Melbourne Food and Wine Festival: Why Melbourne’s hospitality culture ‘makes the city so exciting’

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Melbourne Food and Wine Festival: Why Melbourne’s hospitality culture ‘makes the city so exciting’

Melbourne Food and Wine Festival
Words by Jasmine Penman

Australia’s leading culinary celebration returns to Melbourne this March and April. We talked to Pat Nourse, the creative director of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, about this year’s program.

Walk through the streets of Melbourne on any given Friday night and you’ll see why the city has built a reputation as one of the world’s most exciting food destinations. There are freshly shucked oysters in basements and boat noodles in car parks. There are wine bars tucked away in graffiti-ridden laneways and cocktail bars hidden in churchyards and radio stations. None of this sounds like it should make any sense when you think about what good dining typically looks like in other major cities around the world. But in Melbourne, things are different. In Melbourne, we have our own thing going on altogether.

It’s late on a Friday afternoon when Pat and I start talking about how lucky we are to live in a city with such a vibrant food culture. “There aren’t many cities in the world that can offer the variety we have at the quality and at the prices that we get it at here in Melbourne,” he says.

Stay up to date with what’s happening in and around Melbourne here.

Since 2019, Nourse has held the post of creative director at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, so if there’s anyone who really understands the true breadth of what our city has to offer in food and wine–it’s him.

This year, the festival will be taking place between Friday 24 March and Sunday 2 April. Over the course of 10 jam-packed days, local and international talent will converge in Melbourne to celebrate the best of Victorian food and wine. There are world-class chefs flying in from New York, London, and Kyoto. There are dazzling dinners and long lunches popping up across town. Oh, and there’s a gourmet 7-Eleven store opening at Fed Square, where you’ll be able to feast on lamb sandwiches by Lee Ho Fook’s Victor Liong, banana bread ice cream by Luther’s Scoops, and rum and gin spiked Slurpees–among a host of other delectable offerings.

“Oh my god, Victor Liong’s spicy lamb flatbread sandwich will change your life,” Nourse is quick to tell me. “But if having your life changed by meat isn’t your thing, Shannon Martinez is doing a new take on her plant-based chicken parma sandwich.”

In many ways, this year’s festival program feels like a microcosm of our city’s dining scene. It’s diverse, vibrant and oozing with personality. Central to the program are its ultra-fine dining events and its degustations; but equally important to the festival are its sausage sizzles and its open-air markets. “Our food culture is something that everyone participates in,” says Nourse. “It’s not something that’s reserved for an elite class.”

In an industry that is sometimes criticised for being pompous and stiff, this kind of laid-back, unpretentious approach to dining is refreshing–groundbreaking, even. And it resonates deeply within Melburnians far and wide. So far, the response to the festival has been overwhelmingly high. Dozens of events completely sold out within days of the festival’s pre-sale. Among them was the Florian Eatery x Julia Busuttil Nishimura dinner, an event that reached capacity not within days, but within minutes.

“It’s really heartening, actually, that while we’re flying in chefs from New York and Kyoto and all over the place, it’s Julia Busuttil Nishimura wandering over from Fitzroy North to Carlton North that has attracted some of the most attention across the whole festival,” Nourse says. “Isn’t that fantastic?”

It’s heartwarming to see, partly because it’s such a wonderful testament to our community’s willingness to champion smaller, independent players. Ultimately, this lies at the heart of Melbourne’s success as a leading food destination. “It’s no good having the best cafe or the best bar or the best restaurant in the world if people aren’t going to find the time to support it,” says Nourse. “I guess as Melburnians, we enjoy seeking out the good stuff and sharing it with our friends.”

Speaking of sharing the good stuff (if I may digress for one moment), I ask Nourse to share with me his go-to spot for a gin martini in Melbourne. Without missing a beat, he tells me that Caretaker’s Cottage–the tiny pub just off Lonsdale Street–is the place to go in the city for a world-class martini. “I personally think that a martini should be so cold that it’s almost painful to drink,” says Nourse. “And theirs are right up there with the coldest in town.” You read it here first.

This year, the team at Caretaker’s Cottage will be taking rein of the drinks menu at The Festival Bar, which will be popping up at Fed Square. There’ll be spirits from Nagambie, whiskies from Steward, beers from Brick Lane, and wines from Pizzini and Tahbilk. And just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, Nourse tells me that Tom ‘Hummus King’ Sarafian (the former head chef at Bar Saracen) will be leading the charge on the snack front, supplying guests throughout the festival with luscious plates of creamy, velvety hummus.

There’s a lot to love about our city’s eccentricities. “I think a lot of what makes the city so exciting now is that willingness to experiment and that creative spirit,” Nourse says. “I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that this is the most socially progressive city in Australia, and I think the food scene, in part, reflects that.”

All of the events in the festival’s calendar capture, in some way or another, this innovative and creative flair that Nourse talks about. But there are, of course, some standouts – events that really push the creative boundaries of how food can be used to broaden our perspectives and to challenge our preconceptions of what good dining looks like. One of them is Tokyo Tina’s Rubbish Ramen Soup Shop event, where diners will slurp their way through generous bowls of noodle soups prepared by Senior Chef Enza Sotto, using only excess produce destined for the rubbish dump.

Another one is Robata’s The Heart Inside event, where diners will feast on a warm and bountiful robatayaki meal, inspired by the world of Studio Ghibli. And then there’s the Celebrity Sausage event, where the likes of Christian Petracca, Virginia Trioli and Chrissie Swan will come together at Fed Square to create the sausage sandwiches of their dreams.

As for Nourse’s top pick from the festival’s program, it’s an easy one. “I wouldn’t miss Baker’s Dozen in a blue fit,” he says, as we approach the end of our conversation. “I just think it’s going to be such an insane day out. We’re bringing together 13 incredible Victorian bakeries, and we’ve got the most cult bakeries in town. It’s free to attend; it’s at Fed Square; it’s right in the middle of the city; so it’s an easy and fun way to get together with a bunch of friends.”

The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival returns in 2023 between Friday 24 March and Sunday 2 April. Check out the full program here.