Mark Best under a straw hat is sitting next to Ben Shewry who, in turn, is beside Alvin Leung. There’s Fergus Henderson, all jerky gesticulation, on his other side, then the gloriously erudite David Thompson. And I in the audience am listening spellbound to the discussions amongst some of my culinary heroes that bounce around the small auditorium. I am in heaven.
The heavenly state persisted over the three days I attended the Noosa International Food & Wine Festival. Now in its ninth year, it is an event of sophistication, opulence and affluence; the fact there were cloudlessly blue skies and hot Queensland sunshine for the duration merely boosted its brilliance. Last year about 26,000 people attended; this year, with an extra day tacked on, I expect that number was well surpassed. And yet like all well-oiled and impeccably managed festivals there was never the sense of claustrophobia; rather a vast riverside space through which we wafted and drifted, browsed and mingled, threading through the numerous food and wine kiosks and the tents and the clusters of chairs and tables.
One massive marquee held the Main Stage where cooking demonstrations ran continually; in another you entered a wonderland of more stalls and stands showcasing produce and products from Australia and overseas. Smaller marquees hosted wine tastings and discussion panels and down by the river long trestle tables were set up for the shared picnic lunches.
As happens at festivals there was frequently a collision of things you wanted to see; in my case I had to tear myself away from Alvin Leung’s riotously funny cooking demonstration on the Main Stage in order to catch a panel on restaurant-reviewing. Baby-faced Alvin is the very hip Chinese chef behind Bo Innovation in Hong Kong and before 11am had managed to work his way through most of a bottle of onstage sparkling wine as he demonstrated a dish of Hervey Bay scallops steamed in Crown Lager and finished off with a syrupy sauce based on Vegemite. It smelt wonderful, like bread baking, and MC Valli Little of Delicious magazine declared to him that we don’t have a national dish as yet but he might just have created it.
The panel of international chefs discussed trends in their respective countries. And so David Thompson spoke about the notion of a fusion/molecular cuisine being alien to most Thais, who see it as a western affectation, while Italy’s Davide Scabin in his extremely limited English cautioned us all to be wary of modern technology in the kitchen (all the toys) and the fact it could undermine tradition; Alvin joked about the fact that in Hong Kong foraging hasn’t taken off because ‘there’s no green!’ In another panel session on current trends food critic John Lethlean spoke about food trucks as we continue to copy America, commenting that he hasn’t been to one here yet that has ‘rung my bells’; that they lack the spontaneity the models inspire. Adelaide food and wine writer Tony Love gratifyingly talked about the fact that molecular gastronomy is already on its way out, leaving only the best bits and ‘leaving behind all the trickery’. And Mark Best said it was the financial pressures of running a restaurant that kept him humble.
Ben Shewry from Melbourne’s Attica restaurant, during his demonstration of wallaby served with a blood sauce, told the audience that for him luxury was not caviar; it was the experience of the chef who plants a radish and tends it and watches it grow and picks it, washes it and grates it over something. In the session about social media and blogging, veteran restaurant reviewer Stephen Downes lamented the fact that these days young people go to restaurants more because they are the places to be seen at, the food itself of minor importance. ‘The problem,’ he said, ‘is that they’re using food blogging to belong to a coterie of fashionability’.
It was a festival of food and wine and ideas from which I am still buzzing.