Ahead of tonight's Good Food Guide Awards, a panel of leading chefs identified regional dining, an educated public and the rise of plant-based eating as the key food trends for 2019. The newly appointed CEO of Melbourne Food and Wine, Anthea Loucas Bosha moderated the brunch discussion at the new M Pavilion, designed by Spanish architect Carme Pinós, who was also in attendance.
"Victoria is leaving New South Wales behind," said Sydney chef Matt Moran, when speaking about the dining opportunities within two hours of Melbourne. "It's the proximity and the beauty," said chef Neil Perry, who has premium restaurants in Victoria, New South Wales and West Australia. "Melbourne is so well-served because the city is so close to regions like the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula and they are such great areas to visit."
The figures bear it out. According to the recently released National Visitor Survey, overnight travellers to regional Victoria spent $6.1 billion. That's a hike of 11.6 per cent, well above the national regional average of 8.7 per cent. The big regional winners in terms of expenditure are the High Country (up 36.5 per cent), the Grampians (up 25.6 per cent) and the Mornington Peninsula (up 25.2 per cent). Tourism spending in Melbourne rose too but only by 5.3 per cent. Overall, 16.8 million people visited Victoria, either for business or pleasure, with many of them spending time and money in regional restaurants.
"Regional destination dining is not new," said Alla Wolf-Tasker, whose 30-year-old Lake House in Daylesford has pioneered central Victoria's dining culture."It's just that Australia is catching up - and quickly. It's because we have so much wonderful produce in the regions and now some great practitioners who are willing to move out to the country because it's worth it."
In both city and country, restaurateurs are being pushed towards excellence by an informed dining public. "Customers have a lot more knowledge and they're being more adventurous," said Matt Moran. "Good food isn't enough any more. They want good service, a good wine list, atmosphere, acoustics, a nice seat, everything." The better restaurants use it as a spur to achieve, he said. Melbourne chef Andrew McConnell agrees. "As customers become more confident with trying new things, it allows us to push the boat out a bit more and be more creative," he said.
McConnell already offers a vegan menu at his flagship restaurant Cutler & Co and he sees that part of his business becoming more important. "Veganism is a really big movement and it's gaining momentum," he said. He appreciates the challenge of composing dishes in a new way. "It's a whole new skill set which we really enjoy." Alla Wolf-Tasker has been pushing the vegetable-as-hero for decades. "It's gratifying to see things changing," she said. "I remember when the kitchen was enraged if people asked for vegetarian food. It was pooh-poohed. But no-one would try to get away with giving people a plate of broccoli anymore."