The critical rise of Australian cuisine

As part of her Master of Gastronomic tourism degree, Sam critically discusses the growth of food tourism in Australia and the world

Introduction

Sustainable tourism relies on a continuing positive relationship with environmental, economic and social components that also support the carefully thought out ecological aspects of the destination. Long-term equilibrium between these contributing factors is essential for the growth of gastronomic tourism worldwide. (Chiru, C., Ciuchete, S., Moraru, L.. 2011)

In the quest for authenticity, local food is a key motivator for the gastronomic tourist. Food is a fundamental component driving the tourist desire to visit a destination. It is imperative that the tourist feels safe in the knowledge that their basic needs are met. Food is one of the last areas of authenticity that is affordable on a regular basis by the tourist (Reynolds1993 p236), as food is an essential component of the tourism industry (Berno 2011).

Reynolds observes with a hint of amusement how interesting it is to observe foreign diners investigating a hotel buffet. For example, Europeans might forego a traditional Chinese congee, while the Chinese maybe curious about muesli in London. (Reynolds1993, p. 236.)

Risks and global trends in the age of crisis due to the economic fallout in Europe from the GFC coupled with the pandemic of diet related degenerative disease in western society bring about a need for a tourism shakeup.

The new global nutrition and lifestyle trends have exerted an increasing pressure on traditional values, including the old dietary patterns. In this context, traditional gastronomy needs to be re-invented and, through its functional capabilities, has to be re-launched in order to add value for the final consumers  (Chiru, C., Ciuchete, S., Moraru, L.. 2011)

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Gowings Green Smoothie ©2013BradWagner

In Australia, food and lifestyle trends that guarantee security, deliver a hint of nostalgia and provide the tourist with a safe sense of adventure will continue to drive the current trend of cocooning. The is evident in the casualisation of café and restaurant menus and the adoption of children’s food for adults. For example, chocolate brownies with salted peanuts, macaroni and cheese, alcoholic milkshakes and spiders.

Healthier food and travel choices and the desire for the gastronomic tourist to take action and demonstrate personal responsibility versus convenience and reliability on conventional processed food offerings reign. The intention to leave a minimal ecological footprint also contributes to the current trend and for some the political threat maybe the greatest driver consumer for staying in the homeland.

For those who do venture abroad, multinational supermarkets, shopping malls and airports enable consumers to personalise their food shopping with familiar coffee brands, artisan bakeries, gourmet butcheries, in store sushi-chefs and pizzerias are on offer globally.

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St Elmo Dining, Byron Bay ©2013SamanthaGowing

Familiar dining novelties, open kitchens for the tourist to view and unstructured menus all create a sense of homogenised security. Growing number of gourmet food trucks on city streets echo the trend to experiment with international flavour duopoly. Spicy food from northern China meets kimchi; South American grill bring foreign flavours to the kerb dishing up a taste of travel without having to leave home. (Gowing, 2013)

The rise of modern Melbourne cuisine: A gastronomic tourism Mecca 

History
In the 1970s Melbourne cuisine was a slowly simmering European hot pot of broad, yet non-descript flavour. By the gastronomic boom of the 1980s, Melbourne refined itself into a profound body of taste and style. A city of immigrants – many from Europe – who descended on Victoria for the 1956 Olympic games. Eighty came as consulting chefs for the sporting teams and fifty of them stayed. (Erlich, 2012 p. 37)

The European influence was a dominating force in the establishment of Melbourne culture. Italian immigrants flocked to Melbourne and set up coffee houses in the inner city, working class suburb of Carlton, adjacent to the University of Melbourne. Bohemian students mixed with Italian and Jewish shop owners. Giancarlo Giusti was an Italian immigrant found his way to Lygon Street, Carlton in 1960. A year later he began importing Italian delicatessen items within an existing grocery store, closer to the CBD. His import business thrived as he sold much loved homeland ingredients – and later on liquor – to the emerging European style café scene. The trade and traditions of the early European coffee loving migrants lay the foundation for the rich culinary tapestry that fuels modern Melbourne today. The city is internationally famous for its laneway bars and cafes that create a magnetic tourist destination.

Japanese migrant Kunihiro Ichikawa came to Melbourne as a student in 1974. By 1977, he had launched Kuni’s, one of the City’s first Japanese restaurants. Kuni’s is still open for business, housed in a location around the corner from the original site. Japanese food became popular in the mid eighties and Kuni’s continuing involvement in ensuring that Japanese custom, culture and culinary traditions maintained. This is evident in the menu, technique and design of the establishment that successfully combines eastern tradition with modern urban offering for Melburnians to enjoy. There is a sister restaurant in Seminyak, Bali yet the two restaurants uniquely tailored to their respective local environment. There is a stylish city restaurant for Melbourne and a more relaxed dining experience for the Bali tourist.

With respect to the lineage of Melbourne’s gastronomic history, it is appropriate to acknowledge the Victorian gold rush C.1851-1860. This era attracted an influx of Chinese immigrants who arrived to sieve and dig for gold, bringing with them their unique style of food and taste.

Regional settlements established in the gold rich towns of Bendigo, Beechworth and Bright. The presence of the Chinese brought about racial rioting and segregation that incidentally heralded the beginnings of the White Australia Policy. Melbourne soon became the colonial capital and the epicenter of trade and land reform as a result of the far-reaching, regional network of railways (Erlich 2012).

Essentially a fairly conservative town, as it has been for 150 years since the days of the Victorian gold rush. This paid for the basic layout and infrastructure upon and around which the city is built. Melbourne’s dining and hospitality ‘scenes’ are formed around that conservatism. Not to say that it’s boring. Fads arrive, are taken up to whatever extent, and then pass into the general maelstrom of appreciation or derision. Cheap and cheerful, old and established or new and expensive, it’s all readily available in Melbourne. Melburnians are wary of gastronomic hype, but willing to give most things a go. (White 2013)

Chinese families continue to prosper in the aforementioned regions and eastern suburbs. Melbourne’s Chinatown remains one of the City’s most important and compelling tourist attractions and is Australia’s oldest Chinatown. (Erlich 2012 p. 65)

The early years of Chinese food made available to the public was a cheap and cheerful offering. Suburban Chinese restaurants catered to the western palate. Initially patrons could take their own saucepans for the kitchen to fill with the exotic fare and then eat it at home.

For the well-heeled gastronomic tourist, no visit to Melbourne is complete without a visit to The Flower Drum, just off Little Bourke Street in the heart of Chinatown. Founded in 1975 by Gilbert Lau who arrived in Australia in 1957 from Hong Kong. Gilbert’s great grandfather arrived from China in 1850 to seek his golden fortune. Lau spent his early career tending the bar of Chinese restaurants around town before securing the site for The Flower Drum – named after a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and chosen so it would be easy for patrons to recall. (Erlich 2012 p. 64)

By 1980, The Flower Drum was awarded two chef’s hats in the inaugural edition of The Age Good Food Guide – soon to become the ultimate go to guide for the discerning diner and visitor. The restaurant remains an iconic gastronomic tourism destination and the globally renowned cuisine, matched only by the world-class hospitality service, accurately delivered within a discreet and stylish setting.

The 1980s was a remarkable decade in Melbourne’s dining history. Without that decade, more than any other, we would not have the hospitality industry that exists today. (Erlich 2012)

During the 1980s, overseas travel enjoyed increasing popularity, which offered the gastronomic tourist an opportunity to experiment with a variety of global cuisine. Hong Kong and Singapore were popular tourist destinations. New Asia-Singapore cuisine fused eastern and western elements to create a distinct regional style. (New Asia Cuisine. The name was officially coined in 1996 by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board continues to be the marketing pitch (Scarpato, 2002)).

By now Melbourne had long been considered as the culinary capital of Australia. A night at Two Faces in South Yarra was an event that required you to dress up and behave like your parents (Erlich 2013). Many of these pioneers of the industry still lead the way today.

It was also a time of innovation. Australia’s rather dull fare of the 1960s and 1970s was either reworked by young chefs in search of a new cuisine style or replaced by newly discovered foods such as King Island crayfish, New Zealand lamb or wild mushrooms.

People such as Stephanie Alexander, Mietta O’Donnell, the Schneiders, the Staley family at Fanny’s, Dennis Gowing and Richard Frank became mentors to their restaurant staff. (Perkin  2012)

Sustainable gastronomic education

In 2001, iconic Melbourne chef, author and restaurateur Stephanie Alexander established the Kitchen Garden program at Collingwood College. Passionately fuelled with a desire to set good eating examples for generations to come. This internationally recognized program is now in 324 schools Australia-wide, with more than 35,000 children ‘enthusiastically getting their hands dirty and learning how to grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh, seasonal food’. (The Kitchen Garden Foundation, 2010)

Economic challenges

If the early to mid eighties were all shoulder pads and chardonnay, the end of the decade delivered “the recession we had to have” declared former Prime Minster Paul Keating. Inflation soared to around 8 to 10% and interest rates on home loans skyrocketed to 18%. The introduction of the Fringe Benefits Tax in 1986 meant that expansive corporate expense accounts could no longer justify the usual restaurant write offs. Coupled with the pilot strike of 1989 that grounded fine dining almost to a halt, Melbourne’s two and three hat award-winning restaurants were immediately crippled by the downturn of the economy. Consumers ate locally, cheaply and the rise of brasserie style cuisine emerged. Formal restaurants reluctantly offered pasta and gourmet hamburgers to re-recruit their dubious clientele.

Melbourne Gastronomic Tourist Products – Festivals

1. Sustain – the Organic Expo
Sustain is Australia’s premier natural and organic lifestyle event.  Previously known as the Organic Expo & Green Show, it is now in its ninth year. The event offers visitors a truly authentic organic experience by showcasing how Melburnians can live a healthier life, taste and sample local organic and sustainable products from health, beauty, food, wine, permaculture, fashion and technology, This festival is a highlight of the organic calendar and puts the consumer at the cutting edge of all aspects of sustainable living.

Consumer trends in health emerge with a desire to eat gluten free, buy produce from farmers’ markets and sustainable growers and embrace a life filled with natural, organic, allergy free, sustainable, ethical and fair trade products and services. Sustain provides an extensive range of exhibitors and attracts an average of 7,500 keen visitors through the doors. (Smeaton 2013)

Melbourne is justifiably one of the world’s great destinations for vegans and vegetarians. There are so many diverse approaches to a stunning variety of cuisine, in wonderful settings, served by really loving and funky people. (Toomey, J 2013) 

2. The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival (MFWF)

It s all about Crown

Tara Bishop, Media Relations Manager at Crown Melbourne
– The World’s Longest Lunch MFWF 2011

The Melbourne food and wine festival celebrates ethnic diversity and the desire for new flavours and cultures. The Chicago Tribune voted this particular festival as one of the five things you should do before you die. (MFWF  2012, p. 1)

Melbourne already had a dominant culinary culture complemented by hundreds of regional vineyards throughout the State. However in the early 1990s the city was heading towards the aforementioned recession. During this time advertising guru Peter Clemenger, who was part of the unsuccessful bid for Melbourne to host the 1996 Olympic games, conceived the idea of a festival to showcase the city’s strengths in food and wine. From very modest beginnings in 1993, the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival grew to comprise over 200 individual events, many of which have become highlights on the annual foodie calendar, plus one-off events, which are unique and never repeated. Although not always receiving credit, the Festival has inspired similar programs throughout the country.

International and interstate visitation increased annually, especially for the flagship event, MasterClass, but just as importantly the Festival continues to showcase Melbourne – and Victoria – as a year-round food and wine destination. Visitors can be assured that whenever they decide to visit, there will be a strong program of events showcasing food and wine. Internationally, Melbourne’s culinary reputation has grown in part due to the large number of international chefs hosted by the Festival, who return to their home countries full of praise for the produce, restaurants, hospitality and wines, and the resulting strong media support.

Since 1993 Australia’s internationally acclaimed celebration attracts gastronomic tourists in there hundreds of thousands annually from all corners of the globe. The MFWF engages with the local industry includes as many free events as possible to attract the largest number of people from outside of the industry. In addition, adhering to the strict policy of paying all guests the same fee – an airfare and an honorarium – and is adamant that every Festival guest should be whisked around Melbourne, plied with all of its greatest food and alcohol and be shown the best time possible. (MFWF 2013 p. 6)

In conversation with former MFWF Creative Director Matt Preston, he reported, “the MFWF successfully invited eight of ten of the world’s greatest chefs at to visit and participate in chefs’ MasterClass. They loved coming to Melbourne for its celebrated cuisine and laidback style”.

MFWF star attractions have included Charlie Trotter, Anthony Bourdain, Stephanie Alexander, Neil Perry, Heston Blumenthal, Madhur Jaffrey and Henri Krug. The MFWF has championed organic events and biodynamic produce, farmers’ markets, Slow Food, regionality, terroir, sustainability, food ethics, artisan producers and foraging – long before it became fashionable to do so. (MFWF 2013 p. 6)

Crawling Around Organics for the Melbourne Food an

Gowings Crawling Around Organics Food Tour
Melbourne Food and Wine Festival 2011

Crawling Around Organics began as an explorative local footprint of Fitzroy’s burgeoning organic retail outlets – a walking tour exclusively designed for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in 2003. Back then we visited innovative stores like Organic Gertrude, The Gertrude Street Organic Bakery and dined at The Green Grocer in North Fitzroy. Today we celebrate the bounty of availability that is organic food showcased within the Prahran Market (Gowing, S. 2009 p. 1).

Threats to sustainable gastronomic tourism growth

Melbourne was a gastro-tourism destination. From its original days slavishly serving French and Italian cuisine, Melbourne diners enjoyed the infusion of Chinese gold rush Cantonese cuisine with Beijing and other regional tastes after the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Post Vietnamese war immigration delivered new flavours from Vietnamese refugees. Thai immigrants arrived seeking a new western lifestyle.

However the dream has soured according to some Melbourne restaurateurs. As cookie cutter, ‘how-to’ television shows whitewash the hard working industry with a glaze of simplicity, avid TV watchers and foodies have become enamoured by fads, as the recent Mexican fiesta hysteria illustrates. Melbourne diners are obsessed with casual, alfresco and serve-yourself dining, yet they pay far more to eat there than in Michelin starred formal dining establishments in New York, London, Paris or Rome. (Kennedy, 2013)

Increasing site rents, labour costs, award rate penalties, wine equalisation taxes and the diminishing profit margins are permeating problems.  So is the acceptance of casual dining mediocrity.

Conclusion

Matteo_Grab

Matteos Restaurant – www.matteos.com.au


“Heaven sends us good meat, but the devil sends us cooks.”
David Garrick (1717-1779), ‘Epigram on Goldsmith’s Retaliation’

Renowned Melbourne restaurateur Matteo Pignatelli says there has never a truer word been spoken or written, so it’s obvious that our farmers & are God’s angels. He prides himself on the reputation his restaurant Matteo’s has achieved over the last 19 years by our clientele.

We certainly put most of our efforts into looking after customers in the restaurant, as they will be our advertising campaign. Reviews, hats and awards from publications are nice but at the end of the day, it’s the paying customers’ opinion that matters most. We listen to customers and are influenced by them when making ALL decisions, not the media or ROCK STAR Chefs or sommeliers.”

Matteo chose Melbourne, and in particular inner the North, because he has lived there all his life. He can’t think of anywhere else in the world he’d rather open. He loves the eclectic and cosmopolitan mix of people, their individuality and love of good food  and service and their appreciation of our passion.

Restaurant empires in crisis – the farmer strikes back

While Melbourne continues to carve its name as a lead in the global tourism marketplace an ongoing problem persists. There are simply too many restaurants vying for the consumer dollar. This results in excessive wastage, increased burden on resources and the overall negative and unsustainable impact of business closing. In the past eighteen months, prominent Melbourne restaurateur of The Italian located at 101 Collins Street, Roberto Scheriani has witnessed the demises of trade as a direct result of the global economic crisis. His popular corporate chic establishment services a raft of the financial sector. This regular clientele has slowly dwindled, as they remain upstairs to dine at the desk in order to meet the demanding deadlines as the threat of job security looms.

Aforementioned festivals and projects encourage consumers to try new food and cooking techniques. As farmers’ markets grow in popularity, the consumers’ desire for transparency of ingredients and the provenance of food enquiry intensifies, the arena for the gastronomic tourist to view will broaden greatly – and not be as dependent on the big budget, fine dining restaurant experience.

References

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