A grizzled miner in grubby, cement-splattered overalls clutches the stem of a wine glass with blackened fingertips, sipping chardonnay while recounting a recent dining experience at one of the city’s top tables. “It was the worst pizza I’ve ever tasted. The base was too limp and the feta too salty; it totally overpowered the other toppings,” he says, popping an olive in his mouth.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Heston Blumenthal gets into a Melbourne taxi and – the driver recognising him – endures a lengthy monologue about how, as children, the cabbie and his sister used to pickle their own beetroot. “I can’t imagine getting into a black cab in London and having the same conversation,” says Blumenthal.
The British chef is a big deal over here. He appears on MasterChef Australia each year for a takeover week of the show and is relocating The Fat Duck to Melbourne’s Crown Resort for six months from February 2015, before converting it into the second outpost of his Dinner restaurant. “I love Britain but, if I had to move anywhere, it would be Australia,” he says.
You see, something unusual is happening in the culinary scene Down Under, and it isn’t dingo meat on the barbecue. Australia has become a serious contender on the global gourmet stage, and it’s not just the hipster hangouts of Melbourne or sophisticated Sydney’s fine dining restaurants that are causing a stir. “I’ve never seen a food explosion happen anywhere in the world like it’s happened in Australia,” says Blumenthal, who is to be one of the headline chefs at Western Australia’s Margaret River Gourmet Escape for the second year running. “The quality of the produce and the enthusiasm of the people is just unbelievable. Last year we were taken by helicopter from Perth to Margaret River, and you can see miles and miles of beautiful beaches give way to a blanket of vineyards; you’re immersed in this incredible, energetic foodie heaven.”
If – unlike Blumenthal – you don’t have access to a helicopter, Margaret River is a three-hour drive south from Perth, Western Australia. It’s an area that, while geologically hopeless for large-scale agriculture, is internationally renowned for its consistently excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (in the 1960s it was found to share a similar soil and climate to Bordeaux in a dry vintage). From this seed the region grew rapidly and after the wineries came lodges, restaurants, craft breweries and boutique distilleries.
“As recently as the 1950s we couldn’t give the land away because it was connected with despair and hardship,” says Sean Blocksidge, owner of The Margaret River Discovery Company. “Today around 21 square miles is under vine and this is some of the most expensive land in the country, dotted with multi-million-dollar homes.”
Perth is among the remotest cities on earth, but despite its out-of-theway status on an island continent notorious for coal-blackened beef and weak lager, it’s a foodie haven in its own right. Take Restaurant Amusé, inauspiciously concealed among the suburban homes of east Perth. It serves up wonderful, if rather diminutive, 10- course, wine-matched degustation menus for $210AUD (£121) a head. Several miles away in the heart of the business district, dwarfed by the surrounding commercial facades and nestled at the base of a 40-storey office tower, lies The Greenhouse. It’s a small, sustainably-built restaurant clad with hundreds of live plants and furnished with reclaimed agricultural artefacts. It serves a skewed take on the slap-up breakfast; soy lattes, nitrate-free bacon and eggs slow-cooked in a 62-degree temperature-controlled bath. On the way out, don’t forget to grab a handful of the free compost.
From here, it’s a 15-minute express train ride down to The Raw Kitchen in the neighbouring city of Fremantle where, seated on a recycled bus seat in a salvaged shipping container, you can lunch on a three-course vegan, raw-food menu of dehydrated buckwheat pizza, pad Thai (the noodles replaced by courgette ribbons) and cheesecake – minus the cheese.
“We communicate with farmers to get a sense of the story behind the produce we sell,” says the restaurant’s owner Heath Daly. “Too many people are in denial about where their food is coming from – the revolution is coming though; when McDonald’s starts doing a green smoothie, we’ll know we’ve won.”
The restaurant encompasses two factors that are driving the Australian food revolution: health and sustainability. The age of information has brought with it a greater knowledge of the relationship between diet and wellbeing; fresh, locally-sourced produce provides the grounding for all the menus around here. A climate that enables producers to grow a kaleidoscope of fruit and vegetables, not to mention an emphasis on selling at farmers’ markets and direct to restaurants (rather than relying on supermarkets) means farmers are able to grow on a scale at which they can adapt to demand for unusual ingredients and obscure varieties, as dictated by the latest trends.
It’s not just Blumenthal who is big news in antipodean food circles. While in the UK the opening of a new branch of Jamie’s Italian provokes about as much excitement as another Nando’s, his Australian restaurants are booked up for months; an opening in Adelaide even made the evening news. The country is exporting chefs too, with Perth’s Shane Osborne the first Australian to lead a restaurant to Michelin-starred status, winning two for London’s Pied à Terre. Even during my Qantas flight into the country, I ate from a menu designed by Australia’s most famous chef, Neil Perry.
There’s certainly no shortage of talented home-grown chefs to continue the trend. Kylie Kwong’s brand of organic, biodynamic cuisine emphasizes Australia’s sustainable, indigenous ingredients; the addition of insects to her menus has spawned hit TV shows and best-selling cookbooks. Further down in the South West region, Pemberton’s locally revered chef and food columnist for The West Australian newspaper, Sophie Zalokar, runs Foragers, a farm-based cookery school and lodge, which sees readers from miles around flock to get first-hand culinary tips and sample the resulting dishes.
East of Perth is the mining town of Kalgoorlie. Upon arrival you could be forgiven for thinking internal flights are fitted with flux capacitors, because it’s like landing in the 1970s, with menus consisting of prawn cocktail and hunks of meat served in Man v Food proportions. It’s not exactly the epicentre of the culinary explosion in Western Australia, but even here it’s easy to see the knock-on effects of the culinary revolution in both the locals’ obsession with food and the amount they’re willing to spend on it.
“I’m always pleasantly surprised at how cheap London, Paris and New York are,” says a civil servant I met on the road, whose partner was casually knocking up a Greek banquet while we talked.
The rest of the world is belatedly waking up to Australia’s potential as a foodie hub. Tony Howell, head chef at the Aravina Estate back in Margaret River, has cooked for luminaries including René Redzepi, Alex Atala, Sat Baines and Blumenthal himself.
“I’ve got no desire to go to Europe to work,” he says. “When Sting came to play at Leeuwin winery’s annual concert, he offered me a position as his personal chef. I was tempted, but I don’t like the English weather. We’re so lucky with produce over here; the fist-sized truffles I just grated on my artichoke soup were unearthed yesterday in Manjimup, a few miles down the road – they don’t have to be flown in from Italy. We’ve got the freshest food over here and we have more fun than European chefs. When the laughing stops in my kitchen, I’ll hand in my notice.”
Qantas flies from London Heathrow to Perth, with economy fares starting at £1,172 and business fares starting at £4,225. Visit qantas.com for the latest deals.
Wexas Travel (wexas.com / 0207 838 5874) offers a six-night trip to the Margaret River Gourmet Escape (21- 23 November) from £1,995 per person, based on two sharing a one-bedroom apartment, including international flights from the UK to Perth, seven days’ car hire and six nights’ luxury accommodation.
To find out more about the Margaret River Gourmet Escape, visit gourmetescape.com.au and for more on Western Australia, go to westernaustralia.com.