MEL&NYC by Besha Rodell

Photo: Gareth Sobey

Writer, ex LA Weekly food critic and reformed expat, Besha Rodell, has returned to her native Melbourne as the Australian bureau of the New York Times' restaurant critic in residence. 

 

When attempting to explain the major cities of Australia to Americans, the default is often to say: Sydney is like Los Angeles and Melbourne is like San Francisco. But in my three decades of moving back and forth between the two countries, having lived in Melbourne, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, I have always rejected that logic. Sydney might be the L.A. of Australia, but my hometown of Melbourne is more like New York.

 

No, Melbourne isn’t a bustling metropolis defined by its skyscrapers, but the two cities have other commonalities. They are both the arts capitals of their respective countries. Their residents share a love of stylish black clothes and an ability to withstand long cold winters. And both cities have a passionate, abiding, long-standing love affair with eating and drinking.

The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival is exploring the culinary commonalities between the two cities with programming across the city as part of MEL&NYC, bringing some of New York’s best restaurants to Melbourne, New York inspired cocktails at bars around Melbourne, and more. The timing is fortuitous: The New York Times launched a new Australian bureau last year, and brought me on to review restaurants and write about the food and drink culture of Australia – a gig that was a large part of what prompted me to move back to Melbourne, my home town. Every two weeks you can see my column, Australia Fare, in the food section of the New York Times – it’s a first for the paper, to have an overseas dining column, and I’m thrilled that Australia and its incredible food is getting the international recognition it deserves.

The MEL&NYC food programming makes sense – the two cities share a lot of dining DNA. They are both hubs of their country’s Italian populations, with the history of that immigration running deep in the dining culture of the cities. When I left Melbourne in the early ‘90s, I missed the small laneway storefront restaurants that served incredible pastas – it wasn’t until I moved to New York a few years later that I found those same type of restaurants in America. Melbourne and New York are also the two cities in the world with the largest populations of Greek-born and Greek-descended people, outside of Greece. (I wrote recently about Greece’s impact on Australian food, including the debate about which of the two cities can claim the title of largest non-Greek Greek city.) It was partly these things, as well as the huge established Chinese and Vietnamese populations, that made me feel so immediately at home in New York.  

But it was also thanks to the way New Yorkers and Melburnians approach living and eating. There are very few American cities that have the engrained culture of sidewalk dining, the feeling that living and eating and socializing can happen effortlessly in public spaces. (This was even more true 25 years ago.) New York is one of the major exceptions.

These days, those commonalities are more apparent than ever. What other city in the world has a “Little Australia,” in the same spirit of Little Italy? Just this week, my colleague Julia Moskin wrote about the growing prevalence of Australian cafés in New York, a culture that makes some NYC corners look like they were transported directly from Fitzroy. And while it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of Melbourne’s chefs would revere New York, the same can now be said of New York chefs and the way they feel about Melbourne.

The late, great Anthony Bourdain – a passionate New Yorker – proclaimed his love for Melbourne often. “Sydney’s fine dining is great,” he said at the end of a 2009 episode of No Reservations. “But it’s Melbourne I keep coming back to”. Eric Ripert, the legendary chef at Le Bernardin, followed his friend Bourdain’s lead with a 2015 Melbourne-dedicated episode of his show Avec Eric. “I love the diversity I see in the city,” he said. (One of the MEL&NYC events is an evening inspired by Le Bernardin at Pascale.)

Melbourne’s 2017 hosting of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants inevitably had many chefs from around the world visiting and appreciating the city. New York’s Daniel Humm will forever remember Melbourne as the place where his Eleven Madison Park was declared the best restaurant in the world. I was there at that awards ceremony, and the thing that was most affecting to me was how almost every chef who took the stage – including Humm – declared his or her abiding love for Melbourne, whether it was a longstanding appreciation or a newfound adoration.

Perhaps the thing that makes the two cities the most alike is their extreme uniqueness. This may sound like a contradiction, but I mean that each place is so bursting with delicious personality, there is no way you could mistake it for anywhere else. As a proud Melburnian, I have never felt truly at home anywhere else in the world – except in New York.