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Melbourne chefs' night of rewards

Attica's Ben Shewry lands two major accolades, Jacques Reymond retires, and four restaurants claim the coveted three hats at the Good Food Awards 2014.

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Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year

For a restaurant that sets a benchmark for others to meet.

ATTICA, RIPPONLEA

<I>Good Food Guide 2014</I> co-editor Janne Apelgren described Ben Shewry's food as Click for more photos

Award winners: The Age 2014 Good Food Guide

Good Food Guide 2014 co-editor Janne Apelgren described Ben Shewry's food as "beautiful to look at, and plain delicious too". Photo: John Laurie

We didn't need overseas accolades to tell us that Attica is at the top of its game. The evidence is there on the menu: a compelling story that weaves together elements of chef Ben Shewry's New Zealand upbringing (earth-cooked potatoes inspired by a Maori hangi, chocolate and caramel pukeko eggs), his Australian adulthood (wallaby, paperbark, macadamia nuts) and his ceaseless interest in the world around him. That a suburban bank in a quiet shopping strip can be transformed into one of the world's great restaurants speaks volumes for Shewry's vision and talent, the persistence of owners David and Helen Maccora, and the combined energy of its staff, many of whom have travelled across the globe to work in Ripponlea. Inspiring, engaging, enchanting and a little bit indie, Attica gets more finely honed with the passage of time. When it won the same award in the 2009 guide, we said: "Is not this unassuming suburban restaurant a continually evolving, always fascinating crucible for some of the most original – yet meaningful - food served in Australia?" Here's to evolution, because, far from cruising on its raft of awards, later this month Attica opens an adjoining food lab, a logical extension of its Tuesday night experimental chef's table.

ROSLYN GRUNDY

 

Attica continues to evolve instead of resting on its well-earned laurels.
Attica continues to evolve instead of resting on its well-earned laurels.

La Maison du Thé Regional Restaurant of the Year

For the best dining experience beyond the city limits.

HEALSVILLE HOTEL, HEALSVILLE

Cumulus Up: Ideal for a duck waffle.
Cumulus Up: Ideal for a duck waffle. Photo: Ken Irwin

Ring in the changes. During the past 13 years, the Healesville Hotel has grown from pioneering gastropub and winner of 2006 Regional Restaurant of the Year award to a mini-empire stretching along the main street: a butcher and cafe-providore with a hard-working organic farm slightly further afield to provide asizeable part of the kitchen's playthings.

Owners Michael Kennedy and Kylie Balharrie have made a series of calculated moves, each one enhancing the landmark hotel's regional-seasonal proposition. The final piece that returned the grand old pub to its critical heyday slotted into place with a fresh team of staff. Chef Clinton Camilleri has a natural affinity with the kitchen's philosophy: his food is not overworked but contains enough surprises to keep things interesting. Maitre d' Camm Whiteoak and sommelier Ewan Proctor keep the dining room humming with energy and enthusiasm. However big the Healesville grows, the heart of the operation will always be its grand yet unstuffy Old World dining room, one of the great pleasures of regional Victorian dining.

LARISSA DUBECKI

France-Soir's owner Jean Paul Prunetti.
France-Soir's owner Jean Paul Prunetti. Photo: www.sdp-photo.com


Citi Chef of the Year

To acknowledge a chef with the craft and ability to make a real difference to the way we dine now and in the future.

BEN SHEWRY

Ben Shewry is one of the world's most inspiring and original chefs. There. We've said it. Shewry's food is exciting, beautiful to look at and plain delicious. The world may have discovered him, he may be a Kiwi by birth, but we're lucky as Melburnians that for now, at least, he's all ours, and even more accomplished than when he won this award in the 2011 Guide. Back then we said: "There's something delightfully humble about suburban Attica, as there is about its chef."

The Brooks' wine list is adventurous and exciting.
The Brooks' wine list is adventurous and exciting. Photo: Eddie Jim

None of that's changed, despite the accolades; the wait for a table for two that may spin out to nearly six months, or the fact that many of the world's great chefs now rate Shewry as an inspiration and seek his company. These days, his menus are downloaded tens of thousands of times each year, and Attica's dining room rings with accents from around the globe.

We like to think The Guide discovered Shewry's talents early... but not as early as did Attica's owner, DrDavid Maccora, who hired the chef for his struggling suburban restaurant in 2005 and had the good judgment to give the young New Zealander creative control. The job was Shewry's first as a head chef, and the pair slowly transformed a limping business into a world-beater, which gets better every year. Along the way, Shewry found his culinary voice, with notes that were pure, original, and true to his upbringing on an isolated farm.

He's now a father of three who takes much inspiration from his Bellarine Peninsula home, sees food as an edible art form, telling a bit of a story along the way, and sometimes delivering a little lesson about the way he thinks things should be, too. Where Shewry goes, those hungry for dining adventures will follow. That he happens to be one of nature's gentlemen is icing on the cake.

JANNE APELGREN

 

Citi Service Excellence Award

For defining the highest level of service: relevant, personable, professional.

VANESSA CRICHTON, ROCKPOOL BAR & GRILL

Service is an invisible art, and that helps separate Vanessa Crichton from her peers. As Neil Perry's valued first lieutenant in Melbourne, her remit is as broad as it gets, covering "modern steakhouse" at Rockpool, "regional Chinese" at Spice Temple, and "la bella Italian" at newcomer Rosetta. Busy? Yes, but the unflappable Crichton makes it look  easy. Cool under pressure, she's blessed with the attributes that separate the best front-of-house staff from the rest: an easy charm, a razor-sharp memory, and the ability to lead by example. And if you want a menu recommendation, there's no finer guide to Perry's food than Crichton.

LARISSA DUBECKI

 

KitchenAid Young Chef of the Year

Chosen by a panel of leading chefs - Alla Wolf-Tasker, Philippe Mouchel and Andrew McConnell - this is the ultimate accolade for a talented young cook.

OLIVER GOULD, STOKEHOUSE

 Shortlisted as a finalist for last year's Young Chef of the Year award, this year Oliver Gould went one better.

He's worked his way  through the ranks, from chef de partie to head chef, over his eight years at the St Kilda landmark.

"I think my longevity has come down to two things,"  Gould, 29, says. "Firstly, creating a food style that suits our business model and secondly, because I know the business inside and out, the way I run a business and kitchen is far more in-depth than someone who has popped around from job to job."

Gould says the role of the chef has changed significantly since he stepped into the kitchen.  On a daily basis, he is involved in everything from menu design to managing food and labour costs to staff training.

"Being a good chef these days is not just about cooking, it's about looking at the biggerpicture and how you run your business," he says.

It's these qualities that marked him out to the panel of judges, which this year consisted of Andrew McConnell, Philippe Mouchel and head judge Alla Wolf-Tasker.

The panel described Gould as a grounded chef "with the leadership skills to run a corker kitchen team". He understands the importance of consistency, keeping his team engaged and staying on top of food trends without becoming faddish. He is also, they said, a "cracking good cook".

OLIVIA RIORDEN

 

New Restaurant of the Year

For the most exciting addition to Melbourne dining during the past 12months.

SAINT CRISPIN, COLLINGWOOD

Whoever said the chef's-own restaurant was dead hadn't counted on the arrival of Saint Crispin. Two chefs, in fact, can take credit for this jumping Smith Street joint: Scott Pickett, of Northcote's the Estelle, and Joe Grbac, until recently at the helm of the Press Club kitchen. Together they're showing that the dream common to the chef world – a little place to call home in an industry increasingly given to gigantism – is still attainable. So yes, there were bigger openings this year, there were more expensive fitouts, and more ambitious concepts, but none got the town talking as much as this quintessentially Melbourne eatery, which nailed the neighbourhood thing and added value until it was a bona fide cross-town proposition. Part happening bar, part notable restaurant thanks to brilliant (yet accessible) food with a modernist edge, in a food-obsessed town, Saint Crispin pinpoints where eating is at right now.

LARISSA DUBECKI

 

New Regional Restaurant of the Year

For the most exciting addition to the dining scene beyond Melbourne in the past 12 months.

TANI EAT & DRINK IN BRIGHT

The canny blend of Japanese and European influences at Tani makes perfect sense, given co-owner Hamish Nugent opened Mount Hotham's Tsubo in 2007 with Japanophile Michael Ryan, of Provenance fame, before buying it outright two years later. Here, at his new  central Bright venture with partner Rachel Reed, there's a similarly striking aesthetic that seamlessly melds two culinary traditions while singing in a regional key. The cooking's assured, the setting is welcoming, and there are moments of arresting whimsy, such as corn silk used to add sweetness and texture to an avant-garde composition of roasted corn kernels and onion, fried potato skins and bone marrow. Tani rubs shoulders with neighbour Simone's, and we predict a similarly bright future for this newcomer to the 'hood. Tani has been closed for renovations but is expected to reopen early in September with a new bar. It will be worth the wait.

LARISSA DUBECKI

 

Sustainability Award

For an individual or business that advances the cause ofsustainability.

CLIVE BLAZEY, DIGGERS CLUB

Clive Blazey is in the grip of an Italian love affair. Two months after returning from overseas, it's clear the grower's pulse  quickens at the thought of Italian markets and their  treasure trove of regional vegetable varieties.

"Tomatoes we call heirlooms don't even rate a mention in Italy because they're used to buying the local variety  from the gardener  down the road," Blazey says. "Modern varieties haven't pushed the heirlooms out."

So impressed was Blazey, there's a good chance Victorians will be seeing more of the vegetable varieties that Italian gardeners have been nurturing for  up to  300 years.

Since visiting California's Seed Savers Network in 1991 and seeing its bank of 25,000 seed varieties, the founder of the mail-order seed company Diggers Club has been on a mission to preserve ancient fruit and vegetable varieties in danger of being lost.

And it seems gardeners, chefs and diners are finally catching up with him. If you've eaten a green zebra tomato, yellow beetroot, purple carrots or Tuscan kale, you can probably thank the trailblazing seed-saver.

When Blazey, 65, began importing heirloom seeds 20 years ago, tomatoes came in any colour you liked, as long as you liked red. "The annoying thing is that tomatoes come in about 10 colours and the only colour that anyone really consumes in quantity is red, so by introducing heirlooms we got back to the natural genetics, which is all these colours."

People were intrigued by the black, orange, yellow and striped green tomatoes. But staging a tomato tasting in 1993 – judged by chefs Stephanie Alexander and Hermann Schneider and former The Age Good Food Guide editor Rita Erlich – helped change the way we eat.

The heirloom varieties won so convincingly that many are now being grown commercially, among them Tommy Toe and Black Russian.

"Clive's been a very important, and a very vocal part of a worldwide movement that has been looking at vegetable and fruit biodiversity," says Erlich. "There has been a general return of interest in old varieties, known in France as 'forgotten vegetables'."

So-called heirloom fruits and vegetables are  plant varieties that are genetically different from the narrow range of plants grown commercially.

"If you go to the Melbourne market for vegetables, and you look at the genetics, you probably wouldn't find more than 100 vegetable varieties," Blazey says.

By growing (and eating) heirloom varieties, we're helping to preserve biodiversity – and getting something that tastes far better. "Anyone who compares supermarket tomatoes with the heirlooms is won over immediately," he says. "[Supermarket varieties are] shiny and red and look drop-dead gorgeous, but the fruit doesn't ripen and doesn't develop sweetness."

A self-described hopeless cook but enthusiastic diner, Blazey feels he's barely touched the surface in rescuing heirloom breeds, which are selected after trials for flavour, hardiness and drought tolerance.

During his recent trip to Italy, he met a grower who had collected 180 pumpkin varieties from his region  and another  who had saved seeds from 80 rare fruit varieties.

And while he has a low chilli tolerance, Blazey plans to introduce a wider range of chillies to the Diggers Club's popular mail-order catalogue and conduct a chilli tasting in the not-too-distant future.

It may well do for peppers what the 1993 taste test did for tomatoes.

ROSLYN GRUNDY

 

Donlevy Fitzpatrick Award

To honour that unbeatable combination of a great bar with great food.

CUMULUS UP, MELBOURNE

If you distilled the career achievements of game-changing restaurateur Donlevy Fitzpatrick, the essence would be something as simple and fundamental as "made Melbourne a better place to live". And while some might argue that Cumulus Up follows inFitzpatrick's footsteps on the strength of itsduck waffle alone, there's so much more to enjoy about Andrew McConnell's city-centre wine bar.

It's a beautiful second-floor room with an excellent wine list and cult-inspiring bar snacks (hello, anchovy toast), plus well-informed staff who enjoy what they do. It's the kind of place that works as well for a snack or a nightcap as it does for a meal. In short, Cumulus Up nails the relaxed, innovative approach that the Donlevy Fitzpatrick Award rewards and, like the late Fitzpatrick, it makes our town a better place.

MICHAEL HARDEN

 

BYO Restaurant of the Year

This restaurant makes bringing your own wine a pleasure.

FRANCE-SOIR, SOUTH YARRA

France-Soir is retro cool enough to make your eyes water but there's another reason to get misty-eyed about this classic French bistro – its longstanding BYO policy.

Owner John-Paul Prunetti's cellar is lauded as one of the finest in town – particularly when it comes to burgundy – with a breadth and depth that makes it virtually impossible for even the fussiest wine snob not to find something delicious to drink. That, it seems, is the point.

Prunetti so wants you to be drinking something delicious that he's quite happy for you to bring that special/benchmark/status symbol bottle with you (except on Saturdays and public holidays). And many do.

James Broadway, owner of Gertrude Street Enoteca, has been lunching at France-Soir with a group of wine industry professionals every month for the past 17years, mostly because of its BYO policy but also because of the bistro's wine-savvy approach.

"France-Soir is the perfect wine restaurant," Broadway says. "It's not cutting-edge with food – it does the basics really well and doesn't extend beyond that.

"And with John-Paul being such an integral part of the burgundy world in Melbourne, it makes you want to bring something special. It's almost like you're obliged to bring something special."

Corkage set at $14.50 a bottle probably provides some disincentive to clunking in with cleanskins, but the money side of the equation of France-Soir's BYO policy is more side effect than main event. It's all about good wine, good food, good times. Someone hand this joint another award.

MICHAEL HARDEN

 

Vittoria Coffee Legend Award

For an outstanding long-term contribution to the hospitality industry, chosen by LesSchirato of Vittoria coffee.

RINALDO DI STASIO, CAFE DI STASIO

There are many stories swirling around the legend of Rinaldo Di Stasio. The vast majority are true. Ejecting former attorney-general Gareth Evans from Rosati for (allegedly) asking to take home a half-drunk bottle of wine? True. Triaging diners on the quality of their shoes during his two years managing Lynch's? True. Insisting on speaking to Anthony Bourdain only in Italian until the American proved his worth? You guessed it. DiStasio has stuffed more into his life than most people would manage in 10.

Restaurateur, winery owner, patron of the arts, bon vivant and entrepreneur, he's also a complete charmpot, although his social ease hides a dark and mercurial side.

Champagne cork markings on the ceiling at Cafe DiStasio are testament to the proprietor's love of a good party. The 25th anniversary of the Fitzroy Street restaurant, clubhouse and den of iniquity could simply have been cause to add a few more.

Not so for DiStasio, who realised a long-held dream with the triumphant opening of Bar Di Stasio next door.

Fans of DiStasio and his restaurant will know most of these stories and be able to add their own. Newcomers wanting to know what Melbourne is all about ought to pay a visit and see for themselves.

We aren't the first to recognise DiStasio as a legend. We certainly won't be the last.

LARISSA DUBECKI

 

Innovation Award

This forward-thinking food lover is bringing a new dimension to the way people eat.

STEPHANIE ALEXANDER AND HER KITCHEN GARDEN FOUNDATION

"Innovative, individualistic and interesting are adjectives that spring to mind to describe Stephanie Alexander's approach to cooking." So wrote the anonymous reviewer in the first edition of The Age Good Food Guide in 1980, describing her then Hawthorn East restaurant, Stephanie's.

Thirty-three years on, the same adjectives apply to the project the former restaurateur and best-selling cookbook author began in2001. What started as a modest program  to teach kids at a disadvantaged inner-city school how to plant, harvest, prepare and share food has grown into the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation,  a nationwide program involving around 35,000children in more than 300 schools – our next generation of diners.

ROSLYN GRUNDY

 

Champagne Pol Roger Sommelier of the Year

Recognising an individual wine waiter who brings knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm to the table.

MARK PROTHEROE, GROSSI GROUP

"In a restaurant, there's an instant response from the diner when they order a wine and enjoy it, which is so gratifying," Mark Protheroe says, "and that's the beauty of selling wine. To see people enjoying what they are drinking is the best part of being a sommelier. I'd never want to give that up."

As head sommelier for the Grossi Group for nearly four years, Protheroe is a busy man. He orders the wine, oversees and fine-tunes the wine lists and educates staff at the group's restaurants, from the demanding Florentino – with its upstairs fine-diner, grill and cellar bar – to St Kilda's Mirka Continental Bistro, smart-casual Merchant Osteria Veneta in the Rialto and city wine and salumi bar Ombra. Plus he's out on the floor making people happy.
Protheroe imparts his considerable knowledge with grace and charm, yet his seemingly calm demeanour belies a passion for the great wines of the world, and Italian wines, in particular. Protheroe is studying to become a Master Sommelier. He's one of Australia's most accomplished sommeliers and Melbourne is blessed to have him.

JANE FAULKNER

 

Regional Wine List of the Year

For the most inviting and appropriate wine list from any Victorian region.

PROVENANCE, BEECHWORTH

Surely an exemplary, award-worthy wine list is just that, regardless of a restaurant's location? Well, yes. And no. The list's merits are paramount although there are other factors to consider for restaurants outside the CBD, aside from logistics.
Regional restaurants are very much part of the fabric of their community. What makes Provenance's list stand out, however, is that its creator, winemaker Jeanette Henderson, has crafted an excellent snapshot of the north-east and immediate surrounds without skewing the list to any one producer or style. She always selects the most gorgeous and appropriate wines to match the dishes her husband Michael Ryan prepares. Mostly and unashamedly, Henderson features wines she loves to drink, whether it's sake, Beechworth chardonnay or Rhone reds.

JANE FAULKNER

 

Best Short Wine List

For a list of fewer than 100 bottles, perfectly pitched to the restaurant.

BAR DI STASIO, ST KILDA

Crafting a short wine list is not easy. It's not just a matter of whittling the list  to fewer than 100 wines. It's about creating an enticing, pitch-perfect, sharp and playful list that suits the restaurant or, in this case, bar.

Given Bar Di Stasio's Italian predilections, its wine list summarises the finest and most enjoyable drops that country has to offer. But that's just the start. The list's author, consummate host Mallory Wall, has a thing for champagne so there will always be some. Add

Ronnie Di Stasio's own wines, made from fruit grown on his Yarra Valley property, and you have an utterly charming list. Salute.

JANE FAULKNER

 

Wine List of the Year

For a wine list that fits the restaurant's food and style, offering adventure on every level.

BROOKS, MELBOURNE

Size isn't everything. The best wine lists require only as much scrutiny as is  absolutely necessary in order to get a decent drink in hand, long before the main course arrives.
Brooks' easy-to-follow, keenly priced and exciting list is, sensibly, medium-weighted: a thrilling mix of classy, conservative, eccentric, familiar, diverse, special and thoroughly pleasing.

It's a list brimming with personality, a bit like Brooks' owners, Gerald Diffey and Mario DiIenno. Sommelier Matthew Brooke brings the list to order, ensuring what's offered is sharp and complements Nicolas Poelaert's stylish food.

Brooke is an experienced wine guy (he even makes his own on the side) and understands that fashionable wines must be offset by the classic and respected. It's all about the detail. More than anything, Brooke promised to put a list together that would be fun, balanced and well priced. And he's delivered.

JANE FAULKNER