Melbourne vs the World

When travelling I often have to tell people about life in Australia and one of the things that always gets a strange response that suggests, "Oh you poor provincial" is my description of Melbourne as one of the great food capitals of the world. "Another hayseed boosting his distant and impoverished squalid village" is the look in the eyes now too embarrassed to look into mine.

Nowadays I keep this information to myself. But, of course, it is true. This city boasts an unparalleled variety of cuisines to tempt the most jaded foodie but this by itself is not the whole story. New York City also has variety but it lacks the three essential ingredients that make our home city's epicurian experience different.

The first is that we have a large and diverse group of recent immigrants. I once worked on a project in a North Melbourne public housing estate in which fifty five languages were spoken in one building. Newly arrived Australians bring a knowledge of their cuisine and a customer base that wants it properly cooked and can still tell the difference. As the community gets assimilated so does the food as anyone eating in many of the "ethnic" restaurants in the USA can attest. Try the blindfold test with Thai, Chinese and Mexican in LA and see if you can tell the difference. They are all American. I once went to a Vietnamese restaurant in Prague which was the usual Bavarian food cut up small and served with chopsticks.

I once had a matzoh ball chicken soup in one of the most famous New York Jewish delis. The soup was a fluorescent yellow that could have doubled as a traffic hazard light and the matzoh ball was big enough to choke an elephant.

No chef can make good food from poor ingredients. The other factor that provides the edge for Melbourne is the freshness, variety and quality of the produce. Try a simple fruit salad in London and see what turns up on your plate. I did just that at breakfast this morning in San Francisco and had a very tired, flavourless concoction that was described as "fresh fruit salad". It was anything but fresh although I had to concede that it did look suspiciously like fruit.

Go to the fish market in Tokyo (and you should, it is a great deal of fun) and see where their sushi fish comes from. Everywhere else but locally. We enjoy the pleasure of many foods that have been grown, caught and harvested close to where they are served.

Finally, the goal in operating a restaurant in Melbourne is to have and run a successful small business. Often the owners have an interest in the food and a pride in their product. Seems fairly straight forward really. But in many other places and particularly the USA the goal is to create a brand name that can be franchised. A coffee house in Seattle had a reputation for great espresso. They knew their beans and it became a favourite stop for aficionados and amateur coffee drinkers alike. That original little place has now been franchised and you can walk into a clone from airport, to downtown, to neighbourhood strip all over the great continent of North America. Now the "product" is served by alienated labour who have no idea about and no relationship with the product that they serve.

I walked into one of these alleged coffee bars at O'Hare Airport in Chicago the other day in need of a caffeine hit. "A ristretto please", received a blank stare. Fair enough, not everybody gets that. "A short, strong espresso", I offer. "We don't do that", I am parried. The sign, I dolefully point out says Espresso. "We only do regular espresso", I am told with a knowing shrug. "Uhhu and you have a good day too"

This is not to say that any place selling food here is going to be great. Local knowledge is still required and the usual skills of observation, networking and trial and error are required.

So if you find yourself in parts foreign and you are asked about eating in Australia tell them, "Oh it's not like it is here" using a slightly sad and wistful expression and you can't go wrong.

Bob Weis

© Bob Weis 1999