Culinary stars like Nigella Lawson, Joan Rochas, Dominique Crenn, David Thompson and Rick Stein lit up the recent Margaret River Gourmet Escape in Western Australia. They were among more than 50 international and local food luminaries at this annual three-day food and wine festival that is now in its fifth year.
We caught a glimpse of Lawson doing lunch at the Platinum Lounge in the Gourmet Village in Leeuwin Estate, the epicentre of all the food and wine activities.
We had lunch at this exclusive lounge – accessible to those who buy a special pass – where food stations served up local produce and wines.
As it was summer, it’s about oysters, prawns, squids, beef and lamb, starring in cold cuts, paella, and grilled items.
Elsewhere in the Gourmet Village, Dany Angove, head chef at Leeuwin Estate, had at the ready 3,000 steamed buns to be filled with pulled pork and hot green sriracha dressing, Asian style, to be tasted with the Leeuwin estate wines that were being poured.
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“For dinner, we are going to have local venison, Shark’s Bay scallops, abalones from Augusta, fresh duck from the farm and wild scampi caviar (a very expensive item at A$3,500/RM11,700 a kilo),” he announced.
Angove, who’s been with Leeuwin Estate for 10 years, said the Gourmet Escape is an amazing collaboration of “chefs who come to see where we live”.
“It’s also about our region’s wonderful produce and wines, beaches and scenery,” he said. “There are a lot of new chefs this year, and female chefs among them, which is good.”
He must be talking about Lawson, whom I finally “caught up” with when she made an appearance at the Chef’s Theatre where it was standing room only, with many (including me) sitting on the grass. Adam Liaw, Masterchef Australia winner, was an eloquent interviewer in the dialogue session, “In conversation with Nigella Lawson”. She was also at a book signing for her cookbook Simply Nigella for which you had to purchase a ticket, and this was a sold out event too!
Honestly, I preferred the Michelin-starred appeal of Dominique Crenn, who was also recently crowned The World’s Best Female Chef at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in New York. The night before, she had delivered a degustation dinner – the “Crenn Collaboration at Wills Domain” – with the wine estate’s rising star chef Seth James. She also had a cooking session with renowned chef Andoni Luis Aduriz at the Chef’s Theatre. Aduriz’s restaurant in Spain, Mugaritz, has two Michelin stars since 2006.
Spanish chef Joan Roca also appeared at the Chef’s Theatre together with Frank Camorra, chef/owner of the highy-regarded MoVida in Melbourne. Roca’s restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, was voted No.1 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013 and 2015. Roca spoke in Spanish as he cooked a seafood dish and Camorra translated.
At this Chef’s Theatre, you could be right on stage getting close to the chefs and dining with them in the exclusive Table of Eight, for which you have to pay A$60 (RM200).
You could walk around with a tasting glass after buying a A$30 (RM100) pass and get your fill of superlative Margaret River wines, spirits and beers from the south-west. We tasted the honey cake which is all the rage; it’s what Singaporeans would take home now instead of the famous apple strudel! There were cheeses, desserts and gelatos, too.
From the restaurants, you could have a meal of Esperance scallops with black pudding, seared flank steak, Amelia Park lamb neck, Paella Mixta, dry aged Great Southern Angus beef carpaccio, and even Balinese satay squid, Vietnamese bahn mi, Penang chicken curry, and Chinese pulled pork buns.
There was plenty to taste, eat and buy. Interactive masterclasses here would take up time and money at the Gourmet Village. I would have liked to attend the Wusthof Knife Skillery where you could handle these special knives and prepare dishes alongside the chefs.
We spent just three hours here, but on that Saturday night, we attended one of the many fringe events of the Gourmet Escape, a dinner at Cullen Wines, cooked by Melbourne chef Andrew McConnell and the winery’s executive chef Iain Robertson, focusing on the biodynamic produce of Cullen, and paired with its biodynamic wines.
More Nigella Lawson
In her dialogue session with Adam Liaw, Lawson admitted to finding it daunting being in the presence of great chefs at the Gourmet Escape. “I can’t hold a knife properly. When I’m cutting a carrot, some go off the chopping board and on to the floor.
“Cooking at home is so different. We have more freedom. When you cook in a restaurant, you need consistency. When you do it at home, it doesn’t matter. You can tinker with recipes and make them happen.
“I’m always in a hurry and need to cook things that are fast and easy. Flavours inspire me. I have no dexterity, no skills, but I love to play around with spices and what works.”
No wonder the crowd of mainly women loved her. Her easy, earthy approach had them hanging on to her every word. “I’m a proponent of slow cooking. Right now it’s cold (where she comes from), so I put together a stew of Asian short ribs and leave it there.”
Stir-frying gives her a complete meltdown, she said, as there are so many things to chop. She doesn’t like to cook complicated food, often foraging in the fridge and cooking from leftovers. “I love stirring a pan of risotto. Stirring is wonderful.”
She hated eating as a child. “I was brought up the old-fashioned way – I had to eat everything on my plate. My mother believed in child labour. I was six when she put me on a stool and I would be stirring things.”
She advised novice cooks to choose a recipe, make it once a week for two months and they will do it so well after that. “Put yourself in the food you are cooking.”
Lawson has written 20 cookbooks since she started 18 years ago. “I love language and always thought that cooking and reading are very similar to writing and eating. I’m greedy. I like words and I like food.”