For one glorious week in April, the hottest chefs on the planet walked the city’s laneways, ate its best food, and got boozy in its bars. Familiar faces were stopped in the streets for selfies, while others enjoyed their time under the radar. But all went out in search of the city’s famed food, bar, and coffee cultures – a rare privilege given due respect by Melbourne’s talented and justifiably proud hospitality industry.
During their time in town, the likes of Dominique Crenn (Atelier Crenn, San Francisco) and Virgilio Martinez (Central, Lima) shared their ‘edible ideas’ with the public at 50 Best Talks events, while Wylie Dufresne (WD-50, New York City) and Zaiyu Hasegawa (Den, Tokyo) got on the pans at guest chef appearances in local venues such as Supernormal and The Town Mouse.
Elsewhere across the city, chefs Carlo Cracco (Ristorante Cracco, Milan) and Grant Achatz (Alinea, Chicago) hosted sold-out masterclasses as part of a star-studded Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, which – in an unprecedented boon for local gastronomes – just happened to be running during the same week, further intensifying the city’s already heightened excitement levels.
Despite the flurry of exclusive events, it was the week’s biggest affair – the countdown of the top 50 restaurants on the planet – that had every last chef, journo and blogger in town riding waves of suspenseful delight. Held inside the historic Royal Exhibition Building, the event saw the red carpet rolled out for over 800 lucky guests, including judges from each of the 26 designated geographical regions, as well as industry figures, local and international media and food commentators, and, of course, this year’s nominated chefs and restaurateurs.
For those who didn’t make it onto the guest list, a satellite event was held just a few streets away at riverside precinct Federation Square, with hundreds of local food enthusiasts cheering on hometown favourites Attica and Brae, as the 50-1 countdown unfolded live on the big screen.
Earlier in the week, for an even more select crowd, an invitation to experience a multi-course menu prepared by one of the world’s visiting greats was perhaps enough to trump all other events. When Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur – consistently ranked by the World’s 50 Best as the top chef in France – agrees to recreate his signature dishes using local Australian produce, you clear your schedule and go.
Born in Argentina with Italian heritage, Colagreco dropped out of an economics degree after realising that food was his true calling. Once he qualified as a chef in 2001 he headed straight to France, working under Bernard Loiseau at the three-starred Michelin restaurant La Côte d’Or in Burgundy, before moving to Paris to train with French culinary icons Alain Passard (at L'Arpège) and Alain Ducasse (at Hotel Plaza Athénée). In 2006 the young chef struck out on his own to establish Mirazur on France’s Côte d’Azur, earning a Michelin star in his first year and his second in 2012.
The expat Argentinian’s recent Melbourne visit wasn’t his first foray to the antipodes. “I have travelled to Australia many times before,” he explains. “I love the feeling of Melbourne as a city; the people, the modern and arty architecture and the amazing coffee everywhere you go!” This visit though was perhaps his most productive – executing an intimate dinner event for 30 guests of QIC GRE at the historic Hellenic Museum site in the northern fringe of Melbourne’s central business district.
Capitalising on the energy of the restaurant industry and the undeniable camaraderie felt by local and international chefs during the week’s celebrations, the dinner provided guests with an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience. It saw Colagreco reproduce some of his most iconic dishes alongside talented Melbourne hospitality pros – and a bounty of carefully sourced local produce.
Along with collaborators Michael Madrusan (the man behind acclaimed Melbourne cocktail bar The Everleigh) and celebrated floral artist Saskia Havekes (Grandiflora, Sydney), the event’s creative director Tony Assness set the scene for a truly magical evening.
On arrival guests were invited to take drinks in the museum’s atmospheric Henson Room, where a bespoke cocktail bar was set up alongside the museum’s stunning collection of works by Australian photographer Bill Henson. The dinner was then held inside architect Sean Godsell’s MPavilion, which is now a permanent feature in the museum’s secluded tree-lined courtyard.
Far from treading the tightly focused haute cuisine path of so many other French chefs, Colagreco’s food speaks of both his origins and his professional journey. His is a culinary persona made up of three distinct identities: an Italian heritage, an Argentinian upbringing and classical French tutelage. It’s food that beautifully combines the simplicity of home-grown produce with experimental techniques and sophisticated plating.
When describing the gastronomic raison d’être that earned him the number four spot in this year’s World’s 50 Best (up from sixth place last year and eleventh in 2015), Colagreco is emphatic about the importance of simplicity. “I like to highlight incredible fresh produce, and I try not to hide it with too much cream or too many sauces,” he explains. “It’s about celebrating the flavour of each ingredient in the dish.”
When back in France, Colagreco works with fresh produce from the Mirazur garden, from the nearby mountains and from the sea. “As well as growing our own, we source ingredients from small producers and markets – locally, and just over the border into Italy. Absolutely everything is seasonal and of the highest possible quality.”
The chef describes his menu as a canvas on which to reinterpret some of his fondest childhood memories. "After eating at Mirazur guests sometimes say to me, 'I used to eat that when I was a child!' Which is exactly the reaction we're aiming for," Colagreco says.
"I want to remind people of the real flavours and textures of produce," he continues. "Of how food tasted in their childhood when their mum or grandma would buy groceries fresh at the market or grow them in the garden."
In Melbourne Colagreco collaborated with local chef Peter Gunn (formerly of Attica), who last year opened his first restaurant, Ides, to high acclaim. Like the Argentinian, Gunn relies heavily on close relationships with producers and suppliers to source ingredients that have that special next-level something. But being in charge of sourcing produce exceptional enough to please one of the world's greatest chefs? Gunn rose to the challenge.
"It gave me a huge boost of confidence to show Mauro some great produce and to see him really appreciate it," says Gunn. "He loved the local cream from Saint David Dairy and said the caviar that we sourced was some of the best he's ever tasted – which was a nice feeling."
"Before we did the dinner together, Mauro and his chefs came into Ides to eat and show their support," Gunn says. "That speaks volumes about the kind of guy he is. For me and my team, having the chance to learn from Mauro and see the way that he approaches produce was just incredible."
And the love was very much a two-way thing. "Melbourne has really good produce and great chefs," Colagreco says. "What impresses me most is the great mixture of cultures and techniques here – it's a big melting pot of influences."
So what was the hardest thing about recreating his Mirazur signatures on the other side of the world? "The challenge is the ingredients themselves, because even though we can find vegetables, meat and fish almost everywhere in the world, they are never the same as they are at home in Menton," Colagreco says.
And the most rewarding aspect? "Also the ingredients," he says. "It's always a pleasure to discover new produce. It's also wonderful to discover the same produce with a different taste. When you travel, the water is not the same, the ground is not the same, the sunlight is not the same."
Those lucky enough to have joined Colagreco on his Australian culinary adventure were afforded a rare and intimate insight into the chef's professional character; his influences, his inspirations and his incredible devotion to the all-important minutiae of his craft. They saw local Australian ingredients articulated anew; translated through the hands, eyes and palate of an Italo-Argentine-French chef who just happens to be one of the world's finest. For the rest of us, we can only hope that Colagreco's recent visit won't be his last.