'To be able to deliver this in Melbourne will mean everything': the Victorian food events back on the menu

Hatem Saleh with event staff Donna Tickell (left) and Lisa Van Zanten are getting ready for the return of Melbourne food ...
Hatem Saleh with event staff Donna Tickell (left) and Lisa Van Zanten are getting ready for the return of Melbourne food events at new Prahran event space Sophia. Photo: Paul Jeffers

After an excruciating 20 months, Victoria's event producers are planning parties, primping venues and clawing back business lost to pandemic restrictions.

"We've been waiting patiently for this time to come along and now we are getting excited," says Hatem Saleh, chief executive of Atlantic Group, which runs multiple function spaces in Melbourne, including Port Melbourne Yacht Club and spectacular new venue Sophia at The Prahran Arcade.

"The events industry is hurt, distraught, broken," he says. "Whether you're big or small, you've been affected dearly in a financial and human sense."

Mould Cheese Festival Melbourne in 2019. The food event will make a return at the end of November.
Mould Cheese Festival Melbourne in 2019. The food event will make a return at the end of November. Photo: James Broadway

As a major caterer for the Grand Prix, Saleh's pandemic began with the Formula One race's cancellation in March last year. This came six months after the group was evicted from its home base on Docklands' Central Pier, which was declared at risk of collapse by Development Victoria in August 2019.

"We lost 80 per cent of our business when that happened, then COVID came along and we lost the rest," says Saleh.

He consolidated and powered on. "My view has been to take the attitude that it doesn't get any worse," he says. "We are going to come back harder, stronger and more efficient."

Hanover House in South Melbourne will host a multimedia dining experience with food by Scott Pickett from November 10.
Hanover House in South Melbourne will host a multimedia dining experience with food by Scott Pickett from November 10. Photo: Supplied

Sophia – named after Saleh's 10-year-old daughter – is a pillar of the reshaped Atlantic Group, taking on part of the heritage Chapel Street building which was home to artist David Bromley for the past 13 years.

The 1890 three-storey edifice has a majestic facade with deep balconies. Sophia's grand ballroom is upstairs, overlooking the soaring vaulted ceilings of the arcade at the rear, currently home to a JB Hi-Fi.

Corporate and social bookings are rolling in. "It is going to be a great celebration venue," says Saleh, who was planning to open Sophia the day Melbourne went into its sixth lockdown. "80 days later, here we are, looking forward to getting on with it."

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Dan Sims, chief executive of event company Revel, is also in go mode, counting on fourth time lucky for next month's Mould cheese festival, which has been postponed three times.

"We have been through the wringer," he says. "In 2019, we ran 40 food and drink events. This will be our first major event in Melbourne for two years."

As restrictions ease, Sims is starting to believe this one will really happen. "We should hit 90 per cent vaccination two days before, which makes us even more confident," he says. However that doesn't mean Sims will be back on top financially.

"I will be there in my suit and bow tie, greeting people and pouring their champagne," says Hatem Saleh.
"I will be there in my suit and bow tie, greeting people and pouring their champagne," says Hatem Saleh. Photo: Paul Jeffers

"We are not out of the woods as a business. We've been hustling for two years, putting cheese in boxes and selling wine in cans. We have fought hard to stay around so we can deliver the events we've sold tickets for. There's a feeling of owing everybody a good time."

Sims is just hoping to get an event under his belt and start operating again. "To be able to deliver this in Melbourne will mean everything," he says. "For my team, for the people who've been patient with us, I'll probably burst into tears of relief."

With regional Victoria reopening, country venues are gearing up for spring events too. At King River Estate, owner Karen Butler is running a scaled down version of the wine and food extravaganza that is normally part of the multi-venue Dolce Vita wine trail in the King Valley, three hours north-east of Melbourne.

"Normally we have thousands of people coming and going but this time it will be 150 a day," she says. "We are happy but apprehensive too. We are a bit worried about checking everyone is vaccinated. Hopefully people will understand that we are just applying the government rules and we can't afford a $100,000 fine."

Atlantic Group's Hatem Saleh can't wait to kick off and is planning to be hands on for the first event at Sophia.

"I will be there in my suit and bow tie, greeting people and pouring their champagne," he says. It's part of a statement of belief in his city. "People are keen to go out and we're keen to look after them. We are confident that Melbourne will resonate and come back strong."

Get booking – seven food events for the diary

Mould: A Cheese Festival

Fourth time lucky! Come to taste Australia's best artisan cheese and learn to tell your rind from your rennet at a masterclass.

November 26-28, Abbotsford Convent, 1 St Heliers Street, Abbotsford, mouldcheesefestival.com

King River Estate Welcome Back Weekend

Pizza, dumplings and kebabs are the foodie backdrop to a relaxed outdoor celebration of King River Estate wines.

November 20-21, King River Estate Wines, 3556 Wangaratta-Whitfield Road, Edi, kingriverestate.com.au

Ability Festival

Dylan Alcott's inclusive, accessible music festival is coming to Alexandra Gardens. Food trucks including Smoothie Planet and Taco Station keep the good times rolling.

November 27, Alexandra Gardens, 3 Boathouse Drive, Melbourne, abilityfest.com.au

Sunny Ridge Strawberry Picking

Pick-your-own punnets on the Peninsula restarts this weekend. Head into the fields to pluck the reddest, juiciest fruit and take fresh and frozen berries and preserves home.

244 Shands Road, Main Ridge, sunnyridge.com.au

Higher Order

If you've ever wanted to stand inside a giant bamboo steamer to eat snacks, this is for you. Before Australia's tallest building is erected here, the existing office block will host high concept art events, including this multimedia dining experience with food by Scott Pickett available as you wander through themed rooms.

From November 10, Hanover House, 158 City Road, Southbank, sthbnk.com/events

Grand Italian Feast

This function centre's event calendar is a litany of "cancelled" notices so it's exciting to look forward to a lazy afternoon of house-made pasta, wood-fired pizza and tiramisu. There's accommodation if you want a weekend getaway.

November 21, Holmesglen at Eildon, 92 Moore Road, Eildon, holmesglenateildon.com.au

Indian Mela Melbourne

Most of Melbourne's big Diwali celebrations are online but this Indian culture festival is an in-person snack fest. Come for chaat and chat, kulfi and falooda, and food stalls selling spices and chutneys. There's Bollywood and Bhangra dancing too.

November 13-14, Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne, foodietrails.com.au/foodie-events