MFWF StreetSmart Front of House All Stars Dinner at Cutler & Co

The night of nights had finally arrived.  In what can only be recognised as the penultimate event on the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival Calendar – the legend that is the Front of House All Stars Dinner was held on Monday 19 March at Cutler and Co.  This event was inaugurated by Luke Stringer in 2009, when he was restaurant manager at Mezzo Bar & Grill, and has become an annual fundraising event for StreetSmart Australia.

The event was originally devised as a showcase for the finesse and excellence of the front of house staff, who are often overlooked in favour of the cavalcade of famous Victorian, interstate and international chefs that descend upon our city during the MFWF. This evening is not about the chefs, it’s all about the people that facilitate our dining experiences – who make us feel special, ensure we are having a good time, and take every manner of request in order to make our time at their restaurant seamless and impeccable – the front of house staff.  At this event, they choose the dish and the wine that their restaurant will serve – and throughout the evening, they are celebrated and recognised.

So, tonight we focus on the inimitable hospitality skills of front of house stars from seven of Melbourne’s most loved restaurants. They are (L-R) :Quentin Ferguson (Ezard), Zoe Ladyman (Libertine), Leanne Altmann (Cutler & Co), Adam Cash (Union Dining), Erez Gordon (MC and former Maitre D’ of the Botanical turned consultant), Simon Denton (Izakaya Den), Sam Christie (Longrain) and Sean Kierce (Ladro).  Photo by Dave Tacon, courtesy of StreetSmart.

Master of Ceremonies was the irrepressible Erez Gordon, who is very cheeky and very naughty, and did his damnedest to get us to part with our hard earned money during the auction… but more about that later.

Salmon Sushimi Roll, Yuzu Vinaigrette;  Sweet Corn Kaki-age, green tea salt;
Umaki – Japanese egg roll with Unagi (Japanese eel)
1998 Silver Wings Brut, Macedon Ranges, Vic

We arrived at Cutler & Co at the appointed time, and were able to enjoy sparkling and canapés courtesy of Izakaya Den on the sundrenched sidewalk.  My favourite of these was definitely the salmon sashimi, which was delicate and melt-in-the mouth.

Just before sunset, we were ushered into the restaurant and we took our seats.  Part of the fun is the communal tables, and getting to meet all manner of people.  The original couple that was seated at our table, were ushered away to another table, but then we were eventually joined by a lovely family of a mum and her grown up twins – apparently the dinner was a Christmas present for them both.

StreetSmart Chairman, Jerry Marston; and Russell Shields of SecondBite
Photos by Dave Tacon, courtesy of StreetSmart.

During the evening we heard from StreetSmart’s Chairman, Jerry Marston, who explained that the organisation had probably managed to cross the threshold of raising their second million dollars as we walked into the restaurant.  In its tenth year of operation, StreetSmart is an incredibly lean team of 6 people who work to raise money to support grassroots projects that address the problem of homelessness.  To illustrate one such project, Russell Shields from SecondBite provided an overview of his organisation, which collects surplus nutritious food from the hospitality industry and safely redistributes to agencies and people in need.  These insights set the scene for a fantastic evening – because how often is it that you can eat from amazing array of restaurant dishes and drink fabulous wine – all for a good cause!

Japanese inspired Oyster Shooters
Uehara Shuzo ‘Soma no Tengu’ 2011 Junmai Ginjo Muroka Nama Genshu Usunigori, Shiga, Japan

The first course to come out was one of my favourites – the amazing Japanese inspired oyster shooters from Ezard.  In a generous serve of two, this oyster shooter is sweet, fresh, light and amazing. Quentin, Ezard’s Restaurant Manager, always likes to pair it with sake – which provided a lovely complement, especially as it was a special unfiltered, cloudy sake – so it was lovely and smooth.

Quentin Ferguson (Ezard) with Sean Kierce (Ladro) in the background.
Quentin is one of my all time favourite front of house all stars and his restaurant Ezard rocks!
Photo by Dave Tacon, courtesy of StreetSmart.

Smoked eel and pork hock terrine, quick pickled cucumbers
2011 Montevecchio ‘Bianco’ Vermentino, Fiano, Moscato Giallo Heathcote, Vic

The second course was an Italian inspired terrine from the creative team of Nicky Reimer and Adam Cash of Union Dining. This terrine was lovely – the meat was tender and delicate, and the jellified stock that bound it together was melt in the mouth.  Served with a Vermentino from Heathcote, it was a tantalisingly light way to take the proceedings forward.

Caprese salad of local bufala, tomatoes, basil & olive oil, herb & garlice pizzette
2010 YarraLoch Arneis, Yarra Valley, Vic

Third course was a lovely caprese salad from Ladro –  again, another light dish, the tomatoes were fragrant and sweet, the bufala mozzarella was milky, and it was beautifully complemented by some fresh and lively basil, olive oil, and a herby, thin crust pizzette. A fantastic dish to celebrate the tail end of summer, it was served with a smooth Arneis from Yarraloch, with hints of pear and citrus, and just enough oak to offset the acidity.

Baby snapper, shiiitake & octopus, seaweed butter & sesame
2010 Fighting Gully Road ‘Aquila’ Chardonnay / Vioignier / Petit Manseng Multi regional Vic

Fourth course was presented by Leanne Altmann from Cutler and Co. It was a baby snapper dish – served with octopus and Otway shiitake mushrooms the dish was shiny with seaweed butter and sprinkled with toasted sesame.  Overall, this was the only dish I found a bit unbalanced – it was rather salty, and the seaweed flavours overwhelmed the dish.  It was served on a bed of seared and puréed eggplant, mirin and sesame – which was a fantastic foil to the fish, but there could have been more of that on the plate.  It was served with a white blend from Fighting Gully Road – of chardonnay, vioignier and petit manseng.

Yellow Curry of twice cooked duck with kipfler potatoes
2010 Moorooduc Estate Pinot noir, Mornington Vic

The final savoury course was another favourite.  It must be a popular one, because I’m pretty sure they served it at last year’s dinner – but it is a winner!  The yellow curry of twice cooked duck from Longrain – the duck just falls off the bone, the yellow curry sauce is a fiery balance of creamy coconut milk, chilli and spices, and just the right level of sweetness to offset the heat.  This dish is so popular, they have even published the recipe post-event here!  This dish couldn’t be served with anything other than a pinot noir – yay – finally.  And what a pinot noir – from Moorooduc Estate on the Mornington peninsula.

At this point too, I’d love to acknowledge our waiter for the night – James from Longrain. We had a brilliant time with him – his service never wavered, and he was impressively funny and attentive!  Thanks James!

Chocolate Marquise, spiced fruit crumble and crystallised petals
2006 Pfeiffer ‘Christopher’s VP’, Rutherglen, Vic

And the final dish of the evening – a stunning chocolate Marquise presented by Zoe Ladyman (you’ve got to love the name) of Libertine.  A relative newcomer to the fold of FOHAS – we welcome Libertine heartily to the group.  Especially if they’re dishing up gorgeous food like this! First of all, look at how delicate and beautiful the dish is – and it was so amazingly rich.  It was served with a deep and chocolatey port from the Pfeiffer winery in Rutherglen, Christopher’s VP.

And now for the auction… Erez Gordon, he’s a very clever man you know…  he knows to wait until nearly the end of the evening, when the very generous serves of alcohol have worked their magic on our frontal lobes – the decision making centre of our brains, so that inhibitions are stripped away and we are all cossetted by a feeling of goodwill and altruism.  Add to the mix, on offer – a veritable treasure trove of exclusive foodie items which have been donated by incredibly generous people out there in the hospitality industry – and you have a recipe for mayhem.

The first items to go were two sets of the much sought after FOHAS apron and t-shirt (2 x $400 raised), a very indulgent collection of $200 vouchers for each of 6 of the participating restaurants ($over 1800 raised), a magnum of sake ($300 raised), a set of 2 tickets to the Masterclass sessions for next year’s Food and Wine festival ($1200 raised);  a pack of gorgeous coffee ($couple of hundred raised)… there were other items that I can’t remember now (but will update when I do), and then the finale – Erez auctioned off nothing, that’s right a whole heap of nothing – and raised another $500!

At the end of the night – we had raised $25,006 for StreetSmart – a very impressive figure.  And we had enjoyed the generosity and conviviality of seven amazing restaurants.  Overall, the FOHAS dinner is a brilliant evening out – the atmosphere is buzzing, the mood is relaxed and fun, and it’s great to be able to circulate with some of the legendary front of house stars and see them strut their stuff.  There are lots more pics of the evening at StreetSmart’s Facebook page if you’re interested in seeing how much fun we had.  For $160 a head, we had a fantastic meal, drank some brilliant wines, met some fabulous people, and the best part – contributed to a great cause.  Highly recommended!

Now… what on earth am I going to do with a magnum of sake…?