If you thought going to the Australian Open was only about tennis, you're greatly mistaken. Now in its second year, the AO Chef Series returns to the Glasshouse, where a luxury dining experience served with a side of sport, gives punters plenty of reasons to be cheerful on and off the court.
This year the focus is on creating a top-end restaurant mood at the Australian Open seeking out some of the world's best chefs – from Michelin Star restaurants and local culinary heroes – to inject a gastronomic perspective into the game.
Food for sport
"The AO Chef Series is something you wouldn't necessarily expect at a sports event and that's the whole point in what we're trying to achieve," says Richard Heaselgrave, Australian Open Chief Revenue Officer.
"We want people to come to the tennis as fans and if they're not necessarily fans of the game, then they can come for the fine food. We want to spotlight the best in global and local food," he adds.
Heaslegrave says the series has taken three years of planning, is less about sport and more about a curated event.
"We take this chef series seriously and plan it like you would a food festival," says Heaselgrave.
Game, set, flavour
Chefs host three to four nights each and deliver a set five-course degustation menu that gives new meaning to the phrase 'game, set, match'.
The series is capped at 70 guests per session, priced start at $195 per person and the intimacy of it all sees the chefs mingle with each table for extra brownie points.
This year's guests include French chef Jacques Reymond, Italian-born Simone Zanoni – the executive chef from Michelin-starred Four Seasons George V, France and South Australian based executive chef Duncan Welgemoed who creates a modern African inspired menu from Africola – which was peer voted fifth best restaurant in the 2019 Top 100 Australian Restaurants.
A chance to shine
Also making a comeback for a second serve is Peruvian-born chef Alejandro Saravia (best known for his restaurant Pastuso) who shines a light on regional food this time around.
While his critically acclaimed restaurant sits in the Paris belt of Melbourne's CBD, he now presents Farmer's Daughters which is all about Gippsland's coastal seafood. What's more, he will open a new city restaurant in her honour by the end of the year.
"It's very important to be part of the Australian Open because it is one of Melbourne's greatest sporting events," says Saravia who moved to the city in 2014.
"It really brings so much life to the city and tourists are everywhere. The Australian Open helps showcase what Melbourne is really about when it comes to our food offering," he says.
From seaweed bread and Port Phillip Bay pickled mussels to Lakes Entrance sardines, Yarra Valley farm caviar and sustainably sourced Barramundi from Infinity Blue, the emphasis is on educating diners about the local produce they'll find a few hours drive out of Melbourne.
"I am all about promoting the local culture and our regional identity," says Saravia.
"As chefs we have a big responsibility to support our farmers who are struggling big time and with the arrival of many international guests we get to show them what our coastline offers food wise. It's a win-win situation," he adds.
"The Australian Open knows that people want the choice of premium dining and it's what people have come to expect from Melbourne."
Jacques Reymond, who ran his own restaurant in Prahran for several decades until 2013, says the upmarket restaurant appeal is good for all businesses.
"It's a prestigious sport and we need to get behind it and show those attending there's more to sport than meets the eye," says Reymond.
His menu will focus on quality ingredients sourced from Australia and matched with French champagne, serving oysters, crab and avocado with Tasmania wasabi for starters.
"January is hot and people don't want to eat heavily. They want to feel good about themselves but also indulge in great food. I couldn't think of a more prestigious way to salute the New Year."