Enhancing the mesmerizing views from Shannon Bennett’s celebrated Vue de Monde restaurant on the 55th floor of Melbourne’s Rialto Tower was the chef’s plated nirvana. En route to culinary stardom, Melbourne-born Bennett trained in Europe with masters like Albert Roux, Marco Pierre White and Alain Ducasse, an education evidenced in the tea tree–smoked salmon pearls, emu jerky and salt-cured wallaby with truffle marshmallow that I eagerly enjoyed.
Each Bennett bite deliciously reminded me that the iridescent canned spaghetti and beef stroganoff—detailed by American writer Bill Bryson in his book on Oz, In a Sunburned Country
—are no longer among Australia’s culinary highlights. Yet, gourmet Australia remains somewhat undiscovered, obscured in part by clichés such as “shrimp on the barbie” and (heaven forbid) Outback Steakhouse.
Acutely aware of this perception gap, and that the world today “travels on its belly,” Tourism Australia and its Business Events unit have put food and wine atop their global marketing agendas. For food fanatics, conventioneers and other travelers yet to wine and dine Down Under, Melbourne invites your immediate RSVP to experience firsthand why this multiethnic, coffee-fueled metropolis repeatedly named “the world’s most livable city” is also among its most palatable.
Few know the national cuisine’s lineage like Guy Grossi, whose father Pietro was recruited from Italy in 1960 by Mario Vigano, himself an early émigré who pioneered Melbourne’s authentic cucina italiana
style in the 1930s.
Nourished by that legacy, Grossi is now one of Australia’s star chefs, restaurateurs and media personalities, and Grossi Florentino—the flagship of the family-run restaurant group—is a 1928 Melbourne heirloom that is Australia’s oldest, and arguably finest, dining destination.
According to this culinary captain, a culture that embraces invention while respecting tradition is helping to make Melbourne one of the world’s premier food and wine destinations. “Following and exaggerating trends just for recognition is a dangerous road to take,” Grossi cautioned. “Groundbreaking innovation comes from chefs who believe in their strengths as craftsmen, while honoring their unique influences and backgrounds. Melbourne is distinguished by a genuine consideration for the authenticity of the final product and the experience it aims to deliver.”
Year-Round Food Celebration
Other practitioners of this philosophy are two main feeders of the local economy, the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival and the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre (MCEC).
After Melbourne failed to land the 1996 Summer Olympics, bid chairman Peter Clemenger turned his attention to finding a way to overcome this disappointment and “help rebuild and restore pride in the city.” For Clemenger, Melbourne’s event-hosting prowess was the ticket, leading him to create an event that would celebrate the city’s food and wine. Making its modest debut in 1993, the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival today produces year-round programming throughout Victoria, along with the hallmark 17-day showcase in Melbourne that features over 200 programs and attracts more than 200,000 visitors citywide.
“During the past two decades, the festival has held a mirror up to Victoria’s talented food and wine industry, from innovative artisan producers and winemakers to trailblazing chefs and restaurateurs,” said the festival’s CEO, Natalie O’Brien. “As a creative forum for all those in the food and wine industry, the festival forges lasting friendships and connections between like-minded chefs and wine experts from Australia and around the world.”
Attendees enjoy a feast of tantalizing experiences at the increasingly influential extravaganza, from bar crawls in Melbourne’s famed laneways to perennial favorite, the World’s Longest Lunch. In addition to 22 regional versions, the main event for this year’s ambitious meal welcomed 1,500 guests for lunch at a 1,738-foot-long table alongside the Yarra River.
“The spirit of collaboration and sharing of ideas across the whole festival program reinforces Melbourne’s reputation as one of the greatest food and wine destinations in the world,” boasted O’Brien.
Also hosting the Australian Open, Melbourne Cup and Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne is the country’s major events capital and its foremost destination for business events. With recent bookings including several of the world’s largest medical conferences, the MCEC is Melbourne’s congressional center stage, with its award-winning kitchen, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, playing a starring role.
Like Grossi, Tony Panetta, MCEC’s executive chef, grew up with Italian cooking, often helping to prepare Calabrian-inspired dishes in the café run by his parents. After working his way across Victoria to Melbourne, Panetta joined MCEC in 2010, where he quickly established the kitchen as a major revenue generator, while routinely pulling off feats like preparing meals for the 10,000 delegates at the recent World Diabetes Congress, or creating three different menus for 4,000-plus Amway India attendees.
Aussie Fervor, Global Flavor
Panetta also believes in cooking creatively, but honestly. “So many Melbourne chefs are doing great things, but simply
, and not over the top,” he said. “Showcasing the produce is what counts.” Passionately supporting his home state, Panetta has increased his roster of Victorian suppliers and farmers by 60 percent, which means that MCEC now sources produce from every region in the state. “Along with access to fresh, high-quality seasonal produce, Australia’s diverse climate allows us to grow almost anything in the world,” explained Panetta. He also praised Melbourne’s multicultural talent: “In MCEC’s kitchen alone, we have 14 chefs and 70 kitchen assistants representing 24 different nationalities.”
Passion and diversity are just two ingredients in the mix that is Melbourne’s gastronomically giddy mise en place
—a detectable recipe for feeding the tourism growth agenda and satisfying travelers hungry for a world-class epicurean experience.
Where to Stay:
• The Langham, Melbourne
1 Southgate Avenue, Southbank, Melbourne 3006.
Tel.: +61 (3) 8696-8888;
• Crown Towers
8 Whiteman Street, Melbourne 3006.
Tel.: +61 (3) 9292-8888;
Where to Eat:
• Merchant Osteria Veneta
495 Collins Street, Melbourne 3000.
Tel.: +61 (3) 9614-7688;
• Pei Modern
45 Collins Street, Melbourne 3000.
Tel.: +61 (3) 9654-8545;
Tips from Peter McBrearty, Chief Concierge and Les Clefs d’Or Member at The Langham, Melbourne:
For guests visiting from overseas, I often recommend that they head to Donovans. The restaurant has a killer location right on the water and is run by seasoned professionals, Kevin and Gail Donovan. They learned their trade in five-star hotels, so they really know what they are doing.
To balance out all of the great eating experiences in Melbourne, I advise guests to take one of our signature pink bicycles and ride along the Yarra River in either direction. If cyclists go one way, they end up in the new Docklands precinct. The other allows them to ride for hours through many of the city’s leafy suburbs.