Our chefs, restaurants, pubs and producers have brought us joy in our darkest moments, writes Gemima Cody.
In one of Attica restaurant's many prescient moves during this pandemic, restaurateur-chef Ben Shewry and partner Kylie Staddon have invited Melbourne to a spirits-raising party on Saturday featuring music from home-grown electronic group the Avalanches. If you didn't see your invitation, don't worry. It's free, and you simply need to register for your link to the gig via the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival's website. While there, you can prep for the shindig with tongue-in-cheek recipes by Shewry for daggy, party-friendly hits such as avo on Savoy crackers, pineapple and cheese hedgehogs and a glamorous Aeroplane strawberry jelly spiked with champagne.
Perhaps this isn't the kind of soiree you might expect from one of Australia's most acclaimed chefs. But Shewry is a storyteller. And after months of lockdown, the narrative he is unspooling is one we all need to lean into: the road ahead is long, and if we want to save all that is great and glorious in our state, we must carry on.
We must because Victoria's food culture is worth fighting for tooth and nail. In 2018-19, tourism contributed $29.4 billion to Victoria's economy and more than 263,000 jobs across cafes, restaurants, pubs, bars and caterers (who would usually be taking on hundreds of staff for the spring racing carnival). Thousands more produce, tend and process raw produce that is coveted internationally. We make award-winning wines, chocolates, cheeses and spirits. Our economy rests on this ecosystem, and so does our soul.
We need not despair, we just need to find ways to keep supporting these businesses while feeding ourselves fantastically at the same time. First the bushfires and now the pandemic have given Victorians the chance to connect with our local food economy like never before. We have also been given the impetus to reach out to friends in need.
Whatever your budget, wherever you live, you have never been more empowered to help keep our great state blooming. Here's how to start.
Sallie Jones from Gippsland Jersey is part of the Click for Vic campaign. Photo: Richard Cornish
How to help producers and farmers
Buying locally is one of the most powerful things you can do and it has never been easier, nor more compelling.
Studious Good Food readers will know all about the vegetable boxes, meat packs and stunning seafood selections that have become available to homes via apps like Fresho.
Ditto the click-and-collect and delivery services of the Queen Victoria, Prahran and other fresh food markets which allow customers to get their fix of French cheeses and wild foraged Victorian mushrooms without leaving their couches.
Not to mention the top quality pasta flours, baked goods and partially-prepared pantry and freezer staples from restaurants-turned-grocers such as Babajan, Rosella and Di Stasio.
But Visit Victoria's new Click for Vic campaign, launched in late August, has brought producers to the table the likes of which you would only have seen while travelling to the most far-flung corners of our state.
The site, divided by regions or categories, is possibly the most niche food marketplace on the web. If your heart beats for bespoke, small-batch products, buckle up.
Matt Argus and Dave Irwin from Patient Wolf Distilling Co. are selling their product online. Photo: Joe Armao
Suddenly, miso made in the Macedon ranges along with anzuboshi (apricots cured in the same Japanese-style as mountain plums known as umeboshi) are a click away. Likewise, prized green and black lip abalone from our icy south coast, cheese in all its glorious forms from Milk The Cow, and chocolate from Mork Chocolate.
Does your ideal shopping cart contain wild game jerky and hand-crafted kids' smocks? Our artisanal world has been prized open like an oyster and there's bounteous treasure inside.
All of the above are listed on the Victorian Country Market, which features 321 producers, some of whom have never sold online, instead relying on a modest, though essential, income boost from tourists roving their town markets. With road tripping off the cards, it gives Victorians a chance to fulfil the Empty Esky pledges we made to help towns devastated by last summer's bushfires.
It is exciting, and it's helping. Since the Click for Vic campaign launched last month owners of regional businesses such as Gather and Harvest and Platypi Chocolates have hired casual staff to keep up with demand.
Greg Whitehead, who operates honey business Walkabout Apiaries, says, "the campaign boosted sales from our fairly modest eight to 12 online orders per week to about 50 last week. Most of these are new customers."
Seeing this new revenue opportunity unfold has provided a flash of hope, he says, that has done wonders for mental health.
If you want to get even more niche, there are even more regional sites you can visit which are acting as co-ops for local businesses who may not have the tech savvy to set up their own online shop. The Loddon Shed sells everything from yarn and skincare products to locally harvested Pyramid Salt; the Regional Pantry does the same for the Yarra Valley and the Prom Coast Food Collective covers South Gippsland and Bass Coast Shires.
For more metro buys, Co-Lab Pantry allows you to purchase the condiments, cereals, cheeses and cocktails from restaurants and other small producers in a single transaction, to be shipped Australia-wide. To buy a bottle of hot sauce may seem small, but that kind of support is both within reach for those with limited budgets and has a proven track record in saving businesses.
Co-Lab Pantry lets you order drinks and condiments from restaurants. Photo: Supplied
How to help restaurants
It's easy to focus on how far Victoria has to go in terms of recovery, but with spirits low, it's vital to pause and see just what we have achieved.
When the first shutdown struck in March, our more technical-and-service-oriented restaurants scrambled to translate their products to the home environment. Hence, the tsunami of lasagne. As the months have worn on, Melbourne's hospitality sector has kept rising to the challenge with both resilience and brilliance.
Lockdown has unquestionably taken its toll on the restaurant industry, but it has also proved why Melbourne is one of the world's great culinary cities. The quality of dining experience that Victorians have available to them right now is staggering. And following Sunday's announcement that restaurants will not be able to reopen for trade until late October at the earliest, it has become vital to support their takeaway offering.
The truth is, you would be a fool not to. Melbourne's most coveted food experiences are available to more of us than ever before.
Koichi Minamishima's eponymous sushi-ya in Richmond holds three hats in the Good Food Guide. An enormous part of its world-class experience rests in claiming a seat at the long, ash counter and watching the chefs move in tandem, palming rice seasoned with their own formula of vinegar and mirin and working the fish for the nigiri. Some may have been gently aged between sheets of kombu, others are sparkling fresh and enhanced mostly through texture with incredibly fine knifework.
A counter seat can take weeks to land and costs $200 a head for the 16-piece omakase experience. And yet, Minamishima's nigiri is now available to you in your home, at a quality that beggars belief.
The 24-piece nigiri box from Minamishima. Photo: Supplied
Minamishima says his team worked tirelessly on taste testing and adjusting the experience to ensure it met expectations. They sourced timber boxes with pressed paper menus. "We spent a few weeks developing the neta (rice packs), balancing the level of vinegar and rice and also the shape and amount of compression, so that it stays together when transported." He says while it is a challenge for the chefs, "each box is made just before delivery".
Securing a table at Attica typically requires diners to pounce on reservations when they open once a month and commit to the restaurant's $295-a-head experience, plus drinks. It is worth every cent.
But right now you can try a dish that told you much about Shewry's growing fascination with roots – his own, those of his produce and of Australia – when the restaurant was first experiencing world acclaim. A waxy potato cooked in the earth it was grown, with a crunchy accent of saltbush (then, still exotic), a sweep of smoked goat's curd and coconut husk ash. It was rich in every sense and sharply defined. It still is. And yours in a three-course menu that is less than $50 a head.
The hits go on. Shane Delia's newly formed company Providoor makes it viable for restaurants to deliver dishes that would have suffered in normal takeaway circumstances. Boxes containing the vacuum-packed and chilled elements arrive overnight for diners to finish in their kitchens following the instructions within.
So it is that Flower Drum, the venerable Cantonese restaurant of 40 years' standing, can now arrive at your doorstep. It's worth a moment of silence for the legions of apprentices who have endured countless nips in the making of chef Anthony Lui's baked crab shells.
Sweet mud crab is hand-picked and cooked, with garlic onion and a luxurious turmeric-stained sauce then baked in the smaller carapace of a blue swimmer. It is an enduring signature for Lui's entire reign in the kitchen. And now it comes to your door.
Flower Drum's signature stuffed crab shell. Photo: Paul Jeffers
The deck is undoubtedly stacked in diners' favour. Kate Reid's Lune Croissanterie, whose internationally acclaimed pastries usually require you to queue around the block, are hand-delivering to your door as they pick new hot suburbs for delivery each week.
Independent stars have risen such as Helly Raichura, whose secret restaurant concept Enter Via Laundry has translated easily from pop-up locations to homes, offering stunning explorations of regional Indian cuisines. (Next stop, Maharashtra).
Creative collaborations are everywhere you look. Good Food contributor Dani Valent is bringing cookbooks to life, using out-of-work caterers and producers who need a boost, to create recipes from the books for delivery to your home. Her next Cooks and Chefs event (this weekend) demystifies the dark arts of fermentation in Sharon Flynn's Ferment for Good.
Some chefs are hitting an incredible creative peak. Chef Thi Le of Anchovy has gone beyond the restaurant's modern Vietnamese menu to explore Laotian dishes. More recently she has been creating Cajun-Vietnamese crab boils.
Finish-at-home dishes from Sunda are available to order from the Providoor platform. Photo: Harvard Wang
Khanh Nguyen of Sunda, whose cooking has always been exciting for its playful reimagining of Asian dishes in new forms (otak otak, typically a steamed fish custard delivered as a chilled parfait, and beef rendang hidden inside buns) has been making detailed pastry masterpieces, creating pâté en croute with all the flavours of banh mi and steaming a whole, brined chicken inside an elaborately detailed party sarcophagus.
We should be worried about losing this history and vibrancy. From the big names to the tiny kebab shop, everyone is pushing for survival and our chefs, restaurants, pubs and producers are what make our state great. They absolutely need financial assistance for the months of trials still to come. But they also need, and deserve, a standing ovation. Look at what our brilliant city has created from the depths of its despair.
One click away
- Attica x the Avalanches To join the party register via melbournefoodandwine.com.au; To try Attica at home, attica.com.au/delivery
- Click for Vic Visit Victoria's website to shop with producers from the far reaches of the state visitvictoria.com/clickforvic
- Co-Lab Pantry A huge range of produce and restaurant fare to your door colabpantry.com.au
- Enter Via Laundry Explore a different region of India through Helly Raichura's weekly banquets entervialaundry.com.au
- Minamishima Koichi Minamishima's nigiri is $120 per person minamishima.com.au
- Providoor Delivers dishes from some of Melbourne's top restaurants within 35km of the CBD providoor.com.au
- Tip jar fund This fund has been established to help visa holders who have no other means of financial support tipjarfund.org