Spotlight on Hunter Valley: Recapping the seventh annual Hunter Culinary Food Fight (NSW)

What happens when some of the top chefs from Sydney and the Hunter Valley are split into two teams and tasked with battling it out in the name of charity? I found out last weekend while up in the Hunter for the Hunter Culinary Association’s (HCA) 7th Annual Food Fight. The event aimed to raise funds for the Brett Graham scholarship and for Australia’s leading food rescue charity, OzHarvest. The scholarship is a long time initiative of the HCA, which gives young chefs the opportunity to work with Graham at his London Michelin starred restaurant, The Ledbury.

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To kick-start the event, some light alcoholic beverages and a slew of delicious canapés were made and served by the Hunter region’s talented apprentices.

P1100766-6Thick pieces of Kingfish accompanied by slaw and a jalapeno slice were a true crowd pleaser.

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The platters of crackling always disappeared within minutes of its arrival from the kitchen.

P1100768-7Balls of deep fried goats cheese went down a treat with a cold beer in hand.

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Moreish steak tartare that paired well with the brioche rounds.

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Despite the crazy downpour of rain in Sydney and in the Hunter Valley that weekend, the skies cleared for a gorgeous day for the event hosted at Oaks Cypress Lakes.

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The main event itself was the food fight which saw two teams battle it out to win the hearts and stomachs of the 375 diners present. On the home team, Team Hunter, we had Troy Rhoades-Brown of Muse Dining, Chris Thornton of Restaurant Mason, Gareth Robbs of Bistro Molines and Josh Gregory of EXP Restaurant. The Sydney away team consisted of industry big wigs Colin Fassnidge of 4Fourteen, Matt Kemp from Q Station, Chur Burger’s Warren Turbull and Justin North of Hotel Centennial Woollahra. The chefs are reunited once more from days past working at the former iconic three-hatted Banc Restaurant.

Kemp takes the stage to explain the voting process. Each diner was presented with a piece of card, white on one side and black on the other. At the end of each course, diners were expected to raise their card towards the stage with the colour indicating their preference for either the dish on the left or the dish on the right. To keep things interesting, dishes were swapped around at each course. This prevented participants from guessing which team had prepared what.

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All courses were paired delightfully with wines from the Hunter region. Featured throughout the event were First Creek Wines, Scarborough Wine Company, McGuigan Wines, Tulloch Wines and Usher Tinkler Wines.

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I was invited for a behind-the-scenes sneak peek just before the entrees were to go out. The theme for this course was Petuna ocean trout as both teams had to use the fish as the hero ingredient.

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Team Sydney/Banc’s entrée was the one on the left (pictured above). Slices of ocean trout flavoured in miso alongside persimmon, pickles and sesame. The bun felt like a teasing clue as to Turnbull’s participation in creating it. On the right we had Team Hunter’s offering of an ocean trout pastrami with sauerkraut, cream cheese mousse pickled cucumber, mustard and rye. It’s a close call as both teams dressed up the ocean trout beautifully, allowing the natural saltiness of the fish to shine through.

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For the mains, diners were treated to two varieties of red meat. Team Hunter is on the left this time with a charred rump cap, King Brown mushroom, broccoli, ash, potato and black garlic foam. The green coloured cream was incredibly tasty with elements of broccoli. On the right is a Paroo “Roosini”. Diners who had eaten at Banc in the past would have recognised it as an interpretation of a classic Banc dish. A tender piece of “roo” sat upon a fan of fried crispy potato. Underneath is spinach which cut through the heavy flavours of the other components. It was a clear Team Banc win for us as the kangaroo was more complex in its flavours. We found the beef from Team Hunter was just a tad bit overcooked but we acknowledge that beef doneness is always a matter of personal preference.

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A lengthy pause came between mains and dessert which was when the auction began. Many items were up for grabs, ranging from holiday packages for food and accommodation in the Hunter Valley to state-of-the-art ovens to a dining experience in London with subsidised plane tickets. It was clear how much community support there was amongst the guests as many dug deep in their pockets. Total funds raised on the day were well over $34,000.

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Finally, desserts are placed in front of us. On the left is Team Banc’s essence of lemon tart which looks deceptively like an overturned ice cream cone. The soft serve is laced with tangy lemon. We’re thankful that we didn’t ignore the cone as within it was actually a layer of chocolate ganache and at the very tip, a burst of tart lemon curd. We found out later that Fassnidge had actually hired ice cream vans to pump out these soft serves, a true testament to his dedication to win. Team Hunter’s dessert is soft chocolate, macadamia and crisp natives with shards of meringue on top. It’s another game of visuals over taste as the chocolate is actually quite rich and heavy. The flavour is spot on but too many mouthfuls sent us into a food coma without being able to finish it. On the other hand, Team Banc’s parts do not equal to the sum and we felt that it would have tasted better if there was a better way for the diner to eat it together as opposed to section by section.

It comes to little surprise that Team Hunter ends up being the overall champion of the food fight. But for such a food bountiful event, we found that there was so much more happening than what meets the tastebuds. More than dishes and flavours, the overall theme of the day was a fiercely loyal community dedicated to keeping the Hunter region thriving.

“Of course each team wants to win and we worked hard to put together some fantastic dishes to delight the guests. [But] in spite of all the competiveness and banter we do still help each other out, have some laughs and enjoy the fact we are supporting the next generation of culinary talent,” said Fassnidge.

To learn more about Hunter Culinary and their events head to the official website HERE