By Amy Cooper
With a reputation as the food and wine capital of Australia, it’s not surprising that South Australia was chosen to host one of the world’s most influential gatherings of culinary experts: the Chairs of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy.
These 26 international food luminaries, who head the voting panels of the prestigious awards, descended upon the region for two days to round off the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards 2017 program hosted by Australia in the first week of April. The visit included their annual general meeting and Celebration Dinner, and saw the best of The Best come together to experience South Australia.
The World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards program annually attracts the leading lights of the global restaurant industry to a series of events surrounding the Gala Awards Night, which this year took place in Melbourne on 5 April.
Australia’s selection as the second host country outside of England in the Awards’ 15 year history was already a matter of national pride, but the specific recognition for South Australia over all other states was an exceptional honour, distinguishing the region which is already dazzling on the culinary world stage.
After the Awards, the Chairs proceeded straight to South Australia for visits to producers and wineries, meetings with chefs and dining in some of the state’s best restaurants as well as soaking up the picturesque scenery of the Adelaide Hills and Barossa.
The Barossa’s Hentley Farm, Restaurant of the Year in the 2016 Advertiser Food Awards, won the accolade of hosting the Chairs’ Academy Celebration Dinner. Other experiences included a bush breakfast with kangaroos hosted by The Louise; a sub-regional tasting with chief winemaker Dan Swincer and helicopter tour at St Hugo in the Barossa; and Africola’s Duncan Welgemoed cooking wild South Australian produce over fire in the Adelaide Hills.
At Adelaide’s Africola, Welgemoed champions his region’s outstanding produce – and serves it up with lashings of his South African heritage and knowledge gleaned from stints with Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay. He infuses lively anarchy into a menu where local heroes such as Goolwa pippis happily coexist with house-made specialties with names like ‘boom!chakalaka.’
Critics have hailed Africola as one of Australia’s most exciting restaurants, variously describing Welgemoed’s cooking as “pure, unadulterated pleasure, “indecently delicious,” and “a revelation.”
Other star chefs meeting the Chairs included Afghan Kitchen and Kutchi Deli’s Durkhanai Ayubi, a first generation migrant whose journey has taken her from her war-torn homeland of Afghanistan to critical acclaim from the New York Times; The Summertown Aristologist’s exciting new-gen chef Tom Edwards; and The Lost Loaf bakery’s talented pastry chef Emma Shearer.
And then there’s the wine. In recent years, the Adelaide Hills has become ground zero for the natural winemaking movement, epitomised by a youthful, rebellious spirit. Based mainly in the Basket Range sub-region, these winemakers have received global accolades for their holistic, organic, biodynamic and DIY methods. Star names include Taras Ochota from Ochota Barrels, Anton Van Klopper from Lucy Margaux Vineyards, James Erskine from Jauma, Jasper Button from Commune of Buttons and Gareth Belton from Gentle Folk Wines. Tastings with these groundbreakers allowed the Chairs to experience the Australian wine industry’s leading edge, and to meet the individuals rewriting the rules of winemaking in general.
After exploring the future of Australian wine in the Adelaide Hills, the special guests also glimpsed South Australia’s rich past in the Barossa, home to some of the world’s oldest shiraz vines. Ports of call include St Hugo, the Barossa’s newest luxury cellar door and dining experience, for guided tastings and the creations of the restaurant’s Executive Chef Mark McNamara. Then to Hentley Farm, amid the rolling hills of Greenock Creek at Seppeltsfield, for the official grand finale to the South Australian odyssey: seasonal dishes from multiple-award-winning Lachlan Colwill, who hails from the Barossa, and has brought back to his home patch a dazzling reputation earned overseas in various renowned kitchens.
Even these arbiters of taste may find it hard to tear themselves away from the region’s riches. Many of the Chairs were reported to have lingered beyond the end of the formal program. South Australia has that effect on visitors, says Jock Zonfrillo, executive chef at Adelaide’s award-winning Orana restaurant. Like so many acclaimed chefs in South Australia, he came from another country and decided to stay.
“I’ve lived and worked in many other places, and I know I couldn’t operate a restaurant like Orana half as well as I can here. The geography is perfect. I can be in bushland, and then within 10 minutes be in my restaurant. I can easily reach Aboriginal communities and the sources of ingredients.
“I’m not from here originally but I love it passionately. When people visit, they don’t want to leave,” he says.
Virgin Australia flies to Adelaide from all major Australian cities. Most major hire car companies are located at Adelaide Airport.