Something interesting has been afoot at dinner tables across the city of late. Where diners once cared for little more than flavour, presentation and service, there’s an increasing awareness of just where our food comes from and how it has been produced. We may want our nosh to be flavoursome, inventive and satisfying, but it is equally important that what’s on the plate is locally and ethically sourced.
So in celebration of sustainable practice, three great chefs – Paul Wilson, Ross Lusted from Sydney’s The Bridge Room and Circa’s head chef, Jake Nicolson –joined forces with leading sommelier Sally Humble recently for a one-off event at Circa, aptly titled One Night on Earth, as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. The quartet created a six-course menu using only the finest local and organic produce as well as international biodynamic wines.
The Publican got a rare look into one of Australia’s most renowned kitchens for the night, whilst sampling the delicious produce at the table end.
6.30pm Upon climbing the staircase to Circa, the sticky chaos of summer in St Kilda makes way to bright, white tranquillity. Immediately, one notices the impossibly chic wait staff whose busied gait correctly suggests that something important is about to happen.
Ever the gentleman, chef Paul Wilson takes a break from the heat of the kitchen to offer a greeting. He then steers us back to the galleys to witness stone fruit being precision sliced on an intimidating large, silver device, which looks like it could cause serious damage in the wrong hands. Before returning to his preparations, Wilson gives us a word of warning for the evening. “Make sure you enter the kitchen only from the left side, we don’t want you to get a plate to the face,” he laughs, only half joking. Noted.
7pm Holding a glass of bubbly, sommelier Sally Humble explains that tonight’s menu was created in reverse, with the wines selected before the food, which has been designed to compliment her choices. “Try every wine for full enjoyment,” she suggests, before taking to the floor for a brief welcome address, before allowing the wines speak for themselves.
7.30pm Back in the inferno-like kitchen, the team are huddled around Wilson like a football scrum with all the excitement of grand final day. “We’ve worked hard in the last few days, now is the time to enjoy it,” he encourages. Seconds later, there is movement everywhere and the (organised) chaos descends.
8pm The first Riesling, a 2011 Keller “Von der Fels” (“from the rocks”), is served to a crowd that includes families with children, perhaps doing field research for the next season of Junior Masterchef, twenty-somethings and couples. The accompanying apple-roasted bonito and salad of heirloom veggies is arranged on the plate “at 12 o’clock” as is the request of the chef, suggesting aesthetics have not been waylaid in pursuit of the perfect bite.
8.30pm While guests enjoy their second wine outside, Wilson takes a moment from plating up dish two – shellfish served with cheek bacon, corn and a little known Mexican herb called wild epazote – to explain the preparation that precedes such a large-scale event. “The produce was ordered on Friday and arrived on Monday, with everything that could be pre-organised happening from then. The corn takes three days to perfect, which is mad, but when you taste it you get it.”
9pm The waiters line up as the final touches are added to the Milawa duck before it is delivered to tables. Chef Jake Nicolson calls out dietary requirements and cover numbers with alarming speed, surely testing the memory capacity of the team. Whilst the shared sense of focus is palpable, the mood is amicable, with none of the expected raised voices and terse words.
9.30pm Diners have finished their third course and are enjoying the second red of the evening, blissfully unaware of the military style proceedings playing out mere metres away. “This is so yum,” remarks a little blond boy who is nearly on the nod, pretty much summing things up.
10pm The final savoury course – a pure blood sirloin steak served with a delicately smoky porcini risotto – is plated up, signalling something nearing the home stretch for the kitchen. A relaxed dishy sings the praises of life at Circa, explaining, “I’ve worked in kitchens where pots are literally being thrown at people’s heads at this point. With these guys, they don’t have to yell to tell you when something is wrong.”
10.30pm Humble asks the crowd to vote on their favourite of each wine, with the German Riesling easily defeating the French Sav. Guests are too distracted by their next sipper, a “funky” dessert wine that brings sherry to mind, to answer the same question regarding the reds. No matter, dessert is about to be served and the anticipation takes precedence. When it arrives, the gruyere custard is full of surprises, delivering savoury notes where sweetness is expected, to unfaultable effect.
11pm As the custard makes way for second dessert, the final course for the evening, chef Ross Lusted thanks his guests for their patronage. “I’ve worked in the kitchens of Japan, Singapore, Thailand and most recently, Sydney, over the past 10 years, but I’ve got to say that Melbourne produce and weather is hard to match,” he enthuses.
The last dish reaches tables. Surveying the scene, Nicolson breaths an audible sigh of relief. Although he has held it together like a true professional, he insists he has survived much like a duck – calm above water, but madly flailing below.
11.30pm Surprise! A playful seventh course that looks like something straight out of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, complete with a gourmet lollipop for grown ups, challenges diners to make room they didn’t know existed. Terra firma, as artfully curated by Wilson, Nicolson, Lusted and Humble, continues to giveth, at least for One Night on Earth, providing nourishment for tastebuds and ethical sensibilities alike.
For more images documenting the One Night on Earth event, simply visit our social gallery.