It's 7pm on a balmy Noosa Sunday and, as the lights go down on a food and wine festival that saw a record 26,000 tickets sold, the words "celebrity chef" seem to reverberate in the night sky.
Ben Shewry, of Melbourne's Attica, says events like the Noosa festival are an opportunity to "show a different audience a little of my philosophy."
There is simply no escaping the cult of personality enveloping the food world. Celebrity chefs sell tickets, and plenty else besides.
But 200m from Lions Park, the heart of the three-day festival, the real celebrity chefs toil calmly, almost anonymously. There may be ego in the room, but as chef/restaurateurs these guys (they are all guys) really are the deal. Upstairs at Berardo’s Restaurant, seven of the world’s best are cooking the event’s inaugural $695 signature feast, the so-called Qantas Best Dinner in the World. And as an Australian chef, you just don’t get a guernsey to this one unless you’re on The List.
We now all know about the San Pellegrino ranking – if such an arbitrary thing as restaurant performance can be numerically rated – of the “world’s best restaurants”. The A-List of 1-50 and the second tier (51-100) contain the most prestigious collection of restaurants in the world. But it is also the international yardstick for chefs who value creativity over TV ratings. And in Australia, apart from Tetsuya Wakuda (58), the men whose work is recognised are hardly household names. Peter Gilmore (26), Ben Shewry (53), Mark Best (70)...
Tonight, there are more than a few “celebrity chefs” visiting Noosa who are just a little jealous of their peers. Because all the money and television exposure in the world won’t buy you a seat at this table.
Alongside Aussies Shewry, Wakuda and Best (Gilmore couldn’t come) are Carlo Cracco from Milan, Yoshihiro Narisawa from Tokyo, André Chiang of Singapore and Luke Dale-Roberts, a Brit based in Cape Town. All are associated with restaurants on the San Pellegrino list in 2010, when plans for the Best Dinner began to ferment. (Several, such as Chiang and Dale-Roberts, have since moved to their own, as-yet unranked places).
And alongside the expensive plates of food, wine writer James Halliday has chosen wine that stands up to the reputation of the chefs, from a vintage Champagne (2002 Devaux Cuvee ‘D’) to iconic Aussies (2006 Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay and 1989 Penfolds Grange) with Spanish, French and German meanderings en route. It’s a tour de force. And it has helped establish Noosa’s festival reputation.
Of course, the multiple big-name chef dinner is nothing new and in Australia, perhaps the highest-profile such dinners have been fund-raisers, most notably involving Sydney’s Neil Perry. This one, however, is probably the greatest concentration of stellar gastro-power to congregate on these shores.
But success for these chefs can be a double-edged sword. Once the international recognition of the San Pellegrino ranking kicks in, an ever-expanding circuit of events and symposia demand global availability for those at the creative end of the spectrum such as Ferran Adrià of Spain and René Redzepi of Denmark, both of whom appeared on speaking engagements in Australia in the past year.
The job becomes about travel, demonstrations, appearances at elite forums and dinners such as this. “Being asked to participate in a dinner with that group of chefs was very flattering,” says Best from the kitchen of Marque, in Sydney’s Surry Hills, a few days later. “I would have travelled to Europe if I’d been asked to do the same thing, so to have a home game with guys of that calibre is amazing.” Ben Shewry, of Melbourne’s Attica, says events like this are an opportunity “to show a different audience a little of my philosophy”.
For Dale-Roberts, who put South Africa’s La Colombe on the map (No 12 in 2010) before opening The Test Kitchen last year, it is a matter of recognising that dishes in foreign restaurants will never match the original, in situ. “I’m happy to do a couple of overseas trips a year because it’s such a great way of working with like-minded chefs, but too many trips takes your eye off the ball in your own house, which is always dangerous.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Peter Gilmore, perhaps Australia’s most lauded chef, whose cooking took Quay, in Sydney, from 27 to 26 on the San Pellegrino list this year, the highest ranking for any Australian chef regardless of location.
“I don’t want to end up being one of these chefs who spends all his time focusing on media and forgetting about their restaurant,” he says. “You’ve really got to pick and choose.” (It’s why he passed on Noosa.) “There really is a bit of a circuit these days and when you start playing on a world stage, it is almost expected that you do this sort of thing. But it gets to the point that you just have to say, ‘I can’t do everything.’ Otherwise, you lose touch with your restaurant. I want to be here, I want to be at the pass four nights a week.”
While maintaining an international presence is important, Gilmore says the focus should stay on the “bread and butter” local customer base. “Fashion in food is self-evident and within two or three years there will be something else that’s hot. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. You’ve got to look after people who support you all the time, and part of that is being in the kitchen.”
For guests tonight, it’s a chance to eat a diverse collection of dishes that give a snapshot of where contemporary gastronomy is today, internationally. Tonight, for a packed house of 116, it swerves from Cracco’s extraordinary sea urchin risotto dusted with squid ink powder to Shewry’s deceptively simple (the method is laborious) dessert of strawberries with “strawberry oil” and soured cream, a dish that amply demonstrates the chef’s fascination with concentrated essences and flavours.
The other highlights are, I have to say, Australian. An amazing dish by Wakuda combining spanner crab with foie gras, dashi jelly, tarragon and tofu is a light yet rich textural gem. And Best’s combination of red-braised pigeon and a chocolate crisp on an abalone jelly with fresh shaved abalone and black onion sauce shows remarkable technique without sacrificing flavours and intrigue on the fork.
Which is not to say the three other dishes – two Asian fusion and another straight European in its inspiration – are not remarkable; just slightly less memorable. It’s a proud moment.
MasterChef’s Matt Preston exercises his baritone skills as MC with the chefs throughout the night; it is, save for a characteristically cheeky comment from Best, a waste of time. The audience laps it up anyway. A few glasses of Grand Cru Burgundy will do that.
By the time Ben Shewry has sent out his petit fours – salted caramel “eggs” replicating those of the pukeko, a New Zealand waterfowl, complete with a picture of the bird by his father and a story about the creature by Shewry – an eight-course food and wine experience unlike any other winds down to a gentle, satisfied conclusion.
The idea was festival organiser Jim Berardo’s. “We started at the top of the list and literally worked our way through until we had our number,” says the expat New Yorker of the recruitment process.
Berardo says it was a logistical challenge but the upside was enormous. “It took the event to another level, gave it an international focus. It also reinforced the premium brand of Noosa and gave a great lift after a frankly shitty year.” And did he get a lot of flak for putting on a dinner with a $695 ticket? “Actually, no. We received more comments the other way around. Why did you charge so little?”
It’s subjective. Very few can afford the price of admission, yet it might be said such dinners are the gastronomical equivalent of haute couture: they act as stimulants for interest in celeb chefs/restaurants at lower levels.
Berardo already has an Italian and an American chef “99 per cent” sure for 2012, believing the feedback from diners, and the benefits to the festival, make the prospect of another such dinner realistic. He’s hoping to get a Scandinavian and South American chef next year too. The best might be yet to come.
John Lethlean was a guest of the Audi Noosa Food & Wine Festival 2011 on May 13-15. He is on the Australian panel for the San Pellegrino list