In Australia’s wine region, dreamy cuisine and luxury-car maker intersect

Dominic Menor, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 11 2019 01:29 PM

MARGARET RIVER, Western Australia—There’s a temperature phenomenon in this part of the world called “cool change,” in which the mercury can hover around the mid-20 degrees Celsius during the day then plummet to the low teens at night. 

To many Filipinos, though, they’ll likely associate that phrase with one of Little River Band’s hits. The song by the Australian group is about getting away from it all, a downshift in pace, and breathing new air.

For a delegation of tourists, and travel and lifestyle writers from the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia invited for three days here in late November, cool change was precisely what they were in for.

Margaret River boasts a proud wine industry of global acclaim. Pair that with Australia’s premiere innovative chefs and the result is a sense-gasmic event called the Gourmet Escape.

Lexus, partnering with various winemakers here and Australia’s top chefs, brought out a glistening red carpet on this occasion, rolling it out through forests, white-sand beaches, a sprawling estate out of a Jane Austen novel, and a villa dubbed the Panorama, a glass-walled residence where a chef checks in every morning to prepare breakfast for the international guests. This is what pampering feels like dialed up to 11.

“Personally, as a chef and restaurateur in this region, for us, this is Christmas,” says Aaron Carr, co-owner of Yarri Restaurant in nearby Dunsborough town. “We get to show you our region, how lucky are we to show you what we have and you guys go back to your country and promote Margaret River to the world for us. This is our chance to make an impression.”

Carr shouldn’t worry about that. For the international guests, this event was a gift that kept on giving.

The table is set, as chef Paul Carmichael hosts “Crafting a Feast in the Forest” at Leeuwin Estate Safari Club.

The guests gather around an open fire pit before dinner.

The tree-lined pathway heading to the Safari Club.

Paul Carmichael (left), a Sydney-based executive chef, brings his A game.

Paul Carmichael’s masterpiece: eggplant, coconut and trout roe; fish head, chickpea and hot sauce; and chocolate rum and crème fraîche.

The Lexus RX SUV takes some of the guests to Leeuwin Estate.

On the first night here, Paul Carmichael and host Leeuwin Estate’s Safari Club set the tone for what would be a one-of-a-kind experience.

Carmichael, a Sydney-based executive chef, fired up his grill and his stove to put together a majestic set that includes:
 
CANAPÉS: Plantain, mullet roe, Saint Johns brooke cheese | Cassava, crab, habanero butter | Barbecue chicken skin | roti, wagyu and curry 
ENTREES: Eggplant, coconut, trout roe | Jerk pork jowl, abalone caramel, escabeche | sweet potato, salted cod, lobster 
MAIN: Fish head, chickpea, hot sauce 
SIDES: Caulini, dog sauce, local olive oil | Green tomato, choko, avocado | Pumpkin, spicy sofrito 
DESSERT: Chocolate rum, Creme fraiche 
WINES: Leeuwin Estate Prelude Chardonnay | Leeuwin Estate Prelude Cabernet Sauvignon | Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling | Leeuwin Estate Sibling Shiraz.

Now, imagine those dishes being set at a barn, with an open fire pit, in the middle of the woods, with a pathway lined with light bulb-studded jarrah and marri trees. The air felt Shakespearean; only the Bard is in dreadlocks and the poetry is a fabulous multi-course feast.
 
“The way I cook now is freedom, a freedom of expression and me feeling comfortable with who I am and being comfortable with my own skin and not feeling apologetic to anyone,” says Carmichael, “recognized as one of Australia’s best chefs” as stated in the event promotional pamphlet.
 
The thread that binds these culinary masters is how their youth and the very early part of their lives shaped their taste and eventually their careers in the kitchen. As a transplant, Carmichael, who arrived Down Under in 2015, sets himself apart by bringing to Australia the flavors he grew up with. He comes from Barbados, an island-nation tinier than Marinduque, but unlike some people born and raised in small territories he harbors no insecurities about his roots.
 
“All these little countries are striving to become first world, and they look at these other cuisines as better than their own, which is pretty sh***y to just be like ‘Oh, I really wanna go to an Italian restaurant.’ Well, a lot of great Italian food is peasant food so why we can’t we all accept our peasant food?” Carmichael says.
 
“Why not embrace the thing that is delicious, and not think of it as just poor? Guess what — beef bourguignon is poor, cacio pepe is poor, but they’re delicious and celebrated, so why can’t you celebrate your own?”
 
Finding pride in home-inspired cooking is a concept that restaurateur Paul Iskov lives by. Margaret River and its land play a key ingredient in these magical meals and the wine. Iskov, who led his guests in a forage through a beachside area, preaches the importance of respecting the terrain and the life it breeds.

His lunch offering comes from local flora.

CANAPÉS: Kurujong cracker, sour cream, sardine, blood lime | Seaweed crackers | Brown butter crouton, cured emu, saltbush yolk | Pickled mussels, sliced saltbush | Roo tartare, wattleseed lavosh, Davidson plum | Augusta abalone | Marron, coastal rosemary 
FIRST COURSE (Dry riesling): Macadamia, bloodroot, lemon myrtle
SECOND COURSE (Shiraz/Cab sav): Kangaroo, youlk, quandong, saltbush 
THIRD COURSE (Chocolate based dessert, sweet with astringent notes to it): Wattleseed, Geraldton wax, muntries, blood lime
PETIT FOURS: Riberry jube, saltbush fudge, quandong nougat 
WINES: Wise Methode Champenoise (Toasty brioche, nougat, ripe stone fruit) | Leaf Series Margaret River Fiano (2017, lemon zest, stone fruit, sherbet, nutty spice) | Leaf Series Margaret River Cabernet Malbec (2016, blackcurrant, spiced plums, subtle oak) | Botrytis Semillon (2017, poached quinces, scents of pear orchard).
 
Iskov’s technique draws significantly from native practices not merely because it falls in line with the sustainability movement, but nature and the ecosystem he seeks to preserve demand it.
 
“I don’t think this focus on sustainability is just a ‘trend’,” he told the Margaret River Press in a November 6 article posted on its website. “Many chefs these days are looked up too and I think, have a great platform and a responsibility to set an example of ways we can do this.”

Restaurateur Paul Iskov leads a group of journalists and lifestyle writers in a forage.

Paul Iskov’s crew prepares the entrees.

When it comes to his dishes, Paul Iskov picks his ingredients out with sustainability in mind.

By this time, figuring what would put this trip over the top was anybody’s guess. It had become a game of “surprise me,” and the anticipation grew for the hosts’ next gastronomic treat.

At Fraser Gallop Estate on Friday night, things took on a surreal, breathtaking turn.

As the guests rolled into this astonishing winery, a manor emerged, one that many of them probably had only seen in historical period series on Netflix. A tent where dinner was to be served was set up just by the pond. The late-afternoon sky radiated an inviting blue hue and the clouds laid out like sheets of cotton. The sight was jaw-dropping. I could hear Mozart playing in my head as cool change crept in. (The drop in temp meant that the buttoned shirt during lunch needed to go back in the closet, and a jacket and sweater was in order for the outdoor dinner.)

The pressure to come up with a menu that would live up to the stunning view fell on Shaun Quade, and the Melbourne-based restaurateur hit this one out of the ballpark.

STARTERS: Spring chicken | Broad bean tart, scampi roe and geraldton wax | Pearl on the Ocean Floor 
FIRST COURSE: Sourdough, smoked eel butter, fermented onion honey 
MAINS: Marron, umeboshi and tomato | Lamb roasted over eucalyptus, broccoli and asparagus with spring garlic miso
DESSERT: 2019 Lexus ES grill 
WINES: Fraser Gallop Estate Parterre SSB 2017 | Fraser Gallop Estate Parterre Chardonnay 2014 | Fraser Gallop Estate Parterre Cabernet 2014.

His trademark Pearl on the Ocean Floor, an intricate creation that has been applauded by Australian food experts, was at the center of Quade’s show. The dish, it seemed, tried to capture for the tongue what it’s like when the sand and waves hit one’s toes on the beach, or when the sea wind blows in the face. It felt divine in so many ways.

“I don’t read cookbooks. I don’t follow other chefs and what they’re doing. It probably sometimes makes it hard to come up with something but when I do come up with something, it’s very original because it’s not something that I’ve seen on Instagram,” says Quade, whose Lûmé in South Melbourne is considered the first restaurant in Australia “to incorporate augmented and virtual reality into the fine dining experience,” according to the event promotional pamphlet.

Dinner is capped off with the 2019 Lexus ES grill chocolate dessert, dubbed as such because it is shaped in the ca model’s familiar hourglass front. It’ll take a while before I ever have a meal that surpasses this, backdrop and all.

“We’re trying to take people to a journey when they come into a restaurant and we do that through the food,” Quade says.

Saturday is when the two-day Gourmet Village opens, the equivalent of a five-star fiesta. 

Among other must-see spots, there’s a Wine Hub, a series of informal wine tastings hosted by an acclaimed wine critic; the Leeuwin Estate Wine Theatre, an immersive food-and-wine pairing experience; and a Chef’s Amphitheatre, which features popular food personalities such as Monica Galetti, Rick Stein and Nigella Lawson.

“It’s where festival goers and our visiting chefs come to discover Margaret River’s famed local produce and wine,” organizers say, “and where the best of the state’s food professionals and producers showcase what makes Western Australia such an awesome and unique place to eat and drink.”

The sprawling Fraser Gallop Estate in the afternoon.

The pressure to come up with a menu that would live up to the stunning view fell on Shaun Quade, and the Melbourne-based restaurateur hit this one out of the ballpark.

At Fraser Gallop Estate on Friday night, things took on a surreal, breathtaking turn.

Dinner is on its way.

Fraser Gallop Estate hosts chef and culinary innovator Shaun Quade and a dinner dubbed “Reimagined wine and dine.”

Shaun Quade’s signature dish — Pearl on the Ocean Floor.

The dessert is aptly named 2019 Lexus ES grill for its shape, if it weren’t already apparent.

“We’re trying to take people to a journey when they come into a restaurant and we do that through the food,” says Shaun Quade (left).

The exhilarating Gourmet Village, a 5-star fiesta if there were one.

TV host, best-selling author and internationally renowned culinary-media personality Nigella Lawson (center) joins international guests for a group photo.

Breakfast isn’t officially part of the Gourmet Escape program, but it’s otherworldly just the same. Grieg Olsen, a chef from the region who owns a catering business, comes to the villa at about 7 a.m. to prepare the first meal of the day. Out of a cooler that he brings along with him, he grabs the eggs, strips of uncooked bacon, and a variety of bread and fruits. Before he heats the stove, he asks us our preference. We make a bold suggestion — kangaroo meat cooked in the same way as traditional Pinoy beef tapa, and egg whites-only, salmon and cheese omelet. Grieg makes an inaudible “whew.” He’s never heard anyone, first, have kangaroo meat for breakfast and, second, a yolk-less omelet. “But there’s a first time for everything, right?” he goes. Amid the gustatory overload this week, I wholeheartedly agree.

The indulgence didn’t end at the dining table.

Invited media got behind the wheel of the Lexus RX SUV, a vehicle that fits into the essence of Gourmet Escape — enjoying countryside trappings and the simplicity of this side of the country, and similarly discovering a newfound sense of sophistication and embracing it. In Australia, the driver side is on the right but there’s a smoothness to the RX that gives someone like me, who is used to the Philippines’ left-hand orientation, confidence to hit this region’s open road. 

The 1-hour-or-so drive from one winery to another that happens maybe 4 times a day during this festival, and the 6-hour total drive back-and-forth from Perth were made pleasant by the SUV’s performance. Through undulating roads and dirt ones, the vehicle is up to the task. Our guide missed some turns here and there, but if it meant adding on a few extra kilometers to savor how slick a ride the RX SUV is I wasn’t going to complain.

David Nordstrom, vice president of Lexus Asia’s Pacific division, said the idea behind Lexus partnering with Gourmet Escape was the “experience.”

“Whether it’s an initiative or a marketing campaign, anything, we want people have an experience that touches them in some way. We’re talking about senses, whether it’s their sense of taste, your sense of touch, your driving our vehicles,” Nordstrom says.

“That’s why our tagline is ‘experience amazing,’ is because we want to make an invitation to people to experience amazing in our vehicles, but also we want them to have an amazing experience in whatever they do to interact with us.”

The villa in Bunker Bay assigned to me, OPM legend Jim Paredes and GQ Taiwan editor Jimmy Mo sits on a hillside property overlooking an expansive white-sand beach, which is how Boracay would look like if it were left completely alone. The afternoon temperature is summery, but the waters are chilly. Western Australia’s sand, sky, sea and a virtually bare shoreline this time of the year is dreamlike in its beauty. It’s one of the moments when, in the words of vocalist Glenn Shorrock, I just want to breathe the air.

Seeing whales burst out of the water is a common sight. Kangaroos are everywhere, but at the same time they’re not. It’s not like one just looks out the car window to see those gorgeous marsupials standing by the roadside. Relying on his peripheral sense of sight, Russ points to a mob of roos. Jim, writing about the event for the Philippine Star, and I ask if we could take pictures. Russ, the guide designated to drive me and Jim around, pulls over and parks at a spot safe enough so the roos don’t feel threatened. Two of them are boxing, but they’re too far from our vantage point to get a clear snap. A mother kangaroo sits there looking at us with a joey peeking out of her tummy. She stares at us appearing to size up these strange beings. Russ reminds us that they are essentially untamed. Mothers in the wildlife tend to be protective, I begin to reckon. It was our cue to head back to the car and drive off.

What makes taking part in events such as Gourmet Escape distinct from simply stepping into a first-rate restaurant and relishing its offerings is the interactions with the most brilliant people in their field, listening to their personal stories up close, and heading out the door with one’s mind and appreciation for food broadened.

The chef interviews — thankfully, all were forthcoming — revealed not just their love for preparing meals; the discussions also made it apparent — if it were not already — that people no matter their status and where they come from deal with everyday, normal concerns as we do.

The talk-show type dialogue at Xanadu Winery featuring Nigella Lawson, the most recognizable culinary personality to attend Gourmet Escape, fleshed out that “food is life/life is food” parallelism as thoroughly as the other big-name cooks, if not more given her transcendent global popularity.

Instead of delving into the Xs and Os of her recipes, the pleasantly candid TV host and award-winning author spoke at length about personal experiences that both connoisseurs and casual foodies can relate to, using her time in the kitchen as a jump-off point.

On being efficient preparing meals, for instance, Lawson says: “It is not practical to cook the sort of food that needs elaborate planning. Now you might every now and then want to do something that takes a bit of planning, but even then you are going to want to have to make some recipes just doable.

“I always say to everyone whenever you think about what to cook, you just write down a list and then go through it, have a cup of tea, come back to it, and then strike half the things off because you always want to do more and you cannot.”

On keeping a level head: “What I find difficult is people who take things incredibly seriously. I think you have got to see the joke in life a bit. I am not saying that it is not serious — and we all know life can be very serious — but that sort of thing I do not like pretension.”

On procrastinating: “I think that one of things I try and press on my children or people I know which I believe is important which don’t always follow my advice, which is to do it now . . . If you are not in a piece of work or if you are not answering an email or if you are not making a phone call you are meant to do but you do not do, it is not as if you forget that when you are not doing it, it weighs on you. It stops you. You are not enjoying the not doing it. Just do it.”

The food and wine, and the landscape are the primary selling points of Gourmet Escape, but its understated value lies in how people from all walks of life can converge and share not only common culinary cravings but also talk about similar life experiences over not just one or two exceptional meals but a series of them. It’s that fusion of the extraordinary and the commonplace that makes events such as this memorable.

“It is about recognizing what is special to us in cooking,” Lawson says, “and the special, fondly enough, can often be the everyday. It is those things that make up a love.”

And on this occasion, a perfect getaway.