Invite the World to Dinner
Jo Elwin takes a seat at the greatest dinner party Australia has ever seen, with an extraordinary menu created by three of the country’s iconic chefs.
An invitation to dinner at my place always comes with the word casual in it. Formal dinner parties, and the pressure I put on myself ensuring that they are absolutely perfect, are far too stressful. However, a dinner I attended in Australia last year has had a huge impact on me and it has helped me put dinner parties into perspective. The event, hosted by Tourism Australia, was called Invite the World to Dinner, which from here on it will be referred to as ITWTD. Let’s start at the beginning:
A successful dinner party relies on the right mix of people. Hard enough choosing six? Try 250! Tourism Australia wanted to showcase Australian food and wine to the world so they literally invited the world, via 80 food influencers from 16 countries. We food and wine writers and journalists, chefs, sommeliers, bloggers and broadcast celebrities, joined Australian gastronomic VIPs (yes Maggie Beer; yes Stephanie Alexander, yes Gary, George and Matt…Preston and Moran) and food and wine producers.
If you have a separate dining room, a dinner party would be one of few times you would use it. If your dining area is open plan, it would be dressed up and mood-lit to formalise things. Where, in the whole of Australia, with all its unique wonders would you choose to hold such a special dinner? MONA — David Walsh’s extraordinarily outstanding Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart.
Anyone can dine at one of many eateries at MONA but on this occasion we dine where you cannot — in the Nolan Gallery surrounded by the 1620 individual paintings that make up Sidney Nolan’s snake. To dine at, Kirsha Kaechele, wife of David Walsh, has created a unique serpent-shaped table, its glass sections filled with natural Australian elements, including half a million dollars worth of opals on loan from Lightning Ridge Opal Mines.
At home you would be showcasing your own culinary skills using recipes created by many of New Zealand’s finest chefs and food writers, sourced from the pages of Bite. The ITWTD menu was created and cooked by three icons of Australian food — Neil Perry of Rockpool, Taranaki boy Ben Shewry of Attica and Peter Gilmore of Quay — supported by teams of about 30 other chefs, brought in from their restaurants to work alongside those from MONA.
Earth, fire water
- King George whiting in paperbark (pictured below)
- Grilled baby corn with forest anise
- Charcoal-grilled West Australian marron with wasabi butter
- Roasted wallaby tail broth
- Wood-roast Tasmania lobster with kombu butter
- Charcoal grilled Tasmanian abalone with liver, sake and mirin dressing
Art & produce
Salted South Australian red kangaroo and bunya bunya (pictured below)
Smoked and confit pig jowl, black lipped abalone, koji, fermented grains, shiitake, seaweed (pictured below)
Grilled sirloin, braised cheek, oxtail and tea smoked oyster red curry (pictured below)
Sweet & sticky
- The Great Australian ice-cream cart
- Blue wren eggs (pictured further below)
- Fresh lychee, vanilla, rose, coconut
- Prune, salted caramel, jersey cream
- Date tart (pictured)
- Mango, pandan and coconut
For a small amount of cash, the odd student or two is a god send to help serve, clear and clean at a home dinner party. For ITWTD no less than 100 experienced waitstaff, managed by Neil Perry’s daughter Josephine, were employed to ensure that each perfectly crafted dish reached its diner in peak condition.
As host, one of the toughest jobs is the experience — after all this is called entertaining! You want to create an environment that has guests feeling comfortable and relaxed. They need to feel special, get to know new people and enjoy great food and wine. The evening should unfold seamlessly with everyone staying up way past their bedtimes because it was all so much fun. Boy did ITWTD unfold. My invitation stated the dinner location was MONA and I was told to just head to the barat the Henry Jones Art Hotel (I was staying at the swish IXL apartments in this complex, once the original IXL jam factory) where my bus would meet me at 5.30pm. Feeling the enormity of the occasion I approached the bar and quickly found myself chatting to Lyndey Milan about which wine to order. We were soon joined by Maggie Barry and Hayley Baillie (I have written of the delights of Baillie’s Southern Ocean Lodge previously) and then one of our own much-loved foodies, Mike Van de Elzen, walked in as we were being moved towards the bus which, first surprise, was a walking bus . . . 200m to Elizabeth Pier. On the walk, Eric Ripert (yes, hello!) told me tales of the previous night’s adventures at the Lark Whiskey distillery. Not even an hour in and this evening had me completely star-struck.
At the pier, 2004 Blanc de Blanc from Tasmania’s celebrated House of Arras flowed, accompanied by oysters— Pacific from Freycinet Marine Farm, Sydney Rock from Albany, West Australia, and wild aganasi, hand-collected off Bruny island that morning. We were excitably relaxed and comfortable as we waited for all 250 guests to gather before boarding the ferry to MONA. Second surprise, it was not the ferry crawling towards us but a flotilla of Pennicott Wilderness Journeys boats speeding in, horns-a-honking. As we left the pier, helicopters with film crews overhead, we realised there were people lining the wharf, watching our red-carpet affair. Waving out to them we felt very George and Amal Clooney.
Surprise number three saw us speeding up the River Derwent away from MONA on the right, disembarking instead at GASP (Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park). Mate! They’d setup an Aussie barbie where we sat around fire pits listening to indigenous storytellers. Draped in a gorgeous locally-crafted blanket that had been provided to ward off the chill spring wind and quickly become de rigueur, I moved around the enormous barbecue grills sampling each of the three chefs’ creations. More Tassie lobster than you could ever hope for, Tassie abalone which were enormous and, thanks to rigorous smashing, melt-in-your-mouth tender, King George whiting cooked in paper bark and the sweetest Western Australian marron. Some baby corn balanced things out and a roasted wallaby tail broth warmed the cockles. I was very happy with my glass of Grosset riesling, among a choice of five wines being circulated.
At this point the ferry did arrive, taking us all across the river to MONA where the pyrotechnics kicked in as we walked up the many steps from pier to museum and down in to the Nolan gallery.
Seated around the serpent table, we were served one dish from each of the three chefs, each matched with two wines. On my left was Indian TV personality Maria Goretti, who talked of the cult-like following Australian MasterChef has in India; to my right, Clare Valley wine maker Jeffrey Grosset, whose riesling I was enjoying earlier. We were left to savour the food and company, with each chef talking us through their exquisite dishes that featured produce from every state in Australia, including red kangaroo, wagyu beef, bunyapine nuts, abalone, shiitake and native currants; and a short address from Heston Blumenthal — surprise number four.
For afters, a singer dressed as fairy floss led us in pied piper fashion down to MONA’s void gallery for a roving celebration of all things sweet. As you roamed you could pluck blue fairy wren eggs from nests in trees. These salted caramel eggs were made by Ben Shewry.
I caught up with him down the end of the gallery in his custom-built ice cream truck where he was serving ice cream in the cone.
A wee Lark whiskey and a slice of Neil Perry’s outstanding date tart ended this best-ever experience for me, for others it was cheese and stickies and a party that continued on in to the small hours.
Next time you come in to some crayfish cook it à la Neil Perry by cutting them in half and grilling the mover a wood-fired barbecue until just cooked. Working while still hot, slice the meat in to chunks and toss it in a bowl with a flavoured butter. Neil hada kombu (seaweed) butter made with intensely-flavoured kombu stock, but you could use fresh herbs, salt and a little garlic.