Al Cossar is the artistic director of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Born in New Zealand, he has lived in Australia for nearly 20 years, and has been a driving part of film and screen culture events big and small. From an aisle seat two-thirds of the way back in his favourite cinema, here’s Cossar with a comprehensive guide to how he enjoys his adopted city.

I know I’m in Melbourne when I see the evergreen queue snaking down Flinders Lane outside Dukes Coffee Roasters, or returning to a city where even 7-Eleven are slinging magics – a caffeinated barometer of our city’s far-reaching food and drink personality, for sure.

My defining food moment in Melbourne was probably early on in my Melbourne-exploring days when I’d moved here from New Zealand, I’d just make a habit of getting a train or tram out to a whole Melways-worth of local neighbourhoods, and jumping on whatever breakfast or neighbourhood haunts were on offer; it was part of getting to know Melbourne and making myself feel connected to the city, making it my home by exploring all of the corners of its communities. There are many fond memories of those explorations, but I remember Happy Cook out at Nunawading as the perfect, tiny outer-suburbs Peking duck destination at the time. Peking Duck is clearly nature’s perfect food, and it started a duck odyssey around the city that would continue through Simon’s Peking Duck, Old Kingdom, Beijing Duck and Dumpling House, and many others, which continues to this very day.

Beyond that I have to give an honourable mention to the alchemy of my first post-midnight feast at Supper Inn – an utterly Melbourne moment; the combination of its cobblestone alleyway, a quiet street giving way to the late-night buzz inside. A wonderful first discovery of a local icon, and Melbourne is such a city of discoveries by nature.

The best new thing I’ve found is… it’s effectively body-dissolving sugar in a tub, but Preston Market’s Cannoleria sells a pistachio cream spread I recently bought in a general pistachio haze while daydreaming about the pistachio puddings of an Istanbul trip a few years back. In fine-dining land, I’m also a recent fan of Freyja’s waffle with Yarra Valley trout roe, which is the thing I would eat for breakfast every day in my dreams. (It’s waffles, so it’s a breakfast food, right?)

I’m especially excited about this year’s MIFF because audiences are back. It’s been a long time, but the excitement is there post-lockdown to return to dynamic, thoughtful filmmaking.

The film I’m most blown away by in the program this year is Past Lives. It’s a film that knows truly how to find those depths of romance in the small, cumulative moments of connection that define a life and its possibilities. It’ll be one we’ll be talking about on every year-end best-of list, and right through Oscar season.

And I think everyone needs to see This is Going to Be Big, because it’s a coming-of-age documentary about a group of young people experiencing the new possibilities of the world, and themselves, through their school’s time-travelling, John Farnham-themed musical. It is an utter delight and whoever you are, you will love it, I guarantee.

The best cinema experience in Melbourne is… well, I think it’s MIFF! But I would, wouldn’t I? Typical. But with 267 films from more than 70 countries, nearly 50 films straight from Cannes, and the biggest festival presentation of Australian cinema in the world, the program is an eclectic, electric avalanche of cinema ready for you to carve a path through. Films that you won’t see anywhere else, films that you will see first, and those that take you off the beaten track to really show you the depths, strangeness and greatness of cinema’s imagination of the world. Come along!

But if I had to choose elsewhere, I’d say the anticipation for a new Astor calendar is always pretty great. As a single-screen picture palace, we’re lucky to have its luxuriance, but also the personality of its incredible programming as a part of film-going Melbourne. It’s something really special to this city, to be treasured, and supported.

Smooch, marry, kill: Coca-Cola, Maltesers, popcorn… Regrettably, but inevitably, we will need to kill the Coke in this line-up, whereas the moreish lightness of the Maltesers make them snackishly smoochable. And there’s no question you’ve gotta marry the popcorn!

When I want to push the boat out on a meal, I love going back to Marion; beautiful food, but such welcoming and attentive service – you feel immediately comfortable, and nabbing a front window seat that lets you watch Gertrude Street do its thing outside means dinner and a show. Or it’s the pure comfort of a weekend morning well spent at yum cha with friends or the kids in tow – the mango pancakes at Templestowe’s Golden Dragon Palace are a must.

There’s no better value in Melbourne than the pure simplicity of a comforting haloumi pie executed perfectly, for under $5, at one of the city’s many wonderful Middle Eastern bakeries. And while A1 is always up there, for me it’s gotta be Coburg’s Zaatar, which has a halloumi pie to live by.

And when I want to dazzle friends from out of town, I like to… The last such meal I had was at the extraordinary Lona Misa, by Shannon Martinez and Ian Curley. A vegan restaurant that would be top of the list for all dietary persuasions, the food is playful, elegant, and completely delicious. Also, Sunda is something special, seriously impressive on a first visit.

In the mornings you’ll find me… I’d like to say getting back into the habit of being the extremely average yet moderately committed morning squash player that I was pre-pandemic, but that’s for my post-MIFF September resolution. For now, the answer to this is, simply: overcaffeinated; ear-deep in film podcasts on public transport, and doing some family drop-offs at kinder and day-care with my gorgeous kids.

My local is… I should qualify this by saying I have two children under five and a festival to run, so my local is very much my kitchen these days, as I scramble to put something culinarily coherent together for the times I do have to cook, or while shamefacedly over-supporting the gig economy on my umpteenth Uber Eats delivery for the month, if I’m being true to life here.

But the last place I went that I loved in the neighbourhood was La Pinta – hospitable, wonderful. A blackboard menu that makes for a nimble, delicious meal; a welcoming cosiness; and that basque burnt cheesecake – its reputation deservedly grows. Preston’s Takeaway Pizza, which is just the best in my books. Also Tyler’s Milk Bar for a WFH lunch out in the world, or for baked goods All Are Welcome Thornbury a bit further down the road. But in the mornings, habitually it’s Felix Culpa in Rezza or Barbarella in the city, which I treat as both coffee dispensaries and offices away from the office, with wonderful and accommodating staff.

If I could change one thing about eating and drinking here it would be turning the clock back to reclaim those COVID casualties that I miss constantly. Where I live in Reservoir, it would surely be Chan vs Chan, one of the most brilliant and slept-on casual Asian diners of the last few years in this city; the completely understandable but still distress-inducing end to Stray Neighbour’s COVID-era breakfast and bakery element (that cinnamon scroll should have been classed as a murder weapon – death by deliciousness), or the newly departed but already much-missed loco-moco bar Knochen Joint. I feel like it’s two steps forward, one step back around my neighbourhood, but I can’t wait to see what else bubbles up here over the next year in their place.

Also – I have to say, there is an absolute hole in the market for a breed of restaurant that both caters to insufferable food snobs and their chicken nugget-aligned offspring; fine dining meets family values? Crybaby sessions at Gimlet will do the trick, thanks.

But the one thing I hope never changes in Melbourne is… I’ll say it all in caps – SAVE THE PRESTON MARKET; without this institution the northern suburbs will lose an extraordinary resource – in food and in food affordability, plus the social benefits of health and wellbeing that flow from that – but mostly we will lose the beating heart of what this community holds dearest: an incredible melting pot of a meeting place. It must not happen!

Melbourne International Film Festival runs 3-20 August in cinemas and 18-27 August online,