Canberra's dining scene has changed so much in recent years that it's almost unrecognisable. From hatted restaurants to street food, bars and cafes, word is starting to get out that the capital is home to a food culture to rival that of Sydney and Melbourne.
The people at the heart of this Canberra food revolution come from all walks of life, but they all have one thing in common – a passion for great food. We gathered together seasoned experts from all areas of the food industry to get their take on city dining and just how far Canberra has come.
THE CROSS-CULTURAL CREATOR
Izrael Meza, Honkytonks head chef
My father and grandmother were both chefs, so I would always help out in the kitchen from the age of five and I learnt everything from them. That's the reason why I love cooking traditional Mexican food, I put my heart in it and I want to show people the Mexico in me.
I want Australian people to be able to eat real Mexican food, I want them to feel like they are eating in the streets of my country. In Canberra there are so many flavours of the world. You can enjoy French, Latin American, Asian, and there are so many chefs, like me, coming from all over the world bringing their food culture here to the city.
THE MODERN MIXOLOGIST
Jack Rooney, Hippo Co in-house ingredients manager
I think the Canberra food and drink scene is currently the best it has ever been. There's now a plethora of amazing dining options and a bunch of fantastic bars that are doing our city extremely proud – everyone within the industry is raising the standard.
For me as a bartender, that means ensuring that every single person that comes into the bar has a good time, and making sure that they have the perfect drink is a big part of that. Every person is different and it's my job to make sure that there's an appropriate and delicious drink for everyone, whether that be a peaty whisky, a fruity cocktail, a hoppy pale ale or anything in between.
HOSPITALITY'S LEADING LADY
Bria Sydney, Parlour Family owner
Canberra diners have never had it so good. There are more quality venues offering different experiences now than ever before. I'm really proud of how the hospitality scene has developed over the years into a creative and exciting food culture.
The initial drivers for all three of our businesses [The Elk & Pea, Parlour Wine Room and Knightsbridge Penthouse] was to provide Canberrans with an experience that was unavailable at the time. Now, 12 years after we first opened a venue in Braddon, it's fair to say there has been a fairly significant change. The Elk & Pea was opened in the early days of the revitalisation of Braddon and has provided me with a front row seat as the popularity of the area has exploded.
THE FRESH-FACED FANATIC
Gabby Petrevski, Autolyse Juice Bar manager
I've been working in the hospitality industry since I was 14 years old. I've worked in various businesses across Canberra, trying to find a place that felt right, somewhere I could share my passions for creation. I've found that at Autolyse Juice Bar. I love providing fresh, delicious and healthy juice every day and my favourite part is interacting with the great people you meet in Braddon.
The Canberra food scene is growing exponentially – a new place will pop up which has a funky new element to add to what we already have. Food is a massive part of Canberra's culture and Braddon is becoming the perfect example of that. With the cross connections of the hospitality community, as well as the influences from all over the world, it pushes Canberra's hospitality to be very dynamic.
THE LIFESTYLE LEADERS
Carla and Emma Papas, The Merrymaker Sisters
We're all about doing what works for you and what makes you feel good – let's call it bio-individuality. The idea that everyone's 'healthy' is different and every body thrives on different fuel. Our overall mission for our blog, The Merrymaker Sisters, is to create a healthy, happy, more magic-filled world, by inspiring people to make positive changes to their lives.
We absolutely LOVE the Canberra food scene right now – it just keeps getting better and better, especially with the addition of Paleo Perfection, Elemental and Paleo Cafe. Plus, you can now find healthy, real food options at our amazing regular restaurants by asking the right questions and changing up the menu a little to suit your needs.
THE INTERNATIONAL COFFEE INNOVATOR
Sasa Sestic, 2015 World Barista Champion
Microbiologists work really closely with the wine industry and they've been working on how they can improve the quality of wine for more than 20 years. Since Canberra's coffee industry is so young and not as established, why don't we start implementing this technique into coffee? I would love all of the coffee roasters in Canberra to be taken to a whole new level.
Coffee is my life and the most exciting thing that I can do is be involved in coffee, nothing has put a bigger smile on my face since making it and that's absolutely all that matters. I think I am the happiest person in the world.
THE SEASONED CONNOISSEUR
Chris Margherita, Courgette manager
The philosophy of a great restaurant for me is memories. We're about providing memories for families – special occasions, birthdays, anniversaries.
I'm born and raised Canberran so I come from a time when people weren't big on going out, and food wasn't hip. In the last few years Canberra's really grown up and marked its place on the map as a culinary destination – it's not uncommon to get people travelling from Melbourne and Sydney to come and see us for a weekend. At Courgette we've been open all this time, just doing what we do and enjoying it, serving up incredible food from our talented chef James Mussillon with great wine and a wonderful atmosphere.
THE OLD-SCHOOL ADVOCATE
Robert Marchetti, QT creative food director
I want to bring the younger audience back to that made-from-scratch food era we all loved, but also give them the flavours of now. We are very product driven and go through extraordinary efforts to ensure the very best produce goes through our kitchen.
It's interesting how everyone's talking about this food evolution because I think there has always been a food movement here, but it just wasn't as outspoken as it is now. Canberra is shifting in its demographic and I guess people feel like now that there's a younger audience who label things "trendy" that there's a food revolution, but there are a lot of great restaurants that have been around for a really long time, doing a lot of great stuff, like Italian and Sons and Ottoman.
People always want new stuff and so we lose sight of what places are famous for. Regardless of change in tastes there are places that are institutions that have been here this whole time for a reason.
THE DESSERT GURU
Owen Saddler, Little Dreams owner
I believe in three core principles when designing something – clean and fresh flavours, balance and intensity. I am also inspired by the ancient Chinese five flavour system of sweet, salty, pungent, sour and bitter when trying to create a balanced flavour.
It seems to me that after 100 years, Canberra has really just started to come into its own, and the food scene is part of this. I see some amazing producers growing truffles, walnuts, saffron as well as unusual fruit and vegetable varieties which can be hard to find elsewhere. I think that we have a well-educated, well-travelled population who understand quality and have seen a lot of different food, so it makes it possible to do interesting things that people will understand.
THE PALEO PIONEER
Daniel Barrett, The Aussie Paleo Chef
People in Canberra are embracing healthy lifestyles now, so paleo isn't this unknown word anymore. The more people that embrace paleo and start to practice it, the better the whole thing becomes.
The whole thing about the Canberra food scene is it's continually evolving – complacency is what's gonna kill you. If you think you're the best you can be, then you might as well shut your doors. I come in every day and change dishes and change recipes because I think of a better way or a more exciting way or a more efficient way of doing them. That's what it's all about for me – trying to reach something that is genuinely as good as it can be.
THE FREE-RANGE EGGSPERT
Theresa Robinson, BumNuts owner
I always say people should stop eating C.R.A.P – carbonated drinks, refined sugars, artificial foods and processed foods. We spend so much money on going to the doctor when really we should be spending our money on fresh wholesome foods from paddock to plate.
Canberrans now want to experiment and broaden their palate, and they care about the quality of their food, where it comes from and the welfare of animals. The chefs are all sourcing local and seasonal produce, and gone are the days of caged eggs and factory farmed pigs.
THE CULINARY KINGS
Chris Darragh and Ben Willis, Temporada chefs
We try and keep produce as seasonal as we can, local wherever possible, and create dishes that use skilled techniques in the kitchen and taste great.
The Canberra food scene has changed a lot in the last few years, which is really exciting to see. It's great to see precincts like NewActon, the Kingston Foreshore and the redevelopment of Braddon involving lots of new food venues. We think a lot of people coming to Canberra from interstate will be surprised at the diversity of our food scene and what we've got to offer. We've loved being part of the growth of the Canberra food scene.