Dinner with Heston at Rockpool Bar & Grill
Anticipation… that sums it up.
A few weeks ago, gorgeous and most generous friend iMac surprised me by SMS: “Are you free for a play date on Fri 18 May?”….I replied in the affirmative: “Yes – OK in the evening”. The next SMS came: “Oh boy, do I have a treat in store for you!!! I require you at 7pm sharp on Friday 18th. You and I are having an intimate dinner in the private dining room at Rockpool with someone very, very special – the lovely Heston!” My response: “O.M.G!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Ever since that series of SMS’s I’ve been dropping the name at every opportunity. Oh yes… well, I’m having dinner with Heston…. It had the desired effect, with people constantly begging my pardon – it was so effective at stopping people mid-conversation as they stared gob-smacked at me, requesting clarification!!
So, after weeks of anticipation… and potentially boring people to death with my name dropping… the evening finally arrived. The event was being held at Rockpool – and I was advised well in advance that Heston would NOT be cooking. That didn’t stop me hoping that he might have snuck into the kitchen during the afternoon to prepare a little surprise for us… One can only hope!
We were ushered into The Waiting Room’s private function area for pre-dinner drinks. Given the dinner was a special event only offered to the higher echelons of the Frequent Flyer Club’s epiQure club, we were greeted by a Qantas hostess checking our names at the door. It felt like we were stepping on board an A380 – with the main difference being Heston waiting inside the door to greet us! We lined up for our “celebrity photo opportunity” – no doubt we’ll end up in the next issue of the Q magazine (look out for us next time you fly). Then we were ushered into the ambient and dimly lit depths of the room, and away from the Heston action, while other guests had their turn. This is where the fun began – because we met up with a lively couple of gents who had flown down from Sydney for the event – Chris and Peter.
We were served some champagne and some canapés – alas, no photos as I was juggling my coat, my champagne, and my bag. The nibblies were a variety of bruschetta arrangements – ceviche on a thin slice of baguette, jamon on a thin slice of baguette, egg and avruga caviar on a thin slice of baguette… you get the drift.
Once Heston finished his photography obligations, he slid his way through the crowd to an alcoved lounge away from the riff raff. Here, he was immediately hemmed in by people he obviously knew. One can only guess who they were – but throughout the evening they cordoned him off secret service style. They will hereafter be referred to as “The Entourage”.
In due course, we were led through to the Bar and Grill – and seated in the private dining room at Rockpool. There were four tables set up in the Highland Room, and we were shown to one at the side. This was clearly not the “Heston table”. However, to our delight, our lovely new friends Chris and Peter were shown to the same table – and we were ecstatically happy to be joined by them! We knew we were in for a great night – because we were surrounded by fantastic company. The other guests at the table were good fun too – and we did have one special guest at our table: the wine representative from Penfolds, who had supplied all the wines for the evening. We tried to look suitably impressed.
Heston sat at the large table in the centre – and was surrounded by at least three members of “the entourage”. There were a few other guests at the large table who looked as thought they had a few billion frequent flyer points on them. They must have been members of the little known “Unobtainium” club. At this event, there was clearly a pecking order, and even though the gorgeous iMac is a Platinum member, she wasn’t high enough on that order to get a seat at the same table as Heston. Or, maybe I was lowering her average!
One of “the entourage” stepped forth to introduce the man who needed no introduction (quote, unquote), and Heston opened proceedings, exhorting us to enjoy the evening. He then sat back down and went into deep conversation with, you guessed it, a black suited member of his “entourage”.
Thankfully, we had brilliant company at our table, and it wasn’t long before we were in the throes of great conversation and enjoying the conviviality of our fellow guests. First course came out - a series of beautiful dishes served family style at the table.
The wines served in the first course were the 2010 Penfolds Reserve Bin A Chardonnay and the 2007 Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay – the latter being the flagship chardonnay for Penfolds. Heston liked the Bin A so much, that he told us it had actually stopped him mid-sentence when he tasted it! Apparently we do a good chardy here in Australia!
In between entrée and main – Heston took the floor and conducted an experiment with us. We were each served a plate with an olive, half a vanilla bean, and a spoon of caster sugar. First we ate the olive – alternating between holding our nose and then letting it go so that we could experience the difference between taste (sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami) and aroma (made up by the millions of aroma molecules that are perceived by our olfactory nerves located just between above and between our eyes). He explained that flavour was a combination of taste and aroma – and that the olfactory nerves have a direct connection to our brains. He demonstrated this further, by getting us to do the same thing with the sugar – as sugar has no aroma, just taste (sweet) – there was no difference between holding our nose and not.
Finally, he got us to taste the vanilla bean – explaining that our perceptions of a flavour are often set by our prior experiences. Most of us think vanilla is sweet – but it’s actually bitter. The association of sweetness comes from the fact that we always have vanilla in ice creams, cakes and creaming soda – never in savoury dishes, although some chefs are starting to break down these conceptions. It was a lovely illustration about taste and aroma – after all, it was the chemistry of food as explained by Harold McGee that really got Heston into molecular gastronomy.
Alas – that was the closest I was going to get to a Heston dish tonight! There had been no secret collaboration between Heston and Neil… d’oh. In fact, Neil was conspicuous by his absence.
One day, Fat Duck, one day!!!
For mains we enjoyed a couple of cracking pieces of beef – my preference was for the grass fed rib eye because it seemed more tender to me. The Rockpool sides are, of course, amongst the best reasons for coming here. Although the famous macaroni cheese didn’t make it to the table, the potato and cabbage gratin did – and that’s a bit of a winner!
2008 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz
2003 Penfolds Grange
2009 Penfolds Coonawarra Claret
Accompanying the main course we were spoiled with some great reds – including the 2003 Grange!! This was my first taste of THE great wine…. I have to say – in my humble opinion, it really didn’t live up to the hype. Interestingly, I was talking to someone about it afterwards and they told me that it really was quite a dated style of wine – but because it’s an institution – Penfolds has to keep making it.
The Claret and Pete getting excited!
I actually preferred the 2009 Coonawarra Claret – which isn’t available for sale, as it was only released as a promotional magnum. It was a beautiful drop, and personally I felt it was the better of the two. But just to make absolutely sure, I did make the most of the Grange as well, and indulged in a couple of glasses. Just for research purposes… you understand!
Between main and dessert – Heston again took the floor for a Q&A session. He told stories about his worst disaster in the kitchen (being enveloped in blue flame while igniting a pilot light); his new kitchen product under patent (a domestic sous vide appliance which will be on the market in November); whether he was going to open a restaurant in Australia (no plans); amongst others. He acknowledged that he was probably repeating stories people had heard in his live shows – but nobody really complained as he mimicked rocking a chicken to sleep to illustrate a story about a 14th century dish served at elaborate feasts!
Dessert was simple, yet beautiful. You can’t really go wrong with chocolate – and the addition of salt on the top of this bruléed tart was just divine! Served with a Great Grandfather Rare Tawny – it was delicious (and retailing at around $350 a bottle – it should be).
I was dying for my own photo with Heston – and lovely new friend Chris offered to take the photo – so we stood behind a gaggle of four young people who had cornered Heston – just waiting for our chance. It seemed like it took forever, so it was only human that our attention waned. We had turned away at one stage and by the time we turned back, and the four were gone… and Heston was back sitting down at his table and quickly in deep conversation with his “entourage”. Umm… excuse me Heston… do you mind if I get a photo? Sure…
10 minutes later I was still standing behind his chair, waiting for him as he chatted to “the entourage” enjoying his coffee. Then, as he got up to leave – I finally sezied my chance!! Pounce!! Photo taken – and he was gone! In a puff of smoke… (oh no… that’s just what’s floating in from the grill…) But he was still gone. “The entourage” scattered into four directions… clearly decoys for any potential stalkers!
To be honest, it was a bit of a bizarre evening. This epiQure event was a bit of staged theatre. There was no collaboration or warmth from Rockpool – our meal was the standard function menu accompanied by wines contributed by one of Qantas’ main suppliers. So while the food was lovely, it lacked the excitement and care factor that comes from a true restaurant event where the chef has crafted a special menu, and worked with the sommelier to match some great wines, to pull together something special for their customers – who are considered and treated as valued guests and friends.
epiQure billed this event as an intimate dinner with Heston, for a mere cost of $500 per head. Yet for most of the evening, Heston was surrounded and protected by his “entourage” – except when “on the floor”. Even then, there was a marked difference in his demeanour, in that he was clearly ‘on show’ and in entertainment mode. It would have been great if he mixed things up a bit, and sat at the different tables for each course. That way guests could feel as though they really did have dinner (at least a bit of dinner) and a bit of a conversation with Heston, rather than his continual return to the protection of “the entourage”.
Alas, that was not the case – so there was no real chance for intimacy – unless you were ballsy enough to corner him, or you knew someone on “the entourage” team and managed to become elevated enough to secure an individual audience with the guest of honour.
I was blessed and fortunate enough to be a guest of my gorgeous friend iMac – who used her personal surfeit of frequent flyer points to secure places at this one-off event. She is clearly an amazing friend with a huge heart of generosity. Thankfully, the gorgeous people on our table, and especially the wonderful company of Chris and Peter, made this evening a brilliant night out.
Along with the good food, and the opportunity to have some brilliant wines that would normally be outside my price range (including the Grange and many other glasses of great Penfolds wines, which alone were probably worth between $200-300), it was a night of unique opportunities. And I did manage to get my picture with Heston… so I’m a happy girl!
I’m looking forward to my next food and wine event (rumour has it that Ezard has some in the pipeline) – as well as catching up with the lovely Chris and Peter in Sydney at some stage (new gourmet friends are so much fun). In the meantime, I guess I can still drop Heston’s name, and of course, show everyone the picture (new Facebook profile)!
No doubt, Heston is doing the same thing… he’s only human!