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Political Leaders Trumped By Amateur Chefs

If any evidence was required that Australians love their food, surely the news that that we would rather watch a prime-time TV cooking show, MasterChef, than the first debate of the election campaign, says everything.

Lower Yarra - Melbourne's re-developed Docklands area, Melbourne, Australia
Lower Yarra – Melbourne’s re-developed Docklands area

Even more telling though, is the fact that none of the political parties were willing to try and wrestle their traditional Sunday 7.30 p.m. time slot back from the television ratings sumo that is MasterChef, then airing nationally six nights a week, from 7.30 p.m. on Network Ten.

So Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott were stuck with a 6.30 pm televised debate, heading for their August 21 poll, the outcome of which is still uncertain. What is certain is that neither of the two major parties impressed sufficient voters to gain a clear majority and it is likely Australia will be governed only with the help of independents…negotiations continue.

Meanwhile MasterChef is most popular in Melbourne, regarded as the traditional restaurant capital of Australia – a comment likely to inflame the simmering Sydney-Melbourne rivalry, although Melbourne has more Chefs’ Hats (116 to 106).

Initially a British TV hit, the recipe has been improved down under. Whereas it attracted 4.3 million viewers in the UK, an 18% share of the available audience, it has broken ratings records in Australia, gaining up to 75% of the Sunday night television audience and an average 2.4 million viewers in both seasons.

It has also accrued such a mindshare, winning across all demographics, that it is the subject of conversation around dinner tables, office water coolers, on trams and trains. Newspapers, magazines, radio talkback, even other television networks, cover news of the 24 aspiring chefs, «their ups and their downs, their hot and their cold» (as the show’s theme lyrics go).

Currently building an audience is Junior MasterChef Australia in which over 5,000 children, aged eight to twelve years, auditioned for the show and blew away the judges with their total lack of fear – the fear of failure that holds back adult competitors.

Regarded as the stars of the show and critical to its success, are two of Melbourne’s best-known chefs, George Calombaris (The Press Club, Melbourne) and Gary Mehigan (Phenix, Melbourne) plus Matt Preston, food critic, head judge for Australia’s Restaurant and Catering Awards and former Creative Director of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. In turn, the hosts have helped lure 48 top chefs as guest judges, taking the show to London and Paris where Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver participated.

Australia’s most European city, Melbourne (population 4 million), has over 1,900 restaurants. In response to Melbourne’s foodie culture, the city now features at least three restaurants headed by Michelin chefs. Guillaume Brahimi, who runs Bistro Guillaume at the Crown Towers, was the former Chef de Partie at three-star Michelin restaurant, La Tour D’Argent and later, sous chef at Joel Robuchon’s three-Star, Jamin in Paris. At sister hotel Crown Metropol, Gordon Ramsay, who has accumulated a total of 12 Michelin stars, has opened his first Australian restaurant, while Spain’s Ramon Frexia, who owns Michelin-starred El Raco d’En Frexia, Barcelona, has established Nuevo 37 at the South Wharf Hilton and serves Spanish-inspired Australian dishes.

A feature of Melbourne fare is fresh local produce. The city is surrounded on three sides by food and wine-growing regions that produce some of the country’s best cool-climate wines. Chefs are passionate about the fresh produce market, the Queen Victoria Market, with 50 percent of its valuable central business district real estate offering fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, chicken, seafood and delicatessen products on the same site since 1878.

Millions of visitors, local and international, flock to experience the ambience of “Vic Market” and the city’s famous lanes and arcades, many lined with small eateries and a myriad of coffee houses, the legacy of post-war European migration. Bordering on espresso snobs, the Melbourne coffee cognoscenti prefer the bespoke barista to coffee chains, and many have their own espresso machines at home and in the office.

Multicultural Melbourne even has precincts dedicated to its ethnic food roots. You can eat Italian in Carlton, Greek in Richmond, Chinese in the centre of the city, Bohemian in Brunswick, Vietnamese in Abbotsford, or savour the growing range of Middle Eastern and African eateries, the result of more recent migration.

Chief among the many attributes Melbourne uses to promote itself to the rest of Australia, and indeed to the world, is its role as host of major sporting events: the Melbourne Cup horse racing, Formula One GP, Australian motorcycle MotoGP, Australian Open Tennis and the AFL Football Grand final. This is a city that can draw a huge crowd to almost any major sporting event. It is blessed with stadiums, both open-roofed and retractable, that can seat up to 100,000, and to some, there’s nothing quite like the roar of a football grand final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in September. The MCG – they abbreviate many words downunder so it is simply “the G” – has hosted Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, soccer, rugby, international cricket and was a WWII barracks.

While thousands go to “the G” every weekend during winter, some dining in private boxes, football is generally not renowned for its gastronomy. Stock standard fare is a meat pie (we use the word “meat” advisedly as there’s much debate about its true contents), dripping with tomato sauce (ketchup), chips, and beer served in plastic cups, since cans were outlawed years ago when one too many was thrown at an umpire (referee).

With a Minister for Tourism occupying one of the Australian Government’s key cabinet posts, these events are the reason many international visitors land in Melbourne, even if they then fly interstate to see Sydney’s iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge, Queensland’s Gold Coast or the Great Barrier Reef. The Government reckons that, so far, tourism has contributed over $41 billion to Australia’s economy and employs more than 500,000.

Melbourne, more than any other Australian city, has recognised and capitalised on the business tourist as a source of even greater return (spending three to four times more on travel, accommodation, food and activities) than the leisure traveller.

Iconic bathing boxes on a bayside beach with the city skyline in the background, Melbourne, Australia
Iconic bathing boxes on a bayside beach with the city skyline in the background

Headed by the Melbourne Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Victorian Government’s push into the business events and meetings sector has always been strong. But it intensified in 2009, once it had opened the country’s largest convention centre, boasting a 6000-seat pillarless plenary hall. Known as the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC), it has attracted 56 major national and international events worth over $600 million, and over the next three years alone it will generate $25 million.

The World Diabetes Congress 2013, one of the world’s top ten medical events is expected to deliver 12,500 delegates plus partners to Melbourne.

Underlining its approach to business events, the MCEC has a webpage devoted to its philosophy of sustainable food and wine, even assisting conference organisers with details of the seasonal produce available to be served to delegates –

And as we went to press with politicians were still trying to form a government, television network bosses know a vote winner…they have just started filming an Australian version of Iron Chef starring celebrity Aussie chefs Neil Perry (Rockpool, Sydney & Melbourne), Guy Grossi (Grossi Restaurants, Melbourne and Grossi Trattoria, Bangkok) and Guillaume Brahimi (Guillaume at Bennelong, Sydney and Bistro Guillaume, Melbourne) who will compete against aspiring professional chefs and, inevitably, against MasterChef.


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