Johanna Picton (left) and Mary Papaioannou from Hassell architect at the Queens Street Bridge.
Johanna Picton, left, and Mary Papaioannou from Hassell at the Sandridge Rail Bridge Immersary site. Photo: Eddie Jim

Sarina Lewis

Not many new restaurants can expect 80,000 diners in their first three weeks, but the Immersery Festival Kitchen Bar and Raingarden, now taking shape on a disused railway bridge and a floating barge in the Yarra River, is no ordinary eatery.

Seven of Victoria's top chefs will take turns in the kitchen, dishing up dumplings and share plates created especially for the festival, and 22 bartenders will be pouring cocktails in one-night-only collaborations.

Welcome to the 2014 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival's signature site, the Immersery Festival Kitchen Bar and Raingarden.

Aerial view of some of Queens Bridge.
An aerial view of the disused bridge, soon to be transformed into a thriving festival hub. Photo: Paul Rovere

''This is a massive project,'' says festival chief executive Natalie O'Brien, of the pop-up space, which packs down and vanishes after 17 days. ''It's the largest scale construction we have ever attempted.''

A complex, nine-day build, the Immersery is using 15 individual contractors and 1.5 kilometres of PVC pipe, and, once it's in operation, nearly half the manpower of the festival's staff and volunteers.

It's oriented around the little-known and largely ignored Sandridge Rail Bridge, a Victorian Heritage Registered construct arching across the Yarra River. It has been out of public circulation since the 1950s, when its use as a rail freight link was decommissioned.

(Clockwise from left) Chef's Adam Liston, Hamish Nugent, Joel Alderson, Rachel Reed, Daniel Wilson and Flo Gerardin are to cook at the Immersery Kitchen. Jesse Gerner, who was absent from this shoot, will also feature.
(Clockwise from left) Chef's Adam Liston, Hamish Nugent, Joel Alderson, Rachel Reed, Daniel Wilson and Flo Gerardin will cook at the Immersery Kitchen. Photo: Simon Schluter

Designed by Hassell, the project expands on the festival's water theme.

Temporary sites - for dining, drinking, community gathering and education - will be built around the historic bridge, each site exploring water in its three states (liquid, vapour and solid; see breakout), while serving as the festival's hub.

''The reactivation of the bridge was really about trying to push the boundaries on every level, to think of ways where we could be on water, over water and beside the water,'' O'Brien says.

Inside the Immersery 'cloud'.
A sketch of the Immersery 'cloud'. Photo: Hassell

''We really want to represent innovation and express the food and wine of Melbourne, while pushing the boundaries on what can be achieved. It's mind-blowing for me some days to think this is where we have got to.''

Johanna Picton, one of Hassell's young team and one of the project's designers, is excited as she walks around the site.

''We will be extending the bridge and laying a temporary floor. It will then serve as a roof for the dining areas stationed beneath,'' she says, walking beneath the point where the Sandridge Rail Bridge juts out over Southbank's concourse.

Festival-goers can try cocktails by Lui Bar.
Festival-goers can try cocktails by Lui Bar. Photo: Roberta Seba

She points to the space that will form a wall of rainwater gardens planted in reclaimed 40-gallon drums, then opens plans of the PVC water pipes, showing how they will create a floating ''cloud'' above the bridge, framing a new view for Melburnians across the city.

''Everything is reusable,'' she says. The pipes from Melbourne Water are cut into usable lengths to be resold following the event, and the raingarden plants will go back into circulation at nurseries.

For Hassell principal Mary Papaioannou, the entire project has been a thrill.

Grassroots: Investigating a raingarden.
Grassroots: Investigating a raingarden. Photo: Melbourne Water

''The fact that it is constructed over nine days, is packed out for 17 days and then it disappears is something intriguing,'' Papaioannou says. ''That we insert a structure that is a little surprising, very intense and that is there to serve a moment. It's adding a new public space to Melbourne's landscape and I think that is really worthwhile.''

As exciting as the structure is, it's the food that's the real thrill for Huxtable's chef Daniel Wilson. He is one of the seven chefs involved in creating a menu that celebrates Melbourne's love affair with Chinese yum cha, brought to life by Peter Rowland Catering out of a shipping container-turned-kitchen established on site.

''The idea is to cook using water techniques,'' Wilson says, the more creative the spin, the better.

The Immersery cocktail.
The Immersery cocktail. Photo: Roberto Seba

For Wilson, as for the others involved, the Immersery offers the chance to reach out to Melbourne in a big way.

''This is the largest scale cooking event I have been involved with,'' he says. Each chef will be featuring for one night during the course of the project, with food served alongside drops from Seppelt, Coldstream Hills and T'Gallant.

''It's really what Melbourne and the festival is all about.

The Immersery bar dumplings.
The Immersery bar dumplings. Photo: Supplied

''Innovation and doing things just a little bit differently.''

Menu sneak peek

● Reuben dumpling Adam Liston and Joel Alderson (Borrowed Space) revamp this classic sandwich.

● Spiced Wessex saddleback pork empanadillas Jesse Gerner (Anada and Bomba) goes for a Mexican spin.

● Chicken, shiitake, fermented seaweed, preserved lemon, nori and rice crunch dumpling Rachel Reed and Hamish Nugent (Tani Eat & Drink) have created a triangular parcel of Japanese-inspired joy.

● Scallop, Sichuan pepper and snow-pea tendril with black vinegar and chilli oil dressing Daniel Wilson (Huxtable) adds some Chinese spice.

● Eggplant miso dumpling Flo Gerardin (Silo) takes a fresh look at Japanese.

What is a raingarden?

Gardening guru Jane Edmanson is thrilled about the booming ''grow your own'' trend that is sweeping Australia and, as Melbourne Water's raingarden ambassador, she reckons raingardens are the ideal way to create our own backyard Gardens of Eden.

''A raingarden is a specifically built garden that employs the idea of a diversion of water,'' Edmanson says.

It can be done with all kinds of plantings, including fruits and vegetables.

''Normally, when you have a big rain storm, water goes whooshing off the roof and straight to the stormwater drain, where it is lost. With raingardens, the water is funnelled straight into a garden bed, getting water to the plants at the root, a much more efficient way, as water isn't lost through evaporation.''

Good draining is essential, so scoria (volcanic rock) is used as the base layer. Next comes the pipe diverting water from the roof, laid horizontally on top of the scoria. On top of that is more scoria and sand, then a wick to take the water up to the roots (fabric rolled into a cylinder), then a topping of potting mix or soil ready to take plants. An overflow pipe is also installed in case of flooding.

''It doesn't eliminate the need for watering,'' explains Edmanson, ''but you are making the most of the rainwater when it arrives.''

The elements

Explore the three states of water - liquid, vapour and solid - at the Immersery Festival Kitchen Bar and Raingarden.

SOLID

A floating bar stationed on a barge provided by Port of Melbourne beneath the Sandridge Rail Bridge on the Yarra River assumes the position of water's solid state. Expect new-wave twists on cocktail classics exploring the three states of water as prepared by some of the best bartenders in Australia. Thursday to Sunday night is the time for one-off bar collaborations that bring together MONA's Void Bar (Hobart) with the Lui Bar, Bulletin Place (Sydney) with Black Pearl and Alfred and Constance (Brisbane) with LuWow. Self-guided wine tasting flights available. Seats 80 and is available for private hire.

LIQUID

Food and plant life form the basis of water's most familiar state. Bite in to the flavours of some of Melbourne's top chefs at a swath of dining spaces, from river-edge seating for 30 to ticketed undercover seating for 100, as they prepare food using a range of water-based techniques against the backdrop of vertical raingardens, where visitors can learn about the benefits of this resourceful approach to planting.

VAPOUR

For the first time, an installation on the disused Sandridge Rail Bridge will open up a new part of the city to the keen and the curious. The idea of the project is to form an urban retreat, a free space where an artistic scramble of PVC water pipes forms a cloud canopy framing a new vantage point of the city, soundtracked by a water-themed sound installation. Carry up a drink and enjoy the views.