What does “dining” mean to Australia’s best chefs?

What “dining” mean to Australia chefs

Is there a difference between eating and dining? Is it possible to “dine” at a burger joint, or is the enjoyment of a beef patty between two buns simply considered “eating”? Similarly, is a 10-course degustation at a white table-clothed restaurant overlooking the harbour always “dining,” or can the experience be considered a bite to “eat”? For Australia’s best chefs, it all comes down to the experience.

Australia’s food scene is vast and varied. We now boast three restaurants among the top 100 in the world, two of which are listed in the top 50 (Brae, in Birregurra and Attica in Ripponlea). Each year our chefs are expanding their knowledge and creativity, striving to know more about our native foods and culture, while at the same time hunting for inspiration in destinations further afield. Over recent years, Australia’s dining culture has rapidly changed. It’s not all foie gras, foam, starched collars and plush surroundings. Just as much importance and interest is given to a perfectly roasted chicken as to a dish cooked with complicated technique and exotic, expensive ingredients. For Australia’s top chefs, the word “dining” doesn’t mean stuffy or stiff, as perhaps it once might have, but it means giving in to an all-encompassing food experience, which is much about the service, the atmosphere and the company as it is the food and wine.

Peter Gilmore’s Quay at Sydney’s Overseas Passenger Terminal, which overlooks the sails of Sydney Opera House and the blue, shining expanse of the harbour, is considered a jewel in the crown of Sydney’s dining scene. To dine at Quay is a treasured experience ­– one to be savoured and not rushed. For Gilmore, “Dining out means engaging my five senses – at its best, it can be one of life’s great pleasures.” Utmost importance is placed on not only sourcing only the best rare ingredients Australia has to offer (including some grown right upstairs, in Quay’s private rooftop garden), but on the curation and presentation of one of the country’s best wine lists, warm and knowledgeable service, as well as that incredible view.

Down in Melbourne, Andrew McConnell has carved a small empire of sharp, exceptional restaurants including Cumulus Inc, Cutler & Co, Supernormal and Marion. Each of his restaurants presents a unique personality, from the relaxed, polished wine and bistro food of Marion on Gertrude Street, to the buzzy, Tokyo vibes of Supernormal on Flinders Lane. “Dining, great food, and wine are indulgences I live for,” he says. “Food and wine are only half of it, connecting and sharing with friends and family bring the dining experience to life.” Connection is a point keenly felt at all McConnell venues, and the warmth his staff bring to each diner is something McConnell invests in hugely, resulting in loyal diners who return again, and again.

“Ryan Squires’ bold cooking lures eaters craving the cutting edge in Brisbane,” writes Fiona Donnelly, Gourmet Traveller’s Queensland editor. At his restaurant, executive chef Squires looks to surprise his diners with hyper seasonal combinations that change each day, such as winter tomato with burnt butter and basil, or dutch cream agnolotti with smoked mackerel. “A dining experience is personal and needs to be free of all expectations,” says Squires. “From burgers to foie, you have surrendered to the restaurant you are dining in.”

Gourmet Traveller’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year, Orana, is “a unique dining adventure,” says GT’s South Australian editor, David Sly. Chef and owner Jock Zonfrillo, originally from Scotland, examines Australian ingredients such as saltbush, outback fruits and kangaroo with fresh eyes, the way sometimes only a foreigner can. “It’s Australian food as we’ve never eaten before,” says GT’s chief restaurant critic, Pat Nourse. “Confident, assured and original.” Even so, for Zonfrillo, dining isn’t all about what’s on the plate. “Dining for me means family,” he says. “It means catch-ups and good times. New experiences with old friends and old favourites with new friends.”

It’s a similar feeling for West Australian chef Baxter Newstead, of Knee Deep Margaret River, who’s cooked everywhere from Noma in Copenhagen to Melbourne’s Vue de Monde. “Dining out to me is all about strapping yourself in for a ride of great food and drinks with great company,” he says. The biggest plus, though, is allowing himself to relax. “At the end you don’t have to do the dishes!” he says.

It’s clear that though eating may be the physical act, dining is a holistic experience, encompassing so much more than the food itself, no matter what’s on the plate. Australia’s dining rooms are where memories are made and shared – the food being the conduit to connection. “Some of my best memories are those around a dinner table in Melbourne’s beautiful dining spaces,” says Guy Grossi. Here’s to many more.

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Sophie McComas

Sophie McComas

Sophie McComas is a roaming travel and food writer and co-director of bespoke content agency, Buffet. She is an expert on Sydney's food and drink scene and can direct you from tiny wine bars to German butchers at the drop of a hat.
Sophie McComas

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