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Today's Melburnians are a melting pot of Celtic, Southern European, Middle European, Middle Eastern, and Asian heritage, and what links them is the food scene. "Everyone here eats out all the time," says Tara Bishop, head of media relations for Crown Towers, a skyscraper hotel, shopping and casino complex which dominates the center of town and houses more than 40 restaurants, including a branch of Nobu. Being in the hospitality industry has taken Bishop, originally from Canada, all over the world. "But what I love about living here," she says, "Is that it is what I call a shoe and dinner town. In London, I'd have to choose between eating out somewhere great or splurging on a pair of Manolos. Here, while the heels are pricey, the food really isn't. I can have both."
"Melbourne is one of the great food cities of the world," says Donna Hay, who, with her eponymous empire of magazines, cookbooks and kitchen wares is the Antipodean Martha Stewart. A native of Sydney, the well-traveled Hay acknowledges that there is something very alluring about Melbourne's "incredibly well-informed waiters, the low lighting, the rich upholstered seating and the alleyways which hide espresso bars, chocolatiers, patisseries."
Grossi believes that what makes the food scene so vibrant is the mix. Referring to himself as "a Melburnian chef with an Italian heritage," he adds, "I don't turn my back on ingredients just because they are not traditional. We don't have to be shackled to old rules. We've got these beautiful ducks livers on the bench today and we're going to sauté them up and do a chestnut flavored pappardelle, which is not strictly Tuscan. People here are brave. You put tripe on the menu, they'll try it and while it may not be as popular as some other dishes, it's a little bit different for your loyal regulars. This restaurant has been here nearly 100 years. With Melbourne people, if you do the right thing, the clientele keeps coming. This isn't a city where the latest kid on the block gets all the attention."
Joseph Licciardi, who was born in Sicily and who runs Kin, muses that Melburnians "treasured the food traditions they arrived with and became adventurous - you had to be, years ago, to come all the way here." His own restaurant, in the Carlton neighborhood, is its own multi-cultural microcosm: his wife, Rosa, who was born in Puglia in the south of Italy, cooks alongside their Australian-born son, Enrico, while their daughter, Agatha, waits tables. "When our kids were growing up here, they would go for yum cha (Chinese dim sum) and try the duck feet," he explains. "And today Rosa cooks unagi eel from Japan, but we offer it in an Italian way." Thus, while a tagliatelle with sweet pumpkin glaze, balanced with aged balsamic vinegar, tastes exactly as it would in Modena, the flavors of the freshest fish, caught nearby, are brought out by serving them raw, in an Asian marinade. "It isn't about "fusion," it's about not limiting yourself to the old ways," says Licciardi.
Making the traditional fresh again has made a star of George Calombaris, 29, something of an Australian Gordon Ramsay. It has also inspired the Melbourne-born chef of Greek origins to open restaurants in his ancestral homeland, where, he says, "they have been serving fried stuff and dips and cheese to tourists on the islands although that's not what we eat at home." Calombaris helms The Press Club, the Maha Bar and Grill, and Hellenic Republic in Melbourne as well as The Belvedere Club on Mykonos. Describing himself as a pioneer who has "taken a classical training and applied it to Greek food," one of his signature dishes is a delicate char-grilled octopus served with smoked butter kozani saffron makaronada (pasta) and edible amaranth blooms.
Although in Melbourne you might need to hop on a city tram to get to your favorite Chinese or Thai place, undiscovered culinary gems lurk on almost every humble street throughout its sizeable suburban spread. Some might argue that the word-of-mouth on a joint called Cicciolina, in the once-rough St. Kilda beach area, has spread too far, given its No Reservation policy can mean long waits in the bar. The secret? "Me sticking to the stove," laughs head chef and co-owner Virginia Redmond, who has turned down offers to write cookbooks or open a second restaurant because she is content doing this one. Try the lightly battered brains with fried chives and aoli. "This is literally the only place in the world I would eat brains!" says Jacquie Byron, a Melbourne writer who says she has been "well-fed and watered here ever since I was a babe."
Even children are welcome at most Melbourne restaurants. Formal places like the Press Club go to pains to point out that they will create child-sized portions of any dish. One Melbourne mother recalls the time she asked her twins as they were playing in the sandpit if they were making mud pies. "It's stuffed zucchini flowers," they replied. An answer worthy of a city that lives to eat.