A chat with… John Haddad, Chair, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival

Top featured image credit: World’s Longest Lunch: Daniel Mahon

Love dining out? Then take a seat at the 26th Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, which kicks off on 16 March with events right across the state.

Conceived in 1993 by ad guru Peter Clemenger as “a bold idea to cheer up a city that had lost its bid for a second Olympics”, the Festival has since hosted some of the hottest chefs on the planet including Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Denmark’s René Redzepi, Spain’s Andoni Luis Aduriz and America’s Thomas Keller.

Now attracting over a quarter of a million people, the 10-day not-for-profit event sees industry curate one-off experiences – which can manifest in collaborations with artists, musicians, scientists, visiting chefs, winemakers and farmers – and salutes the massive contribution the food and wine sector makes to Victoria’s economic growth and visitor exposure.

It has expanded from 12 to over 200 events and is now a truly global phenomenon, earning praise in the likes of London’s The Guardian, The Chicago Sun-Times and The New York Times.

John Haddad sits in a fine chair looking towards the cameraChair since 2003, John Haddad, dives deeper into some of the Festival’s highlights.

The Festival has built international kudos, hasn’t it?

Yes, it’s consistently named within the top five food and wine festivals globally. Hosting ‘The World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards’ in Melbourne last year strengthened Victoria’s reputation as a food and wine destination.

Name three top international chefs in 2018’s line up?

From Kent, we’ll be welcoming Stephen Harris, chef/owner of The Sportsman, voted National Restaurant of the Year 2017 for the second year running in Restaurant magazine; Matt Orlando from Copenhagen’s Amass Restaurant – an internationally recognised leader in sustainability; and Shinobu Namae from the two Michelin-starred L’Effervescence in Tokyo.

How do you entice big names to fly out here?

We show them an amazing time while they’re here, and that always helps attract more high-quality people. To date, 42 chefs have participated in the Festival as well as being featured on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

The Festival owns the naming rights for The World’s Longest Lunch, and staged the first one back in 1992 at the MCGThis year’s longest lunch in Melbourne will take place on the banks of the Maribyrnong, where 1700 diners will gather at a 500-metre long table for Indian, Italian, Vietnamese and Cambodian influenced dishes.  What’s the idea behind this world-first event?

The concept for it is ‘the spectacle and experience’ of dining with 1,000-plus diners on one continuous table. The location is always quintessentially Melbourne, so locations have included the St Kilda Esplanade, the door-step of Melbourne Museum, the Arts Centre, the National Gallery of Victoria, Treasury Gardens, Fawkner Park and Flemington. Local wine, shared food, celebrity chefs and visitors from all over the world complete the event. One of my favourites was staged in Carlton’s Lygon Street – a wonderful setting to celebrate the contribution and influence of Italian migration on our hospitality industry. Also, the lunch on the Grand Prix straight garnered international media exposure for Victoria.

Regional areas also get a look in…

Around 40 per cent of the program is regional. One example: there are 24 Regional World’s Longest Lunches taking place across the state from Ballarat to the Bass Coast. The diversity of soil, landscape and terrain creates a wonderful opportunity to showcase the range of wine style, agriculture and the stunning aesthetics as memorable backdrops to the food and wine experience.

This year’s festival theme?

‘Community’. It’s reflective of the times, with events celebrating neighbourhood produce (The Community Farm in Seddon and LA’s gangster gardener Ron Finley at Theatre of Ideas), multiculturalism (World’s Longest Lunch in Maribyrnong) plus mindful and sustainable farming (Victoria & The World Tasting Room). Also, this year we have a cutting-edge program with ZeroFoodprint – an international restaurant community committed to fighting climate change – and will host dinners and a session on Sustainability at Theatre of Ideas.

What do you love most about your role as chair?

The hospitality sector, by and large, is made up of small-to-medium businesses, including many families who have enormous resilience and energy. That, in turn, motivates me to support them. It’s a very busy role, but I find it stimulating and rewarding.

John Haddad leaning against a piano smiling into the distanceBiggest food and wine trends seen at the Festival over the years? And trends hitting the radar in 2018?

Through international and local chefs presenting at MasterClass, the Festival has ridden the rollercoaster of food trends from haute cuisine degustation menus by the late Charlie Trotter in 1997, to the primal allure of cooking over bare flames with David Chang at Fire MasterClass in 2012, to making food float by Grant Achatz in 2017.

At Theatre of Ideas, the enduring conversation over the past five years has been: “how will we feed ourselves in years to come?” With presenters such as Magnus Nilsson (head chef at Sweden’s Fäviken) and Dan Barber (chef and co-owner of Manhattan’s Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York’s Pocantico Hills) offering alternative thinking on farming, cooking and dining.

Locally, Melbourne (and Victoria) continues to be a world leader setting benchmarks for fine dining, casual drinking and everything in between. The emergence of the use of native ingredients at many leading restaurants, such as Attica, Vue de Monde and Brae, is incredibly exciting and I look forward to it becoming the norm rather than a trend. Also, some say 3D printing is the future of food – I’m not sure I’m ready for that!

John Haddad’s top three personal highlights from Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, over the years:

  1. “Given my love of arts and music perhaps one of my favourites, if I had to choose, would be a gala dinner at the Royal Exhibition Building; a fitting venue to showcase the best of Victorian food, wine and visiting chefs, alongside a troupe of ballet dancers, opera singers and the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra.”
  2. “Nigella Lawson on the program.”
  3. “A dinner at the institution that is Donovans on the St Kilda foreshore, where we devoured endless seafood and to finish, hand churned vanilla ice-cream."