Sydney International Food Festival (a small slice)

Chefs from the Showcase Gala Dinner posing while plating. Photo by Dominic Loneragen of the(sydney)magazine.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of attending quite a number of food festivals in different parts of the world. Most recently, I was in Sydney, Australia, to check out the first-ever Sydney International Food Festival, both as a panel-speaker and also as an invited observer. I was particularly excited to head down under for this particular festival because its director, the amazing Joanna Savill, is an old and very special friend. Joanna is one of the most respected foodies on the planet, let alone Australia. Among her many accomplishments, Joanna is co-editor of the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide and co-creator of the landmark TV Series, The Food Lover’s Guide to Australia. My darling wife S and I first met Joanna back in 2001 (of course, we were already fans) and have been friends ever since then.

Joanna has taken what used to be known as the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Month and has turned it into a stellar international food festival worth planning your Australia trip around. The Festival is still a month-long, with different programmes and components happening throughout the month of October. Whether a person is more into gritty streetside dining or is a fan of fine dining, the Festival has been truly able to deliver an experience for each and every kind of foodie out there. Joanna’s also smartly sexed up several events, introducing star power to bring in the crowds. For example, the Festival’s opening event was a day of Barbecue Madness. But Joanna didn’t just bring in anyone to lead the barbecue. Oh no… she enlisted the help of Fergus Henderson of St John in London to work with 12 well-known Sydney chefs, turning a simple bbq into a powerhouse gastronomic event!

I had flown down to take part in the World Chef Showcase. This 2 day series of talks and demonstrations featured some really amazing culinary talent. The theme for this year’s Showcase was The Best of Asia, which I thought was fantastic. We don’t even properly celebrate our own region at most of our own festivals. I thought it was inspiring and exciting for the Sydney Festival to be championing the best of Asian cuisine, chefs, food writers, and restaurateurs. The participant list was simply amazing. Superstars like David Thompson, Peter Gordon, Pichet Ong, Jereme Leung, Kylie Kwong, Alvin Leung, Fuchsia Dunlop, Cheong Liew, Rainer Becker, Neil Perry, Chui Lee Luk, Andre Chiang, Yu Bo, Yoshihiro Murata, Mamoru Tatemori, and Tetsuya Wakuda (among others) all took their turns on stage during the weekend of 10-11 October. Each day, there were three consecutive tracks of talks and demos. On the first, Track 1 focused on Thailand and Vietnam; track 2 on China; while track 3 was the “world” track which featured chefs like Sergi Arola and Alexandre Bourdas. The second day, track 1 was Asia; track 2 was titled “Creative”; and track 3 focused on Japan.

Jereme Leung cooking at the Showcase Gala Dinner. Photo by Dominic Loneragen of the(sydney)magazine.

Chef Andre Chiang from Jaan par Andre was one of the featured chefs in the Creative track. He wowed the audience by demonstrating how he works from inspiration through to a finished dish made up of a half dozen different complex components. But of all the demos during the Showcase, it was the one that immediately followed Andre’s that garnered the largest audience and left the audience the most stunned. In just one hour, Chef Yu Bo, from Yu’s Family Kitchen, aided by famed food writer Fuchsia Dunlop, was able to leave a room of foodies and chefs speechless.

Now, I have to be honest. Before taking part in the Festival, Yu Bo was not a chef whose name immediately triggered any memories or reactions. I vaguely recalled reading about him in articles penned by Fuchsia for Gourmet Magazine back in 2003 and 2005. But he wasn’t someone on my radar, so to speak. So, when I read the Festival’s description of what he was doing at his restaurant in Chengdu, I was very intrigued and excited. Here was a chef supposedly doing things on par with the great innovators, like Tetsuya or Ferran, that was operating out of a small, remote restaurant in Asia (as you can tell, I am a fervant regionalist). Meals at his restaurant are reportedly 40 course affairs that represent the very best of traditional Szechuan cuisine mixed with strikingly modern ideas of food and food presentation. Over the days leading up to Yu Bo’s demonstration, it was clear I wasn’t the only one that was anxiously awaiting his session. It would be an understatement to say his demo–especially among the gathered chefs–was the most anticipated one in a programme of amazing demos.

Yu Bo’s demo was, in fact, so packed, several top chefs and journalists were left standing in the back of the room. The session started at a fever pitch, with Fuchsia and Yu introducing 16 kinds of vegetarian appetizers, each representing different Szechuanese flavour profiles, cutting techniques and ingredients. Some of what we were shown was simply spectacular: potato pieces cut into tiny cubist masterpieces, chive stems plaited into elegant “jade hairpins”, etc. Next, Yu’s wife demonstrated cutting 140 quills into a small dumpling in order to fashion an edible porcupine. This was followed by more amazing presentations which finally culminated in Yu showing off one of his most famous signature dishes, buns fashioned to look like calligraphy brush bristles that have been carefully placed on the end of brush handles and presented with a vinegar sauce that looks like an edible ink. The whole thing was mind-blowing. I was seated next to Rainer Becker (founder of Zuma), who had Neil Perry next to him. David Thompson was seated behind Neil. At one point, I looked over and all three men–all culinary giants in their own right–were staring open-mouthed at what Yu Bo was doing.

For a more detailed rundown of Yu’s demo, please check out Amanda’s post on it here: Spread My Butter.

Kylie Kwong at the Showcase Gala Dinner. Photo by Dominic Loneragen of the(sydney)magazine.

On 10 October, S and I also attended the Showcase Gala Dinner, hosted by the(sydney)magazine and held at the Ivy. It was a truly impressive feast prepared by some of Sydney’s best chefs as well as several of the visiting superstars. I thought it was very smart that dishes were served family style (each table had a lazy susan). The first course showcased three dishes: a Vietnamese salad of crispy pork, prawn, pineapple and jellyfish by Daniel Hong; steamed Tasmanian scallop wontons with Sichuan chilli oil by Kylie Kwong; and grilled pork liver rolls with radish and carrot pickle by Cheong Liew. Up next was steamed snapper with abalone and snowpeas and black fungi by Peter Doyle; tapioca crab fritters with Tasmanian ocean trout ika mata by Peter Gordon; and eight treasure spring chicken by Jereme Leung.

Cheong Liew at the Showcase Gala Dinner. Photo by Dominic Loneragen of the(sydney)magazine.

This was followed by poached organic chicken with chilli jam, cashew nuts and Thai basil by Martin Boetz; and soy-braised short rib with chestnut and potato puree and kimchi chutney by Edward Kwon (who was travelling with two camera crews in tow). Dessert was jackfruit and tapioca with coconut cream from Tanongsak Yordwai and David Thompson; and chilled mango pancakes with crisp coconut gelato by Lauren Murdoch. Everything was delicious. S was particularly impressed by Peter Doyle’s ability to steam snapper in such large quantities without overcooking it. I loved Kylie’s wontons (but I love anything Kylie cooks) and Edward’s soy-braised short rib. I also couldn’t get enough of Peter’s crab fritters and Lauren’s crisp coconut gelato. One of the best things about the night was that the(sydney)magazine had arranged a live video feed from the kitchen–which meant that throughout our meal we could watch the chefs cooking for us.

In addition to doing demonstrations over the weekend, many of the visiting celebrity chefs were also asked to guest-chef at some of Sydney’s best restaurants, either before or after the Showcase weekend. Andre, for example, took over the kitchens at Mark Best’s Marque for one night. According to the organizers, his meal was sold out almost immediately upon announcement. S and I made sure to have dinner at Becasse, where resident owner-chef Justin North was sharing his kitchen with Alexandre Bourdas. Bourdas used to run Michel Bras’ restaurant in Hokkaido. He has since left and now owns and runs his own place in Normandy, Sa.Qua.Na, which has in just a few years already earned 2 Michelin stars. The meal was exquisite. I liked that North didn’t take a back seat but that the dinner featured 5 courses from each chef. My favourite courses were la pascade Aveyronnaise with truffle oil (a pascade is a light souffle pancake) by Bourdas; a tartare of oysters, veal, and abalone, served with a potato foam, also by Bourdas; a fricassee of yabby tails, sweetbreads, morels and white asparagus by North; and a lovely baked Clarines Perrine cheese picked out by North.

Poh Ling Yeow at the Showcase Gala Dinner. Photo by Dominic Loneragen of the(sydney)magazine.

One additional perk to attending the Showcase was meeting and hanging out with Poh Ling Yeow, the very attractive and charming runner-up of Masterchef Australia. I hadn’t heard of the show before heading down, but lordy, did I hear about it while in Sydney. Poh was being treated like a rock star, with people stopping her constantly to ask for photos and autographs. It was really amazing and I am hoping that the producers of the show release the first season on DVD so I can watch it as soon as possible.

Now, there are loads of other things to cover from our trip to Sydney and Hunter, so stay tuned. More posts to come.

About Aun Koh

Aun has always loved food and travel, passions passed down to him from his parents. This foundation, plus a background in media, pushed him to start Chubby Hubby in 2005. He loves that this site allows him to write about the things he adores--food, style, travel, his wife and his three kids!