Thursday, August 1, 2013

Taste of Sydney: How to run a food festival

Food festivals are always a big draw for me; and I dare say this is true for most other foodies as well. Apart from being a good reason to get out into the glorious sun with friends, such events provide an excellent platform for connoisseurs and industry insiders alike to interact and share ideas.

Taste of Sydney is Sydney's premier food and restaurant festival (okay, there's another one, The Crave Sydney International Food Festival, usually held in October). And of course I was there at the beautiful Centennial Park (just ten minutes from my place!) to savour every bit of it. As with the past three years' events, the 2012 festival did not disappoint. In fact, it has gone from strength to strength and this seems to be the most smashing one so far. The key to their success was simply letting the food do the talking. True to its name, it allowed visitors to taste what the city has to offer, a bit like a blown-up (and stand up) version of a massive degustation menu. Big on flavours, tapas-sized, easy on the wallet, maximum pleasure.

Gorgeous day, on equally gorgeous grounds!

In terms of planning, promotion and execution, it was largely a success (apart from the first-day cancelation due to bad weather, which is beyond anyone's control, really). It's certainly as enjoyable as Crave; as well as Singapore's premier food event, the World Gourmet Summit, both of which I've visited and noticed the application of the said food-and-taste-is-paramount formula. It should also serve as a bit of a reminder to Hong Kong, in my opinion, as to how to run a food festival. Yes, I am still reeling in horror at how last October's Hong Kong Wine & Dine Festival was handled. Being one of top culinary destinations in the world, it's almost unbelievable that Hong Kong does not have a decent food event, or "restaurant week", as it is popularly done worldwide. Marred by subpar marketing strategies over the years, it's more of a overpriced wine sales event masquerading as a food festival celebrating local cuisine. And as though the "expensive wines" element did not give away the true intentions of pandering to Chinese Mainlanders' tastes, the organisers had to underline this by bringing them in to the event literally by the busloads. The West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade was not a fun place to be that weekend. Okay, I digress...

Back to Taste of Sydney. The four-day event brought together over 20,000 visitors, more than 100 premium food and drink producers and 17 of Sydney's top restaurants-- including my favourites: Four In Hand, Longrain, The Montpellier Public House (formerly Restaurant Balzac) and Otto Ristorante. A brand new feature introduced this year was the Sustainable Pop-up Restaurant, where a different sustainable restaurant would take the stage and showcase their dishes on each of the days.

Hordes of hungry diners...

...including hoofed ones! 
I was lucky to catch Agape Organic Restaurant & Bar (that day's Sustainable Pop-up Restaurant) in action and boy, did Chef Simon Lawson and his team deliver! They roasted beautiful Rosnay figs that were generously stuffed with Quark, Pecorino & Mozzarella, Apple Balsamic, Popped Quinoa & Basil for starters. It was easily my favourite vegetarian dish of the entire festival, not least because the figs (in season now!) were sweet and juicy. I also happen to have a weakness for quinoa (among other grains and seeds) and underrated cheeses such as quark. It's a soft and unaged cheese that is similar to cottage cheese, except it isn't made with rennet. I really wish to see it more often on menus. 

Agape Organic Restaurant & Bar's roasted Rosnay figs. 

Agape continued to fly the organic and sustainable flag high and proud by grilling an amazing Gundooee Wagyu Sirloin, with braised brisket, honey roasted carrots, royal black quinoa & truffle butter. Lady luck must've been shining on me as this iconic dish was very limited in stock and I got the LAST one! While the Wagyu sirloin was expectedly good, the true winners were the honey roasted carrots, and the innovative quinoa & truffle butter. They did well for their pork dish too-- a nicely roasted fillet of Berkshire pork with polenta, apple, sage, and salsa verde. Classic combination that was executed well.

Wagyu sirloin, done right, topped with quinoa & truffle butter.

Quite possibly the Rolls-Royce of pork: Berkshire pork scotch fillet, with apple, sage, polenta, rosemary and salsa verde.

Other memorable dishes include...

Otto Ristorante's Barbarossa Ravioli-- Ravioli of sliced pickled beetroot with goat's curd, pistaschio & horseradish. Beautifully done; the flavours were clean and very, very addictive. These are the sort of vego dishes that I love.

Four In Hand's Roast suckling pig getting a nice tan... It was served with a splendid coleslaw, hot sauce and good old onion rings. Again, the simple stuff done right.
I love Colin Fassnidge's (Four In Hand) cooking. Like me, he's an avid nose-to-tail-eating evangelist. His Licorice braised Beef Brisket with Carrot & Sherry puree was absolutely delightful.

Braised shoulder of Lamb with Polenta and Salsa Verde. Unctuous, rich and unapologetically gamey. Every mouthful was sheer joy for lamb lovers like me. The Montpellier Public House ROCKS.

Smooth and luscious: Pepe Saya Buttermilk and Vanilla Panna Cotta with poached fruits by the Montpellier Public House.

A prawn salad by Agape Organic Restaurant & Bar. Flawless.
Heavenly: Chocolate & Spelt Brownie, almond praline, vanilla cream & chocolate sauce. Matched with Nespresso Volluto Grand Cru. 

Though largely touted as a restaurant festival, there were loads of other food activities that kept everyone happy. Cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, beer and wine booths... There's something for everyone. My faves were...

The De Dietrich Demo Kitchen, which featured three French chefs doing live cooking demos, proved really popular!
Hailing from New Zealand was Glasseye Creek BBQ "Wild meat" sauce. At $10, it was a steal.

Located three hours north of Melbourne is King Valley, where the Pizzini's vineyards produce one of the region's finest wines. I particularly love their Brachetto, which I never fail to buy every year at Taste. The Brachetto is a lightly sparkling pink moscato-style, that is pale pink in the glass and has a wealth of floral aromas, as well as freshly-sliced strawberry and apple blossom. They produce a very decent Nebbiolo, too.

Sweden's REKORDERLIG ciders have always been a favourite! I love you!

My 2nd Rekorderlig cider of the day deserves a photo... does my 5th!

Though I said it was a smashing success, I didn't say it was perfect. What continues to irk me at such events over the years (and this isn't unique to Taste of Sydney) is how wasteful they can be, with all the disposable cutlery and plates. Very few recycle bins were seen and there was no concerted effort to keep waste to a minimum. This made the Sustainable Pop-up Restaurant element into a bit of a sad joke, really. Not cool. And just as there were winners, there were those who weren't quite making the cut...

Zumbo decided that a macaron should mate with a choux pastry and bear a monstrosity of a child named ChouxMaca. He has clearly hit a creative wall.
Dreadful wines (with an awful name to match!) like this one made an appearance.

Attracting over 45,000 food and drink lovers nationally, Taste is undoubtedly one of the world's most respected dining experiences. It is part of a successful global string of festivals across 12 cities: Taste of Melbourne is a huge hit with foodies in Victoria; Taste of London is also massive, attracting Michelin-starred restaurants to set up booths at the gorgeous Regent's Park and showcasing their gastronomic delights. Other host cities include Amsterdam, Dubai, Milan. Check out the organisers' (Brand Events) website to look for a Taste festival in a city near you!

Not too surprisingly, I'm hoping the Taste brand would expand into Hong Kong, simply coz they actually know how to run a food festival with some finesse. What do you think? Were you at Taste of Sydney? How did it compare with other food festivals you've been to? Do tell!

Ending with another food poem!