So somehow I was trusted to come up with the food line-up for Underbelly Arts festival! Getting to create a wish list of who should be caretakers of your hunger and thirst for next weekend’s Cockatoo Island event has been an awesome privilege.
You might’ve seen some coverage about me “curating” the menu, but major credit really goes to Underbelly’s artistic director Eliza Sarlos and festival producer Lex Lindsay for making it happen – especially because they’ve been miracle workers when faced with the headachey logistics – so most of the limelight should be rightfully redirected and rebeamed at them.
So with a lot of help from those legends, Underbelly’s food line-up is a snack-dip of Sydney greats: Mary’s brings its category-destroying and David-Chang-endorsed burgers, Venus Wholefoods serves its unapologetically delicious salads and soups, Andrew Bowden (aka @andybowdy) caters for your sugar fix in his typically knockout way, Rising Sun Workshop gets you reacquainted with its high-comfort ramen, The Cheesesmith delivers a calcium boost with winter-friendly toasties, Greenhouse makes sure coffee deprivation is not a problem and Young Henrys continues to keep boozehounds happy with ales, lagers, cloudy apple ciders and Noble Cut Gin (its one-of-a-kind flavour profile has a local touch, with native pepperberry, bush tomato and Australian-grown sencha). Gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options are on offer, too.
Creating pop-up kitchens on an offshore site comes with an interesting set of restrictions – all the produce and gear has to be barged to Cockatoo Island two days before the event. It means that Rising Sun Workshop’s Nick Smith, who usually spends hours and hours refining his bubbling ramen stocks, will actually be camping out at the location beforehand. Not to sound like an overly concerned grandmother, but here’s hoping he raids his wardrobe for an ultra-thick coat and thermal socks before heading off with his tent.
“I’m not so bothered by the cold, though I imagine it will be pretty spooky out there at night working in the Turbine Hall by myself,” says Nick. “Rising Sun Workshop’s new digs are a total construction site at the moment, so I sort of don’t have a choice but to camp out; I’m homeless, a chef without a kitchen.”
I asked him if the not-so-conventional location freaked him out when he first inspected it, but he had the opposite feeling. “For me, I reckon Cockatoo Island is about as Sydney as it gets. It’s got this mix of grunge, grace and quiet pride that really resonates.”
That said, it’s not exactly a wrinkle-free situation.
“Anytime you cook an away game, it’ll throw some curveballs,” he adds. Like at the previous Rising Sun Workshop pop-up (where Nick had only one frypan to work with!), his set-up for Underbelly will be similarly minimal. As soon as his crew lands on the island on Thursday morning, “we’ll be pushing pretty much around the clock to get our stock levels ready in time for the hungry hordes on the weekend”. Expect The Darkness, his ramen flavoured with a broth of smoked bones, pork and soy, and The Monk, with its vego-friendly soup built around blazing chilli and a miso base.
Andy Bowdy originally wanted to serve deep-fried cheesecake, but you can’t really bring a big deep-fryer to the site – there’s no way to get rid of the grease on Cockatoo Island. So if you’ve been missing his insanely good desserts since he’s left Hartsyard, come along and try the cheesecake and apple pie soft serve that he’ll be swirling into cones at Underbelly.
By the way, one of the things I’m most anticipating at this arts festival is Emily Parson-Lord’s installation, The Airrarium. It’s basically an oxygen bar that will let you experience the different kinds of air throughout history (like 300-350 million years ago, when megafauna roamed the earth and you’d get basically a double dose of the oxygen that you do today). Momofuku Seiobo’s sommelier Ambrose Chiang is going to review the work next week for Underbelly – I look forward to his verdict (I imagine the experience won’t be too oaky or tannic)!
First-release tickets have already sold out, and a day pass is pretty damn cheap ($25 each; $20 if you’re a concession holder or FBi supporter). So if you’re curious, head over to the Underbelly site to find out more or scoop up tix. And see you on the island, if you’re going!