever so finely and topped with a paper-thin slice of celeriac. A mousey, anchovy emulsion anchored the dish, hiding beneath the other ingredients.
Perhaps the most interesting cooking method witnessed on the day was the use of liquid nitrogen in Puglisi’s last demonstration, which we unfortunately didn’t get to try. It consisted of a crumble made from caramelised buttermilk, a poached egg yolk and mandarin snow (cue the liquid nitrogen). The entire bench was covered in a blanket of dry ice at one stage and assembling the dish was clearly a labour of love. Funnily enough, Christian’s second in charge is also called Christian.
The Langham Melbourne MasterClasses undeniably bring the world’s best chefs together in one place. We were pushy enough to get seats up the front for each MasterClass and it was worth it; it’s difficult to get up close and personal with chefs from the back corner of the room. Plus your food gets served last.
The recurring themes this year were handmade plates, diamond shell clams and monk’s beard. Each chef, despite their celebrity statuses, were incredibly modest, passionate and down to earth. They all respected each other, but even more than that, they were inspired by each other. If that’s not something worth celebrating on Melbourne Food and Wine Festival’s 20th birthday, nothing is.