“With creativity and flair permeating the food and drink scene in Australia, the nation’s popularity amongst foodies is no doubt set to continue for decades to come.”
Australia’s food and wine has been the toast of tables globally over the past 30 years, with its meat, seafood, reds and whites served in top restaurants and homes spanning Beijing to New York. But what’s perhaps more remarkable is how fast the nation’s restaurant and bar scene has come along over the last five years, and the talent that’s being nurtured both in the Great Southern Land and across the world – Australia’s chefs are now more in demand than ever before and its bartenders are winning trophy after trophy on the global stage.
The country is fortunate to have some of the world’s best meat, seafood and vegetables in its backyard, which has led to an abundance of restaurants and bars firmly embracing the farm-to-table concept.
For example, the South Australian capital Adelaide was, for a long time, the trailblazer for farm-to-table, with many restaurants and markets sourcing produce from within a hundred-mile radius. The city benefits from being within an hour’s drive of several of the nation’s leading food and wine districts, including McLaren Vale, the Barossa Valley, the Adelaide Hills and the Clare Valley.
Then there’s Kangaroo Island, where Southern Ocean Lodge is famously located. The lodge, and venues across ‘KI’, excels in procuring and presenting local seafood; island delicacies including honey from the oldest living Ligurian bee colony in the world; yogurts and cheeses from the sheep’s milk dairy; and island-grown meat and vegetables, all washed down with excellent KI wines, gin and vodka, distilled locally with distinctive island flavours and wild herbs.
Melbourne, with its epic multicultural roots and international food-driven areas of town, where you can find some of the best Italian, Greek, Chinese and Vietnamese food in the world, has also been a standout thanks to its many regional feeder regions for produce and wine, including the Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley.
The nation’s largest city, Sydney, a sprawling metropolis that stretches around 60 kilometres to the west, previously found farm-to-table to be a challenge apart from the sea, where freshly caught fish and seafood has been a hallmark of the city’s food scene for decades. In recent years, that’s changed; and while seafood is still on top tables, produce from the surrounding regions – including Orange, Mudgee, Rylstone, the Hunter Valley and Southern Highlands – has become the flavour of the city. Each week at markets across the city you can find pop-up stalls from regional producers offering small batch cheese, vegetables, pies and more from towns surrounding the city.
Across the other side of the country and past the Nullabor Plain, Western Australia’s capital, Perth, has been procuring wine and produce from the epicurean town of Margaret River (and wine region of the same name), three hours south of the city, to great success over the past three decades.
Meanwhile, Australia’s most tropical state, Queensland, is a veritable garden of adundance for some of the best beef, sugar cane, coffee and seafood in the nation. Its capital Brisbane’s food and drink scene has been taking off in epic proportions over the past three years.
The state that has embraced the slow food movement and local procurement on exceptional levels has been Tasmania, where – no matter if you’re visiting the largest city, Hobart, or the majestic Freycinet Peninsula – high quality food, wine and spirits are guaranteed. In fact, while Tasmania’s drink scene is most famously known for wine (Pinot Noir) and beer (James Boag’s and Cascade lagers), it’s the local whisky industry that’s been a global sensation, with Hobart’s Sullivans Cove winning World’s Best Single Malt Whisky at the 2014 World Whiskies Awards.
There’s also no shortage of fine food and wine in Australia’s capital, Canberra, where local wines from Lake George and Murrumbateman have been rising through the charts – particularly the small, family-owned Clonakilla, which produces Australia’s finest example of a Shiraz Viognier blend.
With such a vibrant and diverse food and drink scene, it came as no surprise to foodies down under when Melbourne was announced as the host of the 2017 World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, held in April. Fittingly, two restaurants from the state of Victoria were placed in the top 50: Ben Shewry’s Attica in Ripponlea, and Dan Hunter’s Brae in Birregurra, which came in at numbers 32 and 44 respectively. This was the fifth time Attica has been on the Top 50 list and its second year with Shewry as owner of the establishment he’s been with since 2005, and which has since become the toast of Australia. “We’re a small restaurant and we work really hard. It’s an incredible achievement for the team”, Shewry praised in his famously humble way.
Getting The World’s 50 Best Restaurants to Melbourne in the first place was a result of Tourism Australia’s push to become the world’s hottest food destination. Having launched its first ever major campaign targeting global foodies in December 2013 (called ‘Restaurant Australia’, putting the spotlight on Australia’s people, produce and places), the results have been phenomenal, with food and wine spend from inbound visitors growing over AUD$1.05 billion since – double the original two-year target.
In inspired marketing as part of the Restaurant Australia campaign, Tourism Australia enticed one of the world’s best restaurants, Noma, to open in Sydney’s new urban renewal destination of Barangaroo for a ten-week residency in 2016 that quickly sold out. An Australian menu, created by star chef René Redzepi and his Noma team, featured native ingredients, local wines and cooking methods found on Redzepi’s journeys across the nation over the previous 12 months.
While Redzepi certainly helped draw the spotlight to the Restaurant Australia campaign, one of the most interesting insights to result from the campaign has been how international tourists view Australia when it comes to food and wine experiences. According to Tourism Australia, out of those who have never visited Australia before, only 26 per cent associate the destination with a good food and wine offering; yet for those who have visited, Australia ranks second across major markets (behind France and Italy), and first in the UK and China markets for food and wine experiences – and that was before the 2017 World’s 50 Best Restaurants event, which has surely enticed more foodies to head Down Under.
“It was a huge honour for Australia to host The World’s 50 Best Restaurants – testament to how much our culinary standing has risen globally in the last few years”, said Tourism Australia Managing Director, John O’Sullivan. “It’s great to see Attica, Brae and Quay make the ‘top 100’ list this year, but the benefits go much wider and will be longer lasting.
“Australia has enjoyed centre-stage [during the event], with some of the world’s most influential chefs, restaurateurs and food and wine media eating in our restaurants and cafés, drinking in our bars, and visiting our world-class wineries, breweries and distilleries. Through these first-hand, authentic experiences, they will share our Restaurant Australia story beyond these shores, helping to inspire new audiences of travellers and lovers of great food and wine to follow in their foodie footsteps”, he continued.
While Attica and Brae are some of the newer kids on the block, Australia’s standing on the global culinary scene over the past two decades is, in part, thanks to legendary chef and restaurateur, Tetsuya Wakuda. The Japanese-born Australian chef’s restaurant, Tetsuya’s, has been a culinary destination in the harbour city since 1989, and his French-Japanese cuisine is internationally acknowledged on a near-annual basis.
Over the course of his career Wakuda has won acclaim not only in Australia, but also internationally. One of his protégés, Dave Pynt, has become one of the world’s fastest rising stars in the culinary scene and his restaurant, Burnt Ends, has quickly become one of Asia’s top tables, coming in at 53 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017 list. Pynt uses a four-tonne, two-oven brick kiln to grill and smoke some of Australia’s finest produce, including marrons (langoustines) from his home state of Western Australia. From Paul Hogan throwing a shrimp on the barbie in the 1984 Australia advertising campaign, the great Australian culinary concept of barbecued seafood has flourished into one of the most successful restaurants the nation has ever seen.
Fresh Australian seafood grilled, barbecued and served raw is also found, along with a wealth of other local ingredients and produce, at the nation’s best lodges – from Southern Ocean Lodge and The Louise in South Australia to Saffire on Tasmania’s Freycinet Peninsula, qualia in Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, and Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley, west of Sydney in the Blue Mountains.
Off the coast of Adelaide in South Australia on Kangaroo Island, Southern Ocean Lodge is one of the nation’s finest and a globally acknowledged luxury lodge – recently listed, along with The Louise Barossa Valley, in T+L’s world top 100. Heading up the culinary team is Executive Chef Asher Blackford. He and his team put together a daily changing menu that showcases the riches of the Southern Ocean and the island. Asher is inspired by his surroundings and brings the landscape to the plate in its appearance, taste and emotion. A keen forager, Asher conceives dishes that recreate a precise natural location and the experience or memory attached to it. For example, he may combine King George Whiting caught fresh off the coast of American River with samphire or sea herbs foraged from the same location.
Asher’s particular food belief is around sustainability – environmental and economic – and in the local and whole food philosophy of American author Michael Pollan, with his ‘you are what you eat eats’ view of the food chain. Having a close working relationship with Kangaroo Island’s producers feeds neatly into this approach, as does a dedication to using the whole of each product, from ‘nose to tail’ or ‘root to shoot’.
Artisan, sustainably produced ingredients are regular culinary highlights at Southern Ocean Lodge menu – recently featured dishes include a petite king crab salad; house-made gnocchi accented by salty Kangaroo Island ‘samphire’; local queen snapper; South Australian rolled pork shoulder; a cheese selection featuring Kangaroo Island sheep’s milk manchego and halloumi; and desserts flavoured with Kangaroo Island lavender or Ligurian honey. “Our menus are designed to offer guests a dining experience that delivers an essential ‘taste’ of Kangaroo Island”, says owner, James Baillie.
On the mainland, in arguably Australia’s most prestigious wine region, is a culinary gem – The Louise Barossa Valley. Styled as a ‘restaurant with rooms’, since 2006 it has been cited as a game-changer for the Barossa – leading a significant renaissance in the region’s food offering to equal its position as a wine leader.
Executive Chef Ryan Edward’s kitchen is all about sourcing the freshest possible ingredients. This is reflected in the fact that 85% of the menu comes from within the Barossa Valley and South Australia. Key to this is the kitchen garden and maintaining close relationships with dozens of local purveyors, farmers and growers.
“We bake all our bread onsite, starting with the sourdough culture, named ‘Arnie’, and an original member of the founding team. Embracing ancient food traditions, virtually nothing is wasted: whole beasts are broken down to provide our butcher meats, small goods, stocks and sauces…much to the delight of our sommelier, who shares cellar space with our copicollo, salami and sausages!”
To really connect with the people, produce and place of the Barossa, guests at this luxury vineyard retreat can join the chef at the Barossa Farmer’s Market on a Saturday morning – he’ll buy them a coffee and introduce them to the local food growers, plus they can help shop for the evening’s menu.
At the ultra-luxury qualia on Hamilton Island, surrounded by the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, Doug Innes-Will leads the culinary team. Innes-Will gained notoriety as chef de partie at the brilliant Biota dining, located in Bowral in the New South Wales Southern Highlands, around 90 minutes southwest from Sydney. He was also executive chef from 2013 until 2016 at Spicers Peak Lodge at Maryvale in Queensland, where the restaurant was awarded two hats two years running by the Brisbane Times Good Food Guide 2016-2017 and in the 2015 Australian Good Food Guide.
Innes-Will’s food philosophy of “creating dining experiences with an inherent sense of place through a respect of produce, producer and environment” has been accentuated at qualia. The “honest, produce-driven Modern Australian cuisine served at Long Pavilion restaurant and the more relaxed Pebble Beach restaurant complements the tropical paradise setting surrounded by ocean”, along with his own cooking style, Innes-Will explains.
In the Northern Territory, one of Australia’s top dining experiences can be found with a backdrop of epic proportions. It’s called ‘Tali Wiru’ and is one of the luxury experiences put on at Ayers Rock Resort (home to Longitude 131), whereby guests dine on top of a sand dune with Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) as a backdrop, all while eating top notch cuisine with local ingredients and fine Australian wine.
It starts with champagne and canapés to the sounds of the didgeridoo as the sun sets, then turns into a degustation – featuring the likes of Wagyu Beef Fillet with Salt-baked Celeriac, Paperbark Smoked Onion Soubise, King Brown Mushroom and Smoked Bacon Jus, or Pan Roasted Toothfish with Carrot and Ginger Puree, Baby Heirloom Carrots, Sea Greens, Spiced Activated Lentils and Candied Lemon Aspen – alongside stargazing into the crystal clear night sky before dessert is served and stories are told around the campfire.
Down on the Freycinet Peninsula in Tasmania, Saffire – another Luxury Lodges of Australia member, alongside Southern Ocean Lodge, The Louise and qualia – has a similar philosophy, with a mission to showcase the best Tasmania has to offer. The opening chef at the architecturally striking lodge was High Whitehouse – a former HM Awards chef of the year winner, who made his mark on the resort by shucking oysters while standing in the ocean in gumboots and overalls and sourcing the best local produce – including Tasmania’s succulent seafood, grass-fed beef and lamb, full-flavoured game meats, and seasonal fruit and vegetables.
West of Sydney, in the spectacular Blue Mountains, Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley is one of New South Wales’ leaders when it comes to sourcing farm-to-table cuisine and wine. The property, led by seasoned General Manager James Wyndham, serves up daily changing menus that highlight the produce from surrounding towns within a 160-kilometre radius, including Mudgee, Orange, Rylstone and the Hunter Valley. Local producers on the menu include Mandagery Creek Venison, Oberon line trout, organic cheese from Jannei Goat Cheese Dairy and olive oil from Rylstone.
Arguably one of the best breakfasts in Australia, your start-to-the-day meal at the resort includes organic muesli, fruit compôtes, and local jams and honey, most of which are procured from nearby producers. Later on (or with breakfast, if you really want), you can also enjoy a number of local wines, including some top drops from a small, family-owned producer in the nearby town of Rylstone called De Beaurepaire – a great example of the hyper-local philosophy that has been sweeping Australia in action.
Alongside hyper-local, for many hotels and restaurants in Australia it’s all about boutique and single-vineyard wines, with small, family brands now replacing big commercial labels on wine lists and in minibars. De Beaurepaire’s range is highlighted by their Chardonnay, Rosé, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz Viognier releases, varietals that are all dominating wine lists across the nation.
While the company claims to focus on French-style wines because of the terroir and family history, these are also the styles currently en vogue. Rosé, for example, has been a huge star generally in Australia over recent years, with the category growing 20 per cent year-on-year consistently on the back of significant popularity.
Also on the wine stage, but at the other end of the spectrum, beard-clad hipsters in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia have been at the forefront of the natural wine movement – especially winemakers Anton van Klopper at Lucy Margaux and Jasper Button at Commune of Buttons. The centre of the natural wine universe, the Basket Range, has become one of the most in-demand wine hot-spots on the planet not just for drinkers, but also for sommeliers at the world’s best restaurants.
In April 2017, in association with The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Wine Australia hosted 50 sommeliers from around the world in the wine regions, including the Basket Range, following significant demand for tipples coming from these groundbreaking winemakers
Given the quality of wines Australia has produced over the past 50 years, it’s no surprise that the nation is blazing a trail for the styles and quality of natural wines – and for the talent behind them. But the bar scene across Australia has also graced global headlines over the past decade, as a cocktail culture continues to sweep the nation.
James Wilkinson is the Travel Editor at Time Out Australia, a travel expert on Sky News TV Australia and host of the travel executive TV show,’Wayfarer’.