It's Sunday morning and a handful of Aussie chefs are cutting thick slices of sourdough to carry fried eggs and bacon. I can count on one hand how many hours of sleep they've had over the past couple of nights. We're on the deck of The Cray Shack, a refurbished beach hut on Killiecrankie Bay in Flinders Island, after the inaugural Food and Crayfish Festival long lunch the previous day.
It's overcast and unruly, but the weather makes the copper lichen on the rocks and aquamarine water pop. Flinders Island is ruggedly beautiful. You could say the same about chef David Moyle from Melbourne's Longsong, who was tasked with curating chefs for the event. He has to be at the airport in an hour but is determined to soak up the magnetic environment – he leaves his crayfish crew on the gusty beach and heads for the water, tucking shoulder-length curls behind his ears.
A year ago to the day Moyle visited Flinders Island on a reconnaissance trip. Although the initial idea was to hold an event that coincided with the start of the crayfish season, it was the land that moved Moyle. "We had to start from what we know, but we don't want this to turn into a chefs festival… we're just dipping our toes in the water trying to control every element so it doesn't turn into some big corporate hoedown."
So far, so good. One hundred and sixty people found out 48 hours before the crayfish lunch that it was to be held in a sheep sheering shed. The community banded together to transform a shit-and-wool covered barn into something from a Pinterest inspiration board.
Styling from Joost Bakker helped, including box thorn weed suspended above burnt orange tables set with eggshell blue plates and tea towel napkins. Moyle brought together Matt Stone and Jo Barrett (Oakridge), James Viles (Biota) and Mark LaBrooy (Three Blue Ducks), who prepped in the local school, assembled restaurant-standard dishes on trestle tables and cooked over fire in a downpour.
Not only did they keep their cool, they had a hell of a good time. "When you're trying to do something that's an experience, the food has to be delicious of course, but people just vibe so hard when everyone's having fun," says Moyle. "We didn't want to do something that represented our restaurants. It's not about presentation of the chefs' egos."
Guests snacked on wallaby jerky and octopus head schnitzel sandwiches before sitting down to wallaby liver parfait and crisp saltbush sprinkled with abalone salt. Lamb was cooked on a hay-stacked gate with butternut squash roasted on coals underneath, and local abalone with coastal herbs and Japanese-style steamed egg tasted of sea spray.
But the showpieces were the three-kilogram crays served on beds of seaweed with buttery meat – everyone forgot their share plates and went straight in with forks.
Wild at heart
The menu was a culmination of the chefs' activities in the lead up to the lunch. Together they shot wallaby, surfed, caught crayfish and dived for abalone with locals. Everything trapped or killed was cooked and eaten. Moyle admits that killing animals is confronting even for a country boy, but it's about doing it the right way. "If you're timid about these sorts of things you just end up torturing stuff," he says. "It's just about having the respect for it and the ability to be able to do it properly."
When I follow up with Moyle on Monday, he says he feels like he's coming down – but next year is already on his mind. In 2019 Moyle's aiming for immersive island experiences, similar to what the chefs enjoyed. "I've got this funny thing about being able to keep these areas wild," he says. "There are a lot of places that are extraordinary, but it's fairly rare for them to be so sparsely inhabited and have such diverse landscapes… no matter what, you can always find a day to go for a swim or a surf or a hunt, and that's rare."
Whatever the Island's magic, the chefs are under its spell. Over 24 hours regrets were voiced about having to leave and there are loose plans to chip in for land. Moyle even plans to return this year for a joint 40th celebration with James Viles. But when he talks about diving into the cold water on that last morning, Moyle unwittingly pinpoints what sparks such a powerful connection to Flinders Island in people: "It's so refreshing, I get tingles in the skin and feel alive," he says. "It can be either a challenge or a comfort, that's probably the best way to put it."
Stay: Accommodation ranges beach huts to small hotels and Airbnb.
Get there: Fly direct from Melbourne (one hour) or via Launceston from elsewhere (45 minutes to Flinders Island). Book via flindersislandaviation.com, kirkhopeaviation.com.au or uniquecharters.com.au.