Heston Blumenthal on Melbourne’s incredible food scene.
The Australian food scene is remarkable, and Melbourne should be on anyone’s list of cities to dine in. I love it. It is exciting, cultural, vibrant, and has a fantastic diversity of restaurants. The moment I arrive in Melbourne, I feel relaxed – and that’s because of the city’s soul.
Melbourne is all about chilling out and, as you wander the busy streets and the backstreets, you’ll see and smell the coffee shops. They’re not just any coffee shops, but ones where the coffee is exceptional. You realize quickly that there’s a reason why there are hardly any Starbucks in this continent: the Melburnians know both the meaning and taste of good coffee.
Then there are the rules and restrictions of food. Here, there are none! Think for a moment of Italy, and its rules of gastronomic etiquette – you are ridiculed if you order cappuccino after lunch, and you’re the devil if you ask for Parmesan on a seafood dish.
Melbourne – and indeed the rest of Australia – doesn’t have these sorts of limitations or traditions. Anything goes, and that’s an essential factor of the country’s culture. It’s this relaxed approach to food that has helped ignite what I regard as the world’s biggest food explosion. Many Australians might have grown up on uninspiring meals of meat and two veg but today they have a vast choice.
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As Britons, we can appreciate this phenomenal progress of cuisine. At the G7 Summit back in 2005, the French leader Jacques Chirac was overheard telling world leaders that British food was the worst in the world, second only to Finland. As a child, I remember things like half an avocado in the fridge, with a stone in it, and that was luxury in those days. There’s been great evolution.
There are plenty of excellent restaurants in Melbourne, plus chefs who are revered throughout the world.
Shannon Bennett has Vue de Monde, on the 55th floor of the Rialto skyscraper, and he does a fabulous tasting menu, using ingredients that include barramundi, Blackmore Wagyu beef and soft-shell crab.
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Andrew McConnell has two places: Supernormal (for steamed pork buns, and slow-cooked Szechuan lamb) and Cumulus Inc, with its impressive selection of native oysters, from the Clair de Lune Bouton to Rusty Wire.
George Calombaris, a judge on MasterChef, has a few restaurants in Melbourne, including the Press Club. And at Gazi, George pays tribute to his heritage with Greek dishes, as well as wood-fired flat iron steak from Rangers Valley, or lamb ribs from Flinders Island, Tasmania.
And with Ashley Palmer-Watts, I have a restaurant there too. The Fat Duck took flight in February with about 70 staff from Bray-on-Thames to Melbourne. There it remained until the end of August, at the Crown Towers hotel. Then we all came back to Bray, and the space at the Crown has since been replaced by Dinner, named after our restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, London.
Before relocating the Duck and Dinner, we looked at other locations: Tokyo, Kyoto and New York, and also suggestions for Las Vegas, Dubai and the South of France. But we settled, of course, on none of these.
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Selfishness was one of my main reasons for choosing Melbourne over the other locations. As you may have gathered, I love Oz. I search for – and happily find – excuses to spend a lot of time there.
I visited in 2002 for the first time to attend the Gourmet Traveller Awards. That’s where I met the extraordinarily gifted chef Neil Perry. With Thomas Keller, I cooked at charity fundraisers at Rockpool, which is Neil’s flagship restaurant in Sydney, such a beautiful city – and the Opera House renders me speechless every time I lay eyes on it. Neil, by the way, also has a couple of restaurants in Melbourne, the Rockpool Bar & Grill and Rosetta, which is also at the Crown.
In fact, for a couple of years I’ve been hassling the Michelin Guide to acknowledge Australia’s restaurants by publishing a red guide for the country.
“You’ve got to be in Australia,” I’ve told them repeatedly. “Michelin is in America, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Kyoto. Australia has to be next.” So when they get around to printing the Australian Michelin Guide, I’ll take a bit of the credit, please!
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Obviously, there is the skill of the chefs as well as the quality of the ingredients, the fantastic produce of Australia’s land and sea, things like lemon myrtle, Geraldton wax and bush tomato, and fish such as bass groper and jewfish.