Wake up and smell the kofta
When Frank Camorra was a child growing up in Melbourne in the 1970s, one major thing separated him from all his classmates: sandwiches. While he went to school with offerings made of Spanish ham, chorizo and fresh cheese drizzled with olive oil, his friends were munching on sugar sprinkles on buttered white bread. 'My schoolmates always made fun of my lunches,' he says.
Back then, Melbourne was a place where you'd have a very hard time finding good olive oil, Spanish ham or any type of cured olives. 'We had to learn to make our own,' says Camorra, now one of the city's top restaurateurs.
Instead, he says, you found mostly standard British pub fare - roast chicken, bangers and mash, and meat pies - familiar and lovely but unexciting, much like the city itself at the time. Indeed, throughout much of the 20th century, Melbourne was viewed as a provincial sibling to its more fabulous sister city, Sydney - a state of being that reputedly prompted visitor Bette Midler to quip: 'Melbourne is the kind of town that really makes you consider the question, 'Is there life after death?''
But the city has long since shaken off its drowsiness and undergone a major culinary, cultural and social renaissance. Immigrants from countries like Spain, Greece and Vietnam have brought with them a new vibrancy and food culture.
Camorra's family emigrated from Barcelona to Melbourne in 1970, when he was five, and at the time his clan and other Spanish newcomers had to pool their food knowledge. 'My parents couldn't cook - my dad was a plumber,' he says. 'So we found another Spaniard in Melbourne who knew how to make chorizo and ham and we all shared our information. When I was about seven, I learned to marinade olives. We had ham curing in our laundry.'
Camorra went on to become the owner of four MoVida restaurants, a MasterChef television star, the author of three food-centric books and a national celebrity chef.
Today, most visitors to Melbourne - maybe even Bette Midler - would be dazzled by the impressive dining scene. Camorra's own MoVida has been at the forefront of the city's culinary revolution with its tapas-style dining, and distinctive fare such as octopus chargrilled with paprika-spiced potatoes. 'Take all the great things about Melbourne dining, wrap them up in one package, and you have MoVida,' The Age Good Food Guide 2011 says.
For interesting Melburnian cuisine, Camorra also favours The Press Club, a restaurant that takes Greek favourites and makes them artful and intellectual - crab jelly with horseradish and a creme fraiche foam, for example. 'It's definitely an iconic restaurant,' says Camorra, who favours its daytime fare. 'I prefer the lunch menu - it's not as tricked up as dinner,' he explains. 'It's simpler and homely and very good Greek food.'
When hanging out with his family or old friends, Camorra heads to Rosa's Kitchen in the Williamstown neighbourhood. It's run by a female Italian chef who once ran a restaurant in the city centre. 'This is lovely, simple Italian food,' Camorra says. 'Amazing meatballs. Suckling lamb that's slow roasted. A cannelloni filled with duck. Rosa gets her produce from a local farm and the menu is always changing with the seasons.'
Melbourne thrives on a cafe culture - a legacy established by Viennese immigrants in the 1900s. The cafes, the best of which line the city's many 'lanes' and arcades, have a loyal clientele who return for their distinctive coffee blends. Locals are so protective of their cafe culture that Starbucks failed to make inroads into Melbourne's caffeine scene.
'People here don't want generic,' Camorra says. 'They have their favourite places and each is a little kooky. We like our cafes with a bit of soul.'
The chef frequents Pellegrini's, one of the first local cafes to have a coffee machine.
'My dad used to take me there when I was young and I still go. The coffee is incredibly good and the place hasn't changed since I was little.'
He often grabs a bite at Pope Joan (77-79 Nicholson Street, Brunswick East), where he loves the poached salmon with egg and fish mousse. When he's in the mood for pastries, he heads to Dench Bakers in Fitzroy North, whose owner, John Dench, makes 'amazing puff pastries and strudel-ly things,' Camorra says.
Of course, a chef would suggest getting to know a city by way of its food, but Camorra's love of his hometown has also been fostered by his wanderings on foot. On most days, Camorra traverses the city, visiting his four MoVidas on either end of the central area.
'It's a 20-minute walk and I discover something new every day,' he says. 'Melbourne is a subtle city. It's not Sydney, which is strikingly beautiful. This is a place to discover - it has lots of nooks and crannies to explore.'
So with out-of-town friends, he sets off on foot through the lanes and along the Yarra River. There, Camorra loves to gaze at the heritage buildings such as the Victorian-era Flinders Street Station. Another is the former General Post Office at the north east corner of Bourke Street Mall and Elizabeth Street, built in 1859, in the Renaissance Revival style, and now beautifully renovated as a high-end shopping mall and showcase for Aussie designers such as Lisa Ho and Wayne Cooper and international brands like Karen Millen.
'It's great to see these old buildings repurposed - they're a great example of stunning design and the reuse of buildings.'
Another place Camorra loves to wander is Queen Victoria Market on the corner of Victoria and Elizabeth streets, a 130-year-old open-air venue with a huge selection of farm-fresh produce, a meats-and-fish hall, a food hall and excellent gift stores. 'The atmosphere is fantastic - a true reflection of Melbourne,' says Camorra. 'All the nationalities have their food here and the market has a great village feel.'
Camorra favours hotels that indulge his passions - beauty and good food. He recommends the gracious Langham Hotel for its striking location along the Yarra River and its in-house restaurants (Melba is a favourite for its sumptuous daily lunch buffet of international cuisine).
If you've had enough of city eateries, a great day trip just out of town is the Healesville Sanctuary, a beautiful expanse of land about an hour's drive from Melbourne. It's where you can commune with nature - koalas hang in nearby trees, kangaroos lounge at your feet, dingoes climb rocks in their habitat and platypuses swim through water pools.
Best of all, especially where a chef might be concerned, the sanctuary is just a short drive away from the Domaine Chandon, the French champagne house's Australian venture. The winery, set among verdant rolling hills, offers tours of the champagne production facilities and its historic homestead - along with the opportunity to dine at its restaurant, the Greenpoint Brasserie. There you can sip the legendary sparkling wine and dine on seasonal fare, with a panoramic view of the vintners at work.
Now that spring is in full bloom in Australia, Camorra is looking forward to a quintessential Melburnian experience - racing season at the Flemington Racecourse. His favourite event is the Melbourne Cup. 'It's a spectacular time; everyone's trussed up in hats, dresses and suits,' he says. Being a chef, Camorra goes just as much for the food as he does for the racing. 'Before the race, people barbecue in the car park, sip cocktails and stand around chatting,' he says. 'We bring everything with us pre-made - Spanish sandwiches, roasted vegetables and Spanish tortillas. We pour the champagne and have a nibble. It's a really nice day out.'
At a glance
Authentic Spanish tapas, great wine and an insight into Melbourne society.
1 Hosier Lane. movida.com.au
The Press Club
A modern Greek restaurant; avant garde cuisine in the evening and heartier fare at lunch.
72 Flinders Street
Simple, lovely Italian food made with produce from a local farm.
28 Ferguson Street
+61 (03) 9397 5159
Excellent Italian coffee at one of Melbourne's legendary cafes.
66 Bourke Street
+61 (03) 9662 1885
A favourite that also serves up innovative breakfast fare. 77-79 Nicholson Street
Artisan bread, cakes and pastries, Genovese coffee and organic juices.
109 Scotchmer Street
The Langham Hotel Melbourne
A rare luxury hotel - not at all stuffy, with a stunning location on the Yarra River and a great lunch buffet
1 Southgate Avenue
Australia's best fashion designers under one roof; a stunning, refurbished 19th-century former post office.
Corner of Bourke Street Mall and Elizabeth Street.
Queen Victoria Market
A 130-year-old open-air market with a huge selection of farm-fresh produce, a meat-and-fish hall, a food hall and excellent gift stores.
Corner of Victoria and Elizabeth streets. qvm.com.au
Two hundred species of Australian wildlife in a huge outback setting.
Badger Creek Road, Yarra Valley
A beautiful winery and excellent restaurant.
727 Maroondah Highway
Flemington Racecourse (below)
Home to the Melbourne Cup, Australia's biggest horseracing event. Barbecuing and swilling cocktails in the racecourse parking lot is a Melbourne tradition.
448 Epsom Road, Flemington