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Looking Toward a New Era of Australian Cuisine

In 2019, I was also assigned by Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure magazines to travel in search of the 30 best restaurants in the world. As we head into a new decade, I’ve been thinking about what makes a country particularly distinctive in the world, and where exactly Australia fits into that paradigm.

The globalization of the last decade has had an especially big impact on Australia. When I left Melbourne for the United States in the early 1990s, it was as if I had moved to another planet — Australia was just gone from my life. The move back was the opposite: Thanks to social media, cellphones and a global network of chefs and writers, I’m almost as connected to America as I was when I lived in Los Angeles.

And Australia is more visible than it has ever been. The worldwide reaction to the country’s current horrific fire season is a heartening reminder that our international connections are stronger than ever.

Australia’s incredible slate of food festivals and events over the last decade has brought the world’s food media and chefs to our shores in greater numbers. The support from the tourism and public relations industries is such that those guests are treated splendidly, and often leave as true believers, ready to spread the gospel of Australia to the world. And the country’s current working chefs, bartenders and winemakers are undoubtedly the best-traveled generation of food industry professionals that Australia has ever seen.

That globalization is also the development that is likely to pose the most challenges for Australian chefs and restaurateurs who — like it or not — are now competing in an international arena.

So what does Australia need to bolster its growing reputation as a dining destination? Here are a few angles to consider:

On the home front, the biggest story of the last decade in Australian food is that, after more than 200 years of ignoring the native flavors of this continent, non-Indigenous chefs and diners have finally woken up to the bounty that was always here. This is a development with international ramifications — native Australian ingredients offer a whole new flavor palette, giving us food that is totally distinct from anything anywhere else in the world.

Interest in these ingredients is only growing, but I fear that the voices not being heard in this conversation are those of Indigenous Australians.

I’m not sure what it says about Australia that this progress has been most vigorously championed by non-Australians. The Danish chef RenĂ© Redzepi was one of the earliest, loudest voices advocating native Australian ingredients, bolstered by his 2016 Noma pop-up in Sydney — a 10-week residency that is often credited with igniting widespread excitement about native foods. In Australia, the two chefs most visibly working with native ingredients are Attica’s Ben Shewry, who is originally from New Zealand, and Restaurant Orana’s Jock Zonfrillo, a Scotsman.

Mr. Shewry pays tribute to the Aboriginal people from whom he gets his ingredients and knowledge, and Mr. Zonfrillo runs a nonprofit group dedicated to exploring and promoting native foods. But what I’d love to see more of in the coming decade is the inclusion and promotion of Indigenous voices, and more Indigenous chefs leading the way forward.

Australian food culture has made its mark overseas in the last decade, most prominently with the rise of Australian cafes in New York City and beyond. But I’d like to see Australia export more than just high-end avocado toast and flat whites.

I believe Australia’s pub culture is unparalleled; it would be nice to see some of that seep into the United States and European markets. And we are so far ahead when it comes to vegan dining (now often referred to as “plant-based,” as Pete Wells pointed out recently in his end-of-decade essay) that Australia should be known as a pioneer in that rapidly expanding market.

In the coming years I’d love to see Australian wine gain a broader fan base, beyond the heavy shiraz and woody chardonnay it’s known for, pushed by the changes taking place in that industry here. We should be known for our cold-climate rieslings, our biodynamic pinot noirs and our vast array of natural wines. Same goes for spirits, particularly whiskey and gin, which are now some of the best in the world but relatively unknown to anyone other than extreme booze nerds.

The thought that has arisen for me more than any other is that we should be leaning in to the things that make us unique, that we should be celebrating the restaurants that are decidedly Australian rather than imitating trends from other parts of the world.

If I have one widespread criticism of the high end of Australian dining, it is that so many restaurants considered to be our best could be located almost anywhere in the world. In this new reality, where restaurants are being compared globally and diners travel across time zones for the right meal, it is especially important to offer something distinctive.

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