In Australia’s wine region, dreamy cuisine and luxury-car maker intersect

MARGARET RIVER, Western Australia—There’s a temperature
phenomenon in this part of the world called “cool change,” in
which the mercury can hover around the mid-20 degrees Celsius
during the day then plummet to the low teens at night. 

To many Filipinos, though, they’ll likely associate that phrase
with one of Little River Band’s hits. The song by the
Australian group is about getting away from it all, a downshift
in pace, and breathing new air.

For a delegation of tourists, and travel and lifestyle writers
from the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia invited
for three days here in late November, cool change was precisely
what they were in for.

Margaret River boasts a proud wine industry of global acclaim.
Pair that with Australia’s premiere innovative chefs and the
result is a sense-gasmic event called the Gourmet Escape.

Lexus, partnering with
various winemakers here and Australia’s top chefs, brought out
a glistening red carpet on this occasion, rolling it out
through forests, white-sand beaches, a sprawling estate out of
a Jane Austen novel, and a villa dubbed the Panorama, a
glass-walled residence where a chef checks in every morning to
prepare breakfast for the international guests. This is what
pampering feels like dialed up to 11.

“Personally, as a chef and restaurateur in this region, for us,
this is Christmas,” says Aaron Carr, co-owner of Yarri Restaurant in nearby
Dunsborough town. “We get to show you our region, how lucky are
we to show you what we have and you guys go back to your
country and promote Margaret River to the world for us. This is
our chance to make an impression.”

Carr shouldn’t worry about that. For the international guests,
this event was a gift that kept on giving.

The table is set, as chef Paul Carmichael hosts “Crafting
a Feast in the Forest” at Leeuwin Estate Safari Club.

The guests gather around an open fire pit before dinner.

The tree-lined pathway heading to the Safari Club.

Paul Carmichael (left), a Sydney-based executive chef,
brings his A game.

Paul Carmichael’s masterpiece: eggplant, coconut and
trout roe; fish head, chickpea and hot sauce; and
chocolate rum and crème fraîche.

The Lexus RX SUV takes some of the guests to Leeuwin
Estate.

On the first night here, Paul Carmichael and host Leeuwin Estate’s Safari
Club set the tone for what would be a one-of-a-kind experience.

Carmichael, a Sydney-based executive chef, fired up his grill
and his stove to put together a majestic set that includes:
 
CANAPÉS: Plantain, mullet roe, Saint Johns brooke cheese |
Cassava, crab, habanero butter | Barbecue chicken skin | roti,
wagyu and curry 
ENTREES: Eggplant, coconut, trout roe | Jerk pork jowl, abalone
caramel, escabeche | sweet potato, salted cod,
lobster 
MAIN: Fish head, chickpea, hot sauce 
SIDES: Caulini, dog sauce, local olive oil | Green tomato,
choko, avocado | Pumpkin, spicy sofrito 
DESSERT: Chocolate rum, Creme fraiche 
WINES: Leeuwin Estate Prelude Chardonnay | Leeuwin Estate
Prelude Cabernet Sauvignon | Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling
| Leeuwin Estate Sibling Shiraz.

Now, imagine those dishes being set at a barn, with an open
fire pit, in the middle of the woods, with a pathway lined with
light bulb-studded jarrah and marri trees. The air felt
Shakespearean; only the Bard is in dreadlocks and the poetry is
a fabulous multi-course feast.
 
“The way I cook now is freedom, a freedom of expression and me
feeling comfortable with who I am and being comfortable with my
own skin and not feeling apologetic to anyone,” says
Carmichael, “recognized as one of Australia’s best chefs” as
stated in the event promotional pamphlet.
 
The thread that binds these culinary masters is how their youth
and the very early part of their lives shaped their taste and
eventually their careers in the kitchen. As a transplant,
Carmichael, who arrived Down Under in 2015, sets himself apart
by bringing to Australia the flavors he grew up with. He comes
from Barbados, an island-nation tinier than Marinduque, but
unlike some people born and raised in small territories he
harbors no insecurities about his roots.
 
“All these little countries are striving to become first world,
and they look at these other cuisines as better than their own,
which is pretty sh***y to just be like ‘Oh, I really wanna go
to an Italian restaurant.’ Well, a lot of great Italian food is
peasant food so why we can’t we all accept our peasant food?”
Carmichael says.
 
“Why not embrace the thing that is delicious, and not think of
it as just poor? Guess what — beef bourguignon is poor, cacio
pepe is poor, but they’re delicious and celebrated, so why
can’t you celebrate your own?”
 
Finding pride in home-inspired cooking is a concept that
restaurateur Paul
Iskov
lives by. Margaret River and its land play a key
ingredient in these magical meals and the wine. Iskov, who led
his guests in a forage through a beachside area, preaches the
importance of respecting the terrain and the life it breeds.

His lunch offering comes from local flora.

CANAPÉS: Kurujong cracker, sour cream, sardine, blood lime |
Seaweed crackers | Brown butter crouton, cured emu, saltbush
yolk | Pickled mussels, sliced saltbush | Roo tartare,
wattleseed lavosh, Davidson plum | Augusta abalone | Marron,
coastal rosemary 
FIRST COURSE (Dry riesling): Macadamia, bloodroot, lemon
myrtle
SECOND COURSE (Shiraz/Cab sav): Kangaroo, youlk, quandong,
saltbush 
THIRD COURSE (Chocolate based dessert, sweet with astringent
notes to it): Wattleseed, Geraldton wax, muntries, blood
lime
PETIT FOURS: Riberry jube, saltbush fudge, quandong
nougat 
WINES: Wise Methode Champenoise (Toasty brioche, nougat, ripe
stone fruit) | Leaf Series Margaret River Fiano (2017, lemon
zest, stone fruit, sherbet, nutty spice) | Leaf Series Margaret
River Cabernet Malbec (2016, blackcurrant, spiced plums, subtle
oak) | Botrytis Semillon (2017, poached quinces, scents of pear
orchard).
 
Iskov’s technique draws significantly from native practices not
merely because it falls in line with the sustainability
movement, but nature and the ecosystem he seeks to preserve
demand it.
 
“I don’t think this focus on sustainability is just a ‘trend’,”
he told the
Margaret River Press
in a November 6 article posted on its
website. “Many chefs these days are looked up too and I think,
have a great platform and a responsibility to set an example of
ways we can do this.”

Restaurateur Paul Iskov leads a group of journalists and
lifestyle writers in a forage.

Paul Iskov’s crew prepares the entrees.

When it comes to his dishes, Paul Iskov picks his
ingredients out with sustainability in mind.

By this time, figuring what would put this trip over the top
was anybody’s guess. It had become a game of “surprise me,” and
the anticipation grew for the hosts’ next gastronomic treat.

At Fraser
Gallop Estate
on Friday night, things took on a surreal,
breathtaking turn.

As the guests rolled into this astonishing winery, a manor
emerged, one that many of them probably had only seen in
historical period series on Netflix. A tent where dinner was to
be served was set up just by the pond. The late-afternoon sky
radiated an inviting blue hue and the clouds laid out like
sheets of cotton. The sight was jaw-dropping. I could hear
Mozart playing in my head as cool change crept in. (The drop in
temp meant that the buttoned shirt during lunch needed to go
back in the closet, and a jacket and sweater was in order for
the outdoor dinner.)

The pressure to come up with a menu that would live up to the
stunning view fell on Shaun Quade, and the Melbourne-based
restaurateur hit this one out of the ballpark.

STARTERS: Spring chicken | Broad bean tart, scampi roe and
geraldton wax | Pearl on the Ocean Floor 
FIRST COURSE: Sourdough, smoked eel butter, fermented onion
honey 
MAINS: Marron, umeboshi and tomato | Lamb roasted over
eucalyptus, broccoli and asparagus with spring garlic miso
DESSERT: 2019 Lexus ES grill 
WINES: Fraser Gallop Estate Parterre SSB 2017 | Fraser Gallop
Estate Parterre Chardonnay 2014 | Fraser Gallop Estate Parterre
Cabernet 2014.

His trademark
Pearl on the Ocean Floor
, an intricate creation that has
been applauded by Australian food experts, was at the center of
Quade’s show. The dish, it seemed, tried to capture for the
tongue what it’s like when the sand and waves hit one’s toes on
the beach, or when the sea wind blows in the face. It felt
divine in so many ways.

“I don’t read cookbooks. I don’t follow other chefs and what
they’re doing. It probably sometimes makes it hard to come up
with something but when I do come up with something, it’s very
original because it’s not something that I’ve seen on
Instagram,” says Quade, whose Lûmé in South
Melbourne is considered the first restaurant in Australia “to
incorporate augmented and virtual reality into the fine dining
experience,” according to the event promotional pamphlet.

Dinner is capped off with the 2019 Lexus ES grill
chocolate dessert, dubbed as such because it is shaped in the
ca model’s familiar hourglass front. It’ll take a while before
I ever have a meal that surpasses this, backdrop and all.

“We’re trying to take people to a journey when they come into a
restaurant and we do that through the food,” Quade says.

Saturday is when the two-day Gourmet
Village
opens, the equivalent of a five-star fiesta. 

Among other must-see spots, there’s a Wine Hub, a series of
informal wine tastings hosted by an acclaimed wine critic; the
Leeuwin Estate Wine Theatre, an immersive food-and-wine pairing
experience; and a Chef’s Amphitheatre, which features popular
food personalities such as Monica Galetti, Rick Stein and
Nigella Lawson.

“It’s where festival goers and our visiting chefs come to
discover Margaret River’s famed local produce and wine,”
organizers say, “and where the best of the state’s food
professionals and producers showcase what makes Western
Australia such an awesome and unique place to eat and drink.”

The sprawling Fraser Gallop Estate in the afternoon.

The pressure to come up with a menu that would live up to
the stunning view fell on Shaun Quade, and the
Melbourne-based restaurateur hit this one out of the
ballpark.

At Fraser Gallop Estate on Friday night, things took on a
surreal, breathtaking turn.

Fraser Gallop Estate hosts chef and culinary innovator
Shaun Quade and a dinner dubbed “Reimagined wine and
dine.”

Shaun Quade’s signature dish — Pearl on the Ocean Floor.

The dessert is aptly named 2019 Lexus ES grill for its
shape, if it weren’t already apparent.

“We’re trying to take people to a journey when they come
into a restaurant and we do that through the food,” says
Shaun Quade (left).

The exhilarating Gourmet Village, a 5-star fiesta if
there were one.

TV host, best-selling author and internationally renowned
culinary-media personality Nigella Lawson (center) joins
international guests for a group photo.

Breakfast isn’t officially part of the Gourmet Escape program,
but it’s otherworldly just the same. Grieg Olsen, a chef from
the region who owns a catering business, comes to the villa at
about 7 a.m. to prepare the first meal of the day. Out of a
cooler that he brings along with him, he grabs the eggs, strips
of uncooked bacon, and a variety of bread and fruits. Before he
heats the stove, he asks us our preference. We make a bold
suggestion — kangaroo meat cooked in the same way as
traditional Pinoy beef tapa, and egg whites-only, salmon and
cheese omelet. Grieg makes an inaudible “whew.” He’s never
heard anyone, first, have kangaroo meat for breakfast and,
second, a yolk-less omelet. “But there’s a first time for
everything, right?” he goes. Amid the gustatory overload this
week, I wholeheartedly agree.

The indulgence didn’t end at the dining table.

Invited media got behind the wheel of the Lexus RX SUV, a
vehicle that fits into the essence of Gourmet Escape — enjoying
countryside trappings and the simplicity of this side of the
country, and similarly discovering a newfound sense of
sophistication and embracing it. In Australia, the driver side
is on the right but there’s a smoothness to the RX that gives
someone like me, who is used to the Philippines’ left-hand
orientation, confidence to hit this region’s open road. 

The 1-hour-or-so drive from one winery to another that happens
maybe 4 times a day during this festival, and the 6-hour total
drive back-and-forth from Perth were made pleasant by the SUV’s
performance. Through undulating roads and dirt ones, the
vehicle is up to the task. Our guide missed some turns here and
there, but if it meant adding on a few extra kilometers to
savor how slick a ride the RX SUV is I wasn’t going to
complain.

David Nordstrom, vice president of Lexus Asia’s Pacific
division, said the idea behind Lexus partnering with Gourmet
Escape was the “experience.”

“Whether it’s an initiative or a marketing campaign, anything,
we want people have an experience that touches them in some
way. We’re talking about senses, whether it’s their sense of
taste, your sense of touch, your driving our vehicles,”
Nordstrom says.

“That’s why our tagline is ‘experience amazing,’ is because we
want to make an invitation to people to experience amazing in
our vehicles, but also we want them to have an amazing
experience in whatever they do to interact with us.”

The villa in Bunker Bay assigned to me, OPM legend Jim Paredes
and GQ Taiwan editor Jimmy Mo sits on a hillside property
overlooking an expansive white-sand beach, which is how Boracay
would look like if it were left completely alone. The afternoon
temperature is summery, but the waters are chilly. Western
Australia’s sand, sky, sea and a virtually bare shoreline this
time of the year is dreamlike in its beauty. It’s one of the
moments when, in the words of vocalist Glenn Shorrock, I just
want to breathe the air.

Seeing whales burst out of the water is a common sight.
Kangaroos are everywhere, but at the same time they’re not.
It’s not like one just looks out the car window to see those
gorgeous marsupials standing by the roadside. Relying on his
peripheral sense of sight, Russ points to a mob of roos. Jim,
writing about the event for the Philippine Star, and I ask if
we could take pictures. Russ, the guide designated to drive me
and Jim around, pulls over and parks at a spot safe enough so
the roos don’t feel threatened. Two of them are boxing, but
they’re too far from our vantage point to get a clear snap. A
mother kangaroo sits there looking at us with a joey peeking
out of her tummy. She stares at us appearing to size up these
strange beings. Russ reminds us that they are essentially
untamed. Mothers in the wildlife tend to be protective, I begin
to reckon. It was our cue to head back to the car and drive
off.

What makes taking part in events such as Gourmet Escape
distinct from simply stepping into a first-rate restaurant and
relishing its offerings is the interactions with the most
brilliant people in their field, listening to their personal
stories up close, and heading out the door with one’s mind and
appreciation for food broadened.

The chef interviews — thankfully, all were forthcoming —
revealed not just their love for preparing meals; the
discussions also made it apparent — if it were not already —
that people no matter their status and where they come from
deal with everyday, normal concerns as we do.

The talk-show type dialogue at Xanadu Winery featuring
Nigella Lawson, the most
recognizable culinary personality to attend Gourmet Escape,
fleshed out that “food is life/life is food” parallelism as
thoroughly as the other big-name cooks, if not more given her
transcendent global popularity.

Instead of delving into the Xs and Os of her recipes, the
pleasantly candid TV host and award-winning author spoke at
length about personal experiences that both connoisseurs and
casual foodies can relate to, using her time in the kitchen as
a jump-off point.

On being efficient preparing meals, for instance, Lawson says:
“It is not practical to cook the sort of food that needs
elaborate planning. Now you might every now and then want to do
something that takes a bit of planning, but even then you are
going to want to have to make some recipes just doable.

“I always say to everyone whenever you think about what to
cook, you just write down a list and then go through it, have a
cup of tea, come back to it, and then strike half the things
off because you always want to do more and you cannot.”

On keeping a level head: “What I find difficult is people who
take things incredibly seriously. I think you have got to see
the joke in life a bit. I am not saying that it is not serious
— and we all know life can be very serious — but that sort of
thing I do not like pretension.”

On procrastinating: “I think that one of things I try and press
on my children or people I know which I believe is important
which don’t always follow my advice, which is to do it now . .
. If you are not in a piece of work or if you are not answering
an email or if you are not making a phone call you are meant to
do but you do not do, it is not as if you forget that when you
are not doing it, it weighs on you. It stops you. You are not
enjoying the not doing it. Just do it.”

The food and wine, and the landscape are the primary selling
points of Gourmet Escape, but its understated value lies in how
people from all walks of life can converge and share not only
common culinary cravings but also talk about similar life
experiences over not just one or two exceptional meals but a
series of them. It’s that fusion of the extraordinary and the
commonplace that makes events such as this memorable.

“It is about recognizing what is special to us in cooking,”
Lawson says, “and the special, fondly enough, can often be the
everyday. It is those things that make up a love.”

And on this occasion, a perfect getaway.

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