The Greatest Food and Drink Show on Earth: A Night at The Fat Duck

The Liquid Nitrogen Gin & Tonic is just one of many innovative concoctions at The Fat Duck.

The Liquid Nitrogen Gin & Tonic is just one of many innovative concoctions at The Fat Duck.

Last Friday night I had the best dining experience of my life. Yep, I went to The Fat Duck.
It was epic. It was long, very long, funny, delicious, creative, whimsical and a little bit mind-blowing. And yes, it was very, very expensive. It is very hard to reconcile the cost, it’s almost impossible to suggest it represented value but it was a proper once-in-a-lifetime experience, it was even better than the most over hyped expectations and it took the dinner experience, the restaurant experience to a place I’m not sure I ever thought it could go.

The whole thing was bloody marvellous but the adjective I kept returning to when I came around from my hungover splendour the next day was “confidence”. There was something just awesome about the confidence of the place, of the people, of the intent and the delivery. It was not smugness or arrogance, it was a sense that “we know what we are doing” come along with us. A little bit of swagger for sure but a wonderful, secure sense of “we invented this whole crazy dining thing, there are many, many imitators, now just watch us do our stuff”. And they blew the imposters away.

The staff were brilliant – so often the failing at Australian restaurants. This team were polished but always friendly, never condescending, completely charming, knowledgeable and just a bloody joy to have coming to your table – and they came a lot – I think it was 17 courses…

I have a well-known aversion to smug, self-serving sommeliers – insecure, bearded men who want to confuse and patronise you. The Fat Duck team, lead by a Turk and a Frenchman, were the absolute opposite. At one stage Remi, the French one, even talked me DOWN in price from a Burgundy to a German Spätburgunder and it was INSPIRED. The wine list had a lovely mix of new and old, international and Australian, post-modern and classic. And while it was expensive, I didn’t get the feeling they were taking a lend of me.

The highlight of the meal - the West Australian marron

Highlight of the evening: The West Australian marron.

The food, well it was dazzling. And I don’t think I’ve ever been bedazzled by food and it’s certainly not a descriptor I’ve ever used. I mean the concept of dry ice floating across the entire table with mounds of moss sounds completely ridiculous yet I was as transfixed as a kid in a candy store. The snail porridge is famous and, goddam it, completely bloody delicious. The local touches were superb. A West Australian marron dish was probably the food highlight of the night – superb Australian produce treated brilliantly. The botrytis cinerea dessert, a play on the classic sweet wines, is quite simply the best dessert I’ve had in my life – and I’m bloody lucky that I’ve now tasted it twice.

And that’s what this was, a once (or maybe twice) in a lifetime experience – it simply made a whole lot of other restaurant experiences just feel like being fed by strangers. This was theatre and execution at an entirely different level. And the marketing people talk about “customer engagement” WELL THIS MADE YOU FEEL LIKE YOU WERE PART OF SOMETHING SO SPECIAL, SO AWESOME THAT REALLY you want to proselytise about it to anyone who will listen, or read. The brilliance of each diner getting a small piece of a giant puzzle (that then gets placed on a giant wall puzzle to be completed at the end of the six month stay) gives you a sense that you played your small part in the history – that you can say you were there, that you were involved in the movement.

Best dessert of all time? The botrytis cinerea.

Best dessert of all time? The botrytis cinerea.

I’m very lucky that over the next few months I’m visiting some of the great restaurants in the world in many different cities – I’m sure most will have stunning food and great service but I wonder if they will make me fall in love like the Fat Duck. Heston wasn’t there – he was apparently in London in the “lab”. But we didn’t miss him and nor did the restaurant.

Bravo The Fat Duck and bravo Crown Melbourne. I feel enormously privileged to have sat in the very front row at the greatest food and drink show on earth.

Yet another gripe about wine lists… #predictablestu

I write this column from atop my high horse. I’ve been riding this particular steed for quite a while and intend never to get off till I get my way. And trust me people I’m a hefty bloke with some pretty serious saddle sores right now, so for god’s sake please pay attention.

Australian wine does not have nearly enough representation on the better wine lists of Sydney and Melbourne. And it pisses me off. And it has done so for more than a decade. And I thought it might be improving, but it’s not.

Last month I was invited for the fifth year, to be a panel member judging the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Wine Lists of the Year. Big lists, short lists and regional lists and the winners will be announced on September 1. There are some terrific lists, cleverly constructed that understand that bigger is not always better, that empathy with the food is essential and that supporting local “producers” includes the wine grower as well as the pig farmer.

And then there are the “others”. The ones that think they are “on trend” by being deliberately obscure; ignoring local wines that might simply be too easily understood and accessible.

And then . . ., ooh baby, then  . . . . there’s my particular bete noir; the hypocritical locavore.

The bloke (and it’s ALWAYS a bloke) who forages the weeds from his median strip and  blends them with the whey from the cow he keeps in his yard and the salt he pans from the Alexandria canal . . . oh god, it’s all so painfully LOCAL and ON TREND, it might just make you grow a beard.

But when I see his drinks list, I really want to hurt a hipster because, yep no surprises here, 90% of his wine list has travelled halfway round the world, in big clumsy, heavy bottles with stupid waxy tops and contents that look like the urine sample of a man with just one functioning kidney.

I’m sorry but I call a big, fat, BULLSHIT on that sort of behaviour.

For mine it shows that the person in charge of this restaurant is a chef, not a restaurateur, and that’s bad for business.

I could understand this dire situation prevailing if we lived in, say Wales or Kenya or even Thailand but we don’t. We reside in one of the most clever, brilliant, diverse and exciting wine producing nations in the world and we are getting too widely ignored on our own shores.

If I was in government (and you can be glad I’m not) I would be bloody legislating against this sort of behaviour. I’d be banging on louder than Senator Crazypants from Queensland – and making a hell of a lot more sense.

I have nothing against wines from all over the world; I love them and drink them all the time, but I reckon an outstanding wine list should offer diners the best of both worlds – wacky wines and drinkable wines and an opportunity to discover something they didn’t know they had, possibly right here on their own doorstep.

So think local, eat local and drink local.  It will make you a better human.

We Aussies are no gold medallists in the Grog Olympics

There are certain things in life that if we are told often enough we simply believe to be true.

Recently we’ve been told, endlessly, that Australia has a “booze-soaked culture”, that we have an “alcohol abuse epidemic”.

And guess what? It’s JUST NOT TRUE.

On Australia Day I was at a party like most of you and I asked pretty much everyone I ran into where they would rank Aussies on a global table of booze hounds.

Most had us in the top five – and every single person had us in the Top 10. Why wouldn’t they?

And I was the same. Until I checked the stats.

I swear to god if drinking booze was an Olympic sport we’d be in the middle of a Royal Commission right now because our place on the global pecking order beggars belief.

According to the World Health Organisation figures published in 2011 we are 44th in the developed world on overall per capita consumption of all alcohol. Sure we are number 21 in beer and number 25 in wine but we are ranked 92nd in the consumption of spirits (which frankly I wish I had known before creating my own gin brand last year ).

I’m not in any way suggesting we should be shooting for a higher spot on the table, I’m just craving a little bit of balance – I just wish some politicians and commentators would put on their sensible hats and get out of the sun.

More Australians these days are drinking less but better and that is evidenced by the multitude of small bars and expensive craft drinks. We are taxed and policed more than any drinking culture in the world. And as for the policing, well we deserve it and tolerate it so we can try to avoid the tragedies of recent months.

But we are not global booze hounds, we are NOT, on the whole, serial alcohol abusers. We most definitely have issues with binge drinking, alcohol and drug related violence and sometimes handing out licences to people who probably ought not have the privilege.

If you want the booze gold medallists then take yourself to Moldova (overall), Czech Republic (beer), Luxembourg (wine) or South Korea (spirits) to see cultures soaked in booze.

We have our social problems just like everyone else and we should continue to make sensible and reasoned decisions to better our society. Half baked, knee jerk policy on the run is not the way to make our city or state a better place to live.

Stuart Gregor runs marketing firm Liquid Ideas and owns a gin business and a small winery.

A love letter to Adelaide and Wine

I love Australian wine. That ought to come as no surprise.

I have been kicking tyres around the fringe of the Australian wine industry for almost 20 years and I just bloody love it – the people, the countryside, the drinking and the friendships. But mainly it’s the drinking.

There was much drinking of Australian wine last week in Adelaide. There always is, I hear you cry, but last week there was a little more; it was “fierce” drinking, speed tasting if you like. There was a lot more swallowed than spat and for some of us it has taken pretty close to a week to recover. It was an event called Savour Australia 2013, that brought hundreds of people from around the world to Adelaide to learn more about Aussie wine. It was presented and organised by Wine Australia and Liquid Ideas helped run the show. It was brilliant.

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A night at the Opera – Good Food Guide style

Last night was the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Awards ceremony at The Star. It was fun. A little bit controversial – a classic night of cheers, beers and tears – and that combo is always a ripper. I was there, disguised as an organic steak tartare with a shaved beetroot leaf on top. Here is my scoop . . .

I’ve been to a few Good Food Guide ceremonies but last night was one of the most interesting. There were disappointments, more whispers than usual – and a couple of casualties. Not since Bill Marchetti set his certificate on fire after losing a hat in Melbourne more than a decade ago have we seen such pyrotechnics. We also had the funniest MC in years, Tom Gleeson – massive hat tip to you. As an occasional MC of pretty moderate skill, I always tell people that the MC can make or break the evening and you made it boy.

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