Young talent: Appetite for Excellence hunt+gather dinner

Disclaimer: My attendance at this event was provided free of charge by Appetite for Excellence.

This past weekend a battalion of Australia’s elite chefs and waiters came to Canberra. Seven chefs and seven waiters from all around the country, from top restaurants like Becasse, Pei Modern, Hare and Grace, and Jaques Reymond. Between them they have worked around the world, at noma, Alinea, Tippling Club, and Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, amongst many others. They are all at the top of their game, as shown in their near seamless delivery of an event showcasing the produce of the ACT and surroundings.

Who’d have thought that they’re all still under 30?

As part of the Electolux Appetite for Excellence Young Chef and Young Waiter awards, the finalists get to take part in a week long produce tour, ending with a “hunt+gather” dinner. After having exhausted large swathes of the nation in the first six years of the contest,  this year the gig went to Canberra. For almost a week they had been stuck on a bus, stopping off at free-range piggeries, oyster leases, chestnut farms and wineries, like a locavore’s Contiki tour. But instead of hickies and hangovers, along the way they collected some of the best produce south-east New South Wales has to offer. (Some of them may have collected hangovers as well.)

As diners entered the sparse but beautiful space of the room, the soft nighttime glow of War Memorial lights streaming through the windows, the quality of both the produce and the chefs quickly became clear. The glorious saltiness of a freshly shucked oyster was balanced by a sweet and sharp passionfruit gel, chestnut shavings and a touch of heat from geranium flowers. These were devoured with joy by even those most adamant that oysters should only be eaten natural.

But the star of the canapes was even more of a risk. A thin strip of smokey tongue, wrapped around a deep-fried nugget of tripe was an excitement of offal. It was meaty, balanced, and played with texture beautifully.

Kah-wai “Buddha” Lo, the 20 year old originator of the dish, explained that it was inspired by yum cha, as well as a response to the absurdity of how we deal with offal in Australia. As part of the produce tour they visited an abattoir, and he learnt that tripe from Australia goes overseas, where some of it is frozen and sent back. This stupidity encouraged him to use it fresh.

This interaction with the chefs, and the waiters, was the best part of the night, and something that most people don’t get to do that often. To have a face to face conversation about their influences, their experiences, their dreams. It allowed for a deeper insight into this profession that so many of us love from the edges.

An entree of potato gnocchi with local mushrooms and mushroom cream was a strong contender for dish of the night. The gnocchi were soft and light, the mushroom sauce smooth and earthy, highlighting the quality of the ingredients. The produce shone through in the other entree as well, with some stunning baby beetroot bringing sweetness to a beef carpaccio. Small dabs of a vinegary aioli balanced the dish well, but were too sparse across the platter, so every second bite didn’t get any. Though this was only a very small quibble.

I have never hidden my love of pork, so when a long plate comes out laden with slabs of roast pork belly, complete with crackling, chestnut stuffing and apple sauce, I go to my happy place. The pig itself was exceptional, with just the right amount of fat and meat. When taken with a side of potatoes roasted with baby fennel, this felt like Christmas lunch come early.

Another main of poached rockling was a lot gentler, with clams and some surprisingly notable salted celery. However the subtle complexity of this dish was overshadowed by the classic bombast of the pork, so it just didn’t get the attention.

Cheese courses are too often overlooked, which is a crime when you have camembert as good as those from Small Cow Farm. Half of the cheeses were split lengthways and layered with the earthy lushness of local truffles, while the others were drizzled with honey a thyme before being baked. Both lifted the already beautiful cheeses, but for me the oozing joy of the baked version was really hard to beat.

The third part of the cheese course was billed cryptically as “cheese on toast”, and came out looking like a classic chocolate covered profiterole. It was only when you bit into it that you got to see the game being played by Stewart Wesson, a chef at Bridgewater Mill in South Australia and eventual winner of the Young Chef competition. This was a choux pastry, but stuffed with a smooth blue cheese, and instead of chocolate it was topped with that breakfast favourite, Vegemite. Stewart has an interesting history, working in food science before moving to a more classic style of cooking. This cheese on toast shows that he has both skills and a sense of humour which will serve him well in the future.

Our final course was made by Michael Demagistris, from the Sorrento Golf Club, a venue that is sadly members only so it’s not easy to get to eat his food. Which is unfortunate given how good this dessert was. Wanting to show off the milk and yoghurt from Country Valley Farm while playing with textures, Michael served up a grown-up version of milk and cookies. Milk panna cotta, yoghurt sorbet, and a chocolate biscuit filled with white chocolate ganache, are cut through with a touch of strawberry jam and garnished with a milk tulle. Sweet and fun, this was a pleasure to eat, with people fighting over the last chocolate bikkie.

If the food made it pretty clear that these young chefs had skills, it didn’t take long to see that the waiters were just as talented. These are people for who see the hospitality industry as a career, rather than a way to get some spare cash through university. And the difference is extreme. They understood and cared about the food almost as much as the chefs, and the wine even more so.

Even more, though, was the effortlessness of the service. There were only seven waiters tending the event, with three or four of them sitting down talking to the guests at any point. And yet it felt like a much larger brigade working the floor. In Canberra, particularly, it was a level of service that we don’t see often enough.

Alongside the food was the cream of Canberra region wines, from Clonakilla, Ravensworth, Mount Majura, Barton Estate and Rutherglen. It was a reminder that living in Canberra isn’t as bad as we sometimes pretend.

The real congratulations has to go to the 14 finalists who put this show on, along with the organisers and sponsors who allowed it to happen. There is also a category for restaurateurs, a few of whom also made the trip. To find more about all the competition and those who support it, take a look at the Appetite for Excellence website, and go to Inside Cuisine for photos of the night.

This competition is about celebrating the future of the restaurant industry, the people who will shape what and how we are eating for decades to come. And on the strength of this dinner, the future is in very safe hands.

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About freehugstommy

Food, films and politics are my triumvirate of passions.
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