THERE is a time in my life I would have terrified of fine dining.
Like many people, I grew up in a simple meat-and-veg kind of household.
Ingredients were simply “cooked” — not tortured like the “smashed avocado” or “shredded pork” or “wilted spinach” currently in vogue at Sydney cafes.
In fact, while I was growing up my mother was so averse to anything “fancy” she refused even to use black pepper to season dishes because it was “too spicy”.
Oh, sure, I’ve seen people whip up gourmet dishes like it’s nothing on MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules, but that’s just for TV, right? Surely no-one actually eats that.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself at an event for this year’s Noosa Food & Wine festival at Richard Branson’s Makepeace Island, dining on ants.
Fancy ants, but still. Ants.
They came on top of a lemon and finger lime tart made by Jo Barrett, who frankly I’d never heard of but was later told was “one of Australia’s best dessert chefs”.
It was a crash course in fine dining for dummies.
(For the record, green tree ants are crunchy and bitter, but surprisingly not bad. Jo predicts Australians will gradually start eating more insects as we start to embrace more sustainable eating habits).
Frankly, I was a bit nervous about meeting the chefs.
I thought they’d either be terrifying Gordon Ramsay-types, or judgmental perfectionists like Helen Mirren’s character in The Hundred-Foot Journey.
Needless to say, I was in for a surprise.
The first night, I ate at a pop-up of Ian Curley’s Melbourne restaurant, the French Saloon, which — I breathed a sigh of relief — is known for excellent beef and potatoes.
He’s a big man, with a severe haircut and tattoos on his forearms, and he started cooking when he was released from juvenile detention in his native England.
“I thought it would be a way to meet girls,” he admitted with a gruff laugh.
Considering he was about to serve seven courses to several hundred people, and the kitchen in the sand behind him was a flurry of activity, he was remarkably relaxed.
In fact, if I’m not mistaken, he was wearing a pair of Crocs with socks.
“In cooking, if you don’t love your profession it’s really hard to stay. I’ve been doing this 30 or 35 years, and I’m still learning every day,” he said.
“We have sharing plates, you get to know the people next to you, the alcohol is flowing and everyone has a good time. We like the sharing concept. You could be sitting next to somebody you don’t know, and within two dishes you’ll know a lot about them.”
These days, he told news.com.au, he manages eight restaurants.
Oh, and he got more than he bargained for when it came to getting a girl.
Together with his partner, he now has three daughters.
The skills on display throughout the festival were incredibly impressive.
Kol Gemmell, executive chef at Sandringham Yacht Club in Melbourne, estimated he would serve 5000 dishes of food over the weekend — no mean feat considering he was working from a caravan and a couple of fridge vans.
He told news.com.au he was on the job from 3am until 10pm every day for the duration of the festival, and the timing of each element of his dishes was so precise he had to keep a running timeline in an exercise book to stay on track.
Oh, he can also perfectly poach 140 eggs in 15 minutes.
He laughed sympathetically when I told him the last time I’d tried to poach an egg, I ended up with wispy clag in a saucepan of lukewarm water.
Over the course of the weekend, I tried progressively unusual ingredients.
Adam D’Sylva and Peter Kuruvita’s menu, however, had me stumped.
The duo cooked at an event called “Subcontinental Voyage” at Mr Kuruvita’s restaurant, The Beach House, on Noosa’s main street.
The first item on the menu was “Rockliff Spanner Crab, Brinjal Moju, Betel Leaves” — honestly, I read and write for a living, and I only know two of those words.
The next course had “Mulligatawny soup, popcorn and green tea prawns”.
Whatever they were, both dishes were delicious.
“I just love food,” Mr D’Sylva told news.com.au.
“My dad is a butcher, and I was always given freedom to cook. To me, it’s an art. If you put hours and passion into something, you’re like a dancer or an actor.”
While I loved some dishes instantly, others took more getting used to.
Even as a total rookie, I could appreciate the passion in every meal I tried.
Renowned sommelier Matt Skinner summed it up perfectly.
“It’s like music, it’s like art. It all just comes down to personal preference.”
Kirrily Schwarz travelled courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland, with compliments of Noosa Food and Wine Festival. Next year’s event runs from 17-20 May 2018.