With food festivals now commonplace across the nation, and every television channel sporting reality cooking shows, finding a point of difference to make a food fest tastier than the rest might seem a difficult task.
Not for the creative directors of 2016’s Tasting Australia presented by Thomas Foods, chef Simon Bryant and wine aficionado Paul Henry, who’ve merely drilled into the DNA of Australia’s first major food festival to take it to another level.
There was the usual array of splendid eat sessions, even think sessions, imported chefs and wine savants – more than 30 of them in all, plus popular consumer events from a roving regional lunch in the Barossa to plodding through the Adelaide Hills picking seasonal fruit and making your own jars of jam – even a “meet the baker” wood-fired bread oven in the Adelaide festival hub, Town Square.
But although it’s a description neither Bryant nor Henry would easily embrace, this is really the thinking foodies’ festival, designed to have people involved more deeply in the sources and origins of their food, the way it’s produced – ethically, sustainably or not, and the ways it can best be used. It’s much more than just bringing in a raft of celebrity chefs.
“When Tasting Australia started in 1997, because it was the first it had no model to follow. It focussed a lot on produce and its potential and it was a game changer, always ahead of the game,” Bryant says.
“And when I look at the names that were brought out, they were always ahead of the curve. It was always someone who was truly innovative. It wasn’t just for the name – it was because they were doing something truly interesting.
“But we’re not mesmerised by big name chefs. It’s quite a complex thing but first of all I think farmers and food writers, and thinkers and academics, artists and mums and dads are more interesting than chefs. We’re a dull mob.”
“There are some fascinating chefs, but some of the people around the edges of food, who don’t get the spotlight I think deserve it more. It starts with the produce, but I’d go further back than that and say it really starts with provenance, landscape, climate – and then how the farmer forges those elements and works in harmony with them to produce that product. The chef’s job is to get it on the plate in the least destructive way and to honour the work of the farmer.
“So I’m more interested in attracting people who are farmers, writers, thinkers. Sure we’ll bring chefs, but not to march into town and take over the joint for a week.”
From fine dining to parking-lot firepits
Bryant says Adelaide has the enormous advantage of having its major food and wine producing regions so close to the city, which has enabled an extraordinary array of farm-gate and winery events easily accessible from the state capital.
“Most Adelaide people have some idea of our regions so they’re not disconnected from the food bowl,” Bryant says. “But for people from interstate and overseas it’s a revelation how close they are and how real they are.”
Among Bryant’s favourite events is the “In The Company Of” series, where prominent chefs have been matched with a city restaurant and also a regional venue, as close to the farm gate as possible.
Every special guest is very carefully paired, such as Singapore-based Aussie firemaster Dave Pynt, who will cook first on Magill Estate’s $400,000 Molteni stove-grill combo, then in carpark firepits at Joe Grilli’s Primo Estate winery at McLaren Vale.
“We’ve learnt that having the majority of our events in the regions is fantastic,” Bryant says, “but we were too shy about over-competing in the CBD, where everything just sold out. We can now put more on because Adelaide really did embrace it.
“We’ve also learnt we can be a little bit more ambitious, having discovered that the public really does have an appetite for some sticky issues.”
A singular vision
Appointed in 2014 with Bryant as co-creative director, Henry shares equal responsibility for Tasting Australia’s vision, philosophy and programming – in that order, he says.
“The idea was to create a show that was about eating and drinking rather than the conventional orthodoxy, which is about food and wine,” Henry says.
“It was conceived around experiences that we think are unique and specific to SA and, more importantly, its products and producers.
“The intention was to really invert the normal hierarchy of food festivals, which tends to be around chefs and celebrity, and to look at the other end of the supply chain and value equation, which is about farmers and produce.
“That remains still very much our guiding philosophy and principal point of difference. It’s really about farmers, bakers, fishermen, distillers, fermenters, winemakers, brewers and so on.”
Regarded as one of the leading figures in the global promotion of Australian wine, he’s worked internationally in marketing and branding for 25 years, and been based in Australia for the past 10 years, most recently leading the marketing for Wine Australia.
Six years ago he established Winehero Australia, which specialises in strategic planning, brand development and communication.
“I see wine as a food and my food heroes tend to be winemakers, as well as farmers and bakers – I don’t make a distinction in that regard,” Henry says.
“I think it’s all about what we produce from the land and how we try and coax the elements to our favour, and ideally in a way that is ethical, profitable and environmental.”
Where people, places and produce meet
Henry says that, for him, Tasting Australia is unapologetically a celebration of a place, or a series of places, very much anchored to South Australia.
“But that’s not an exclusive vision; we also have winemakers and distillers, farmers and producers from around the world and from other states. If people find the title Tasting Australia misleading, remember that it was the original international food and wine event back in 1997 and someone had the foresight to call it Tasting Australia, not Tasting South Australia – and I hope we prove that this is not a disingenuous claim.
“Certainly we demonstrate that in this year’s line-up and talent, but it is very much about what I call the real food heroes, whether they be the people, places or produce of SA.”
One of the events that best demonstrates this is the Single Sites Dinner on May 5, in which Henry has matched seven single site wines with seven outstanding chefs.
“The challenge is to create a statement or identity dish for that particular vineyard,” he says, “and I think the line-up we have for that event is second to none. It will produce an evening the like of which Adelaide has never hosted before.
Big gun from the US
On a more personal level Henry was excited about the presence of US journalist and playwright Mark Kurlansky, who hosted a series of evenings based around his books – International Night, Cod, Salt, The Big Oyster – that explore the history, economic and social impact and cultural development associated with various food products.
“We’re not trying to intellectualise food and food production,” he says, “but I think it’s a huge issue economically for the state, a huge issue culturally for Australia, and at an individual level how we look after our own health and well-being, how we react inter-generationally, is all anchored in food and the act of sharing.”
Bryant was especially excited to have attracted Kurlansky: “His book Cod raises many uncomfortable issues for us. It may not be for everyone, but for me food is politics; the way you shop, the way you cook, is incredibly political.”
Henry recalls a quote he once heard that sharing food must have been the original act of diplomacy: “I don’t want to sound too grandiose but I hope that’s what Tasting Australia is about, that it challenges us to think about that what sort of contemporary, modern food culture we’re building in Australia, and that’s a big conversation and potentially a profound one. In terms of culture, economics and community it’s entirely relevant.”
To book your tickets: Tasting Australia