Chefs run Customs gauntlet ahead of festival

Salad of raw moose, splashes of birch oil, birch syrup, duck egg and rancid cream, breadcrumbs and leaves as created by ...
Salad of raw moose, splashes of birch oil, birch syrup, duck egg and rancid cream, breadcrumbs and leaves as created by Magnus Nilsson at his remote Swedish restaurant Faviken ... Perhaps he'll serve up a local equivalent at his Melbourne mastercalss this week. Photo: Supplied

Australians mad for authentic Mexican food may be disappointed to learn that some of that country's more exotic ingredients will not be featuring on Enrique Olvera's menu at Melbourne's Pei Modern on Monday night.

The chef, here for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, decided to leave his chicatana ants and jumiles (stink bugs) at home rather than take on the might of Australia's Customs officers when he arrived here yesterday morning.

Not to be deterred, the kitchen team at Pei Modern have pulled out all the stops to ensure Olvera will be able to serve up some of the authentic Mexican flavours that have made his modern restaurant, Pujol, world-famous, even sourcing then growing Mexican herbs themselves in the restaurant's small vegie patch at Federation Square.

South Carolina-based chef Sean Brock had no trouble bringing 20kg of ingredients through Australian Customs.
South Carolina-based chef Sean Brock had no trouble bringing 20kg of ingredients through Australian Customs. Photo: Supplied

While Olvera may not be serving up his toasted flying ants dish or lesser-known varieties of corn, he will be able to dish up epazote, a herb that is not sold in Australia.

Keen to help Olvera realise his cuisine, Pei Modern's sous chef George Scott-Toft hit the web and worked his local Mexican contacts, managing eventually to locate a woman in Queensland who grew the herb.

Scott-Toft convinced the woman to send some seedlings to Melbourne. Pei Modern's manager Ainslie Lubbock thinks there may be just enough epazote – which she says has a strong flavour profile, "apparently like gasoline" – growing at Federation Square to give everyone at Monday's dinner a small taste.

But while there was talk of trying to source some edible ants in Australia, she thinks it more likely that Olvera will do a "dish rewrite on that one".

It's all part of the juggling that goes on behind the scenes at food festival time as international chefs attempt to transport or recreate their signature dishes while abroad, according to Melbourne Food and Wine Festival chief executive Natalie O'Brien. "You could make a whole episode of Border Security around festival time," she said. "I probably can't go into too much detail, but there are always knives and other specialist equipment, or spices we've never heard of, that sadly don't make it through (Customs)."

Ms O'Brien said many international chefs were forced to improvise upon arrival, or rely on the knowledge of local ethnic communities to source ingredients. Theodore Kyriakou from London's The Real Greek managed to source milk thistle here after the local Greek community showed him it was growing in abundance on the side of Melbourne highways.


Ms O'Brien said the food festival was also a great opportunity for international chefs to pass on their secrets to locals, and vise-versa. "At the 2011 festival, Margaret Zu from Hong Kong was making tofu from scratch and taught the kitchen at Ezards (Melbourne) in exchange for a lesson on how to make chlorophyll (colouring)."

Some chefs do their research before leaving home, or just strike it lucky. This morning, US chef Sean Brock sailed through Customs with 20 kilograms of ingredients, including grits and Sea Island red peas, according to festival staff.

Others, such as Magnus Nilsson, don't bother. Speaking this morning on his way back to Melbourne from the Grampians, where he spent yesterday foraging for local ingredients, Nilsson said he never attempted to travel with ingredients from his famously remote farm in Sweden's north.

"I don't believe in that," he said. "You can transport something as specific as an experience tied to a restaurant, but you transport the ideas, not the ingredients.

"Ideas transport very well because they are tied to a person and I travel very well ... I never bring anything. I would prefer to spend my time learning about local ingredients; it's much more interesting and fun."

Nilsson has used his time since arriving in Australia yesterday fruitfully. He's already taken a tour of Victoria's western region, where he investigated practices at an eel farm, ate at Dan Hunter's Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, and toured the chef's vegetable patch this morning.

Yesterday, he spent time with a local guide and explored the Grampians, collecting native berries, wattleseed, tea tree and wild rice. He also managed to find some nice, "decomposed eucalypt bark and leaves", which he plans to use as part of his masterclass in Melbourne on Saturday. Nilsson famously cooks potatoes in humus at Faviken. "Tonight I will sit down with my full list of ingredients and come up with a few dishes. Some will be based on ideas I have tried at home, but with an Australian spin. I will translate them. That is the challenge of (festivals); to make the most of the situation you're in."

What the chefs are bringing:

Enrique Olvera (Mexico)

Mescal (alcoholic spirit)

Alfajayucan beans

Virgilio Martinez (Peru)

Aji amarillo paste (2kg) – Aji amarillos are a type of chilli

Sacha inchi (100ml) – oil from the seeds of a high altitude plant sometimes called Inca peanut, which is gaining in popularity because of its health benefits.

Chia seeds

But... his corn was confiscated by Australian Customs for being too fresh.

Ed Kenney (Hawaii, United States)

Taro – a tuber of which more than 200 varieties were grown by native Hawaiians for their roots, which are mashed into a starchy paste.

Candlenut paste

Limu – pickled seaweed

Hawaiian sea salt

Mesquite molasses – syrup made from roasted seed pods of the mesquite tree.

Sean Brock (South Carolina, United States)

Grits – ground corn served as a porridge

Farro (grain)


Benni (sesame)

Sea Island red peas


Source: Melbourne Food and Wine Festival