I love the fact that you’re visiting a part of Australia that’s not on the map usually. I guess this is the Napa Valley of Australia, although much more wild.” – Rene Redzepi

In the past 10 years, Perth has changed from the most remote big city in the world to a small-scale metropolis with mining money coursing through its veins, and one of the highest rates of millionaires per capita on the planet. In the midst of a global financial disaster, Perth has remained Boom Town and shows no signs of stopping. In that respect, it’s a lot like global food culture. What once was the province of a small group of foodies has become an international phenomenon with regular dudes saying things like “this could use more acid” and “I’m more of a locavore.” So what do you get when global food culture comes to Western Australia? The Margaret River Gourmet Escape.

This past weekend marked the inaugural MRGE, a food festival to rival all other international festivals. Located about three hours south of Perth by car (I’d do the kilometer/mile conversion for you, but then I’d be wasting both of our time), the plan was for this quiet surf spot-turned-world-class wine region to play unlikely host to some of the world’s best chefs. The bill was announced with great fanfare: Rene Redzepi and David Chang would be there, along with headliner Heston Blumenthal. And then tragedy struck just days before the event when two of Blumenthal’s star chefs lost their lives in a Hong Kong traffic accident. The whole culinary world mourned and Heston returned home to London to take care of matters much more important than a food festival. The loss cast a shadow on the weekend, but the event marched on in the name of eating, drinking and a sustainable food future.

VIP Opening Party
The kick-off event for the MRGE could easily have been called “Rich People Eating on a Beach.” Australian movie stars mingled with politicians and captains of industry while small bites were omnipresent. The whole thing took place on Smiths Beach, a spot so picturesque that the rolling waves seemed to be added in via CGI. As a sort of modern Aussie Gatsby tribute, everyone wore white Havaianas sandals (courtesy of the festival) and the oysters never stopped coming.

The chefs arrived professional athlete–style with individual introductions, then came a tribute to the bounty of Australia by local aboriginees who had spent part of the day indoctrinating the chefs into native Aussie culture. I’m guessing here, but I bet the event organizers weren’t expecting the head aboriginal’s speech to end with “We’re raping the planet!” before a didgeridoo-accompanied dance performance. There was also a toast to Heston and the fallen chefs, then all somberness disappeared when the food started to arrive.

For the rest of the night, this was a kick-off party like most others with one exception: jaffles. I’d never heard the word before, but they’re basically panini sealed at the edges for a hybrid sandwich-calzone. They were awesome and easily top the charts of Australian drunk food.

Before the night ended, I caught up with David Chang to see exactly how they got him to fly to this extremely out-of-the-way place. His answer was simple and genuine. “Heston asked me to come,” he said. “That’s all it took.”

Heston Icon Dinner
Festivals love holding superstar tribute dinners, and the MRGE was no exception. Much like the Daniel Boulud dinner at last year’s L.A. Food & Wine and the Thomas Keller tribute at April’s Pebble Beach Food & Wine, chef friends from around the world came together to honor Heston Blumenthal, culinary maverick and overlord of two of the world’s best restaurants (although you already knew that). The plan was originally for Heston to be in attendance for his own fete, but circumstances obviously prevented that from happening. The dinner proceeded, however, with beautiful tributes from some of the world’s greatest culinary minds. Alex Atala of Sao Paolo’s D.O.M. said that “Heston was the guy who really embraced the global community of chefs,” and that theme was echoed by Rene Redzepi and David Chang, who told the crowd of 350 that he considers Heston a mentor and a kind of culinary Willy Wonka who “makes sure his dreams are shared by everyone he works with.”

The very formal dinner itself was a bit of a letdown with only three courses served. Top Australian chefs Tetsuya Wakada (Tetsuya’s), Neil Perry (Rockpool) and Peter Gilmore (Quay) had the honor of creating the menu, and besides the opening course of poached crayfish in caviar cream, there was nothing to write home about. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a well-respected chef serve hot iceberg lettuce in a dish? At least guests got to enjoy the gorgeous Voyager Estate setting and some uncharacteristically good funk from the live band.

David Chang and A.A. Gill at the Siemens Chefs Theatre
Just before jetting out of town, David Chang sat down with notorious London food critic A.A. Gill for a partially ridiculous conversation moderated by Pat Nourse, Deputy Editor of Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine. At times it felt like A.A. Gill was doing his best Oscar Wilde impression while Chang did his best not to give him an American knuckle sandwich (not currently on the menu at Momofuku). Instead of just describing the whole thing, here are the highlights:

(Note: Some of these quotes are paraphrased.)

  • “The reason that chefs become chefs is that they’re not allowed into rooms with windows.” – A.A. Gill. I assume that chefs would put critics in rooms without floors if they had the opportunity.
  • David Chang went off on bloggers and people that take photos of their food before eating. “They don’t even smell it first!”
  • A.A. Gill doesn’t like to meet his readers, although he claimed they’re mostly first-year university students.
  • The fly problem in November in Western Australia is horrific. One guy used a branch as a homemade fly swatter for the duration of the discussion. That guy was me.
  • Responding to the Guy Fieri/New York Times review controversy, Chang said “I think Pete Wells is a fantastic writer.” 
  • There was a discussion of the worst breakfast in the world and A.A. Gill asserted that it was a Japanese breakfast, a notion that Chang quickly countered by saying he doesn’t trust any culture (British) that eats tomatoes for breakfast even when they’re out of season.
  • If Chang could only eat one type of cuisine for the rest of his life, he’d go with Chinese, claiming that it’s “endless in its variety” and “the precursor to French continental food.”

When the event was over, they gave away some products (jaffle makers, actually!) to the person who could correctly guess David Chang’s weight. Somehow, ending with a carnival guessing game seems like the perfect metaphor for the whole discussion.

Gourmet Village
The centerpiece of the weekend was the Gourmet Village, held at the Leeuwin Estate winery compound. The event worked like most of these festivals with plenty of cooking demos, thoughtful chef discussions (the crowd swooned for both Redzepi and Alex Atala), and even a kid’s area for the tiniest chefs around. On Saturday, the place was absolutely packed with mulleted Aussie men, women who looked like Nicole Kidman, and more flies than you’ve ever seen in your life. People seemed to be having a good time, though, so the flies just became extra party guests. Sunday saw a lighter crowd, but had a more relaxed atmosphere that seemed to fit better with the whole event.

While most American festivals operate with an all-you-can-eat approach, the Aussies opted for an à la carte style. Instead of unlimited access, people had to buy special tickets called “Gourmet Escape Money” or GEMs. Festival goers could use the GEMs to buy tasting plates from any of the pop-up restaurant booths, samples from the visiting wineries/breweries/distillery (although in a moment of supreme cheapness, you had to buy your own wine glass when you walked in), or products from the endless number of small producers selling their oils, jams, sauces, chocolate or whatever else you’d find at an Australian Sur La Table. The longest line, oddly enough, was for paella (wtf?) but it warmed my American heart to see the “Ragin’ Cajun” booth serving up mediocre gumbo and fried-to-order funnel cakes. It was my great pleasure to introduce some of my traveling companions to the joys of deep-fried spirographic dough. With the sound of live music wafting through the sunshine and smiling Aussies all around, it seemed like a very successful first year for the Margaret River Gourmet Escape. By the end of the weekend, it really felt like the event was perfectly named. This wasn’t just a festival. It was an escape of the best kind.

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