Anyone lucky enough to gain entry to the Melbourne version of Heston Blumenthal’s famous Fat Duck restaurant next year may be surprised (and possibly a little alarmed) to learn that they’ll be consuming the equivalent of 1050 meals during their sitting.
But before you start having visions of Monty Python’s Mr Creosote (the obese man in The Meaning of Life, who eats an enormous amount of food at a restaurant then explodes spectacularly all over the other diners), I’m not talking about actual meals here.
No, 1050 is the number of meals that the Melbourne food charity I run, FareShare, could make for $525 — the minimum cost of a seat at the Fat Duck (wine will be extra).
FareShare cooks a million meals a year in our Abbotsford kitchen, with the help of 600 volunteers.
The meals cost just 50 cents each to produce, partly because they are made from surplus food donated by supermarkets, restaurants and other businesses, before being distributed to 300 agencies around the state.
Before last week it hadn’t even occurred to me to compare the cost of our meals, with those at the Fat Duck. We make honest, nutritious fare such as beef stroganoff, butter chicken and asparagus quiches, while Blumenthal creates wondrous gastronomic experiences that reportedly take years to test and develop.
Melbourne seems to have gone into meltdown in recent times over Blumenthal’s impending arrival, with reports that Crown (where the Fat Duck will set up a temporary home) has received more than 40,000 inquiries from Heston’s local fans wanting to maximise their chances of getting a table.
And not even a large wad of cash will guarantee you get in. Prospective diners were forced to enter a ticket ballot to experience 12-15 courses of what promises to be a mind-blowing food extravaganza. (When the ballot opened, the rush to apply caused its website to crash for 20 minutes).
But Ann Bandham is having none of it. Last week we received an email from the former FareShare volunteer, who thinks the price is exorbitant and, in response, decided to lodge her own protest: “I’m feeling sort of astounded that people (including someone I know well) are going into a ballot to be allowed to pay $525 each to dine at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck … I was thinking what FareShare could do with this money … so I am putting my money where my mouth is. I would like to donate $525 to FareShare.”
Let me be clear: I think Blumenthal’s decision to come to Melbourne (New York, Dubai, St Tropez and Las Vegas were among the other possible locations on his shortlist) is a wonderful thing for this city and its restaurant industry, which has been a huge supporter of FareShare. And if you want to pay $525, plus $200-plus for matching wines, for a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience, that’s entirely understandable. It’s your money, after all. You can spend it however you see fit.
And it’s not like Blumenthal is unaware of the need to give back to the community during his time here. He’s donated tickets to three deserving charities (Magpie Nest, Starlight Foundation and Snowdome) for the Fat Duck’s coveted chef’s table to auction off for fundraising.
But it’s equally true that Blumenthal’s decision to choose our city is also an opportunity to have a conversation about food and hunger in our own backyard.
It still comes as a surprise to many Australians that hunger is not just something that affects people in the poorer countries of the world. Official statistics show more than 370,000 Victorians go without meals or are food insecure each year while charity Foodbank Australia says that each year 2 million Australians seek help to eat, with about half being children.
And if you think this only affects the homeless or the destitute, think again. Many of those going hungry have jobs and homes — they could be living next door. Just ordinary people who have experienced hardship or an extraordinary event and have to start (either temporarily or permanently) viewing food as a discretionary spending item.
If you’re one of the lucky people chosen in the Fat Duck ballot, when you’re enjoying your snail porridge or Sound of the Sea (a dish that comes with its own iPod) there’s no point in feeling even a little bit guilty. You’re not taking food away from the mouth of a needy person. But maybe, between the 11th and 12th course, you could pause for a moment to reflect on the fact that there are people living in the same city as you, who wake up each day not sure where their next meal is coming from.
And for those who miss out on the ballot, I’d never say you should go as far as Ann Bandham and give the $525 you hoped to spend to a Victorian food charity like FareShare, SecondBite or Foodbank. Instead, what about this for an idea: Book the 10-course degustation at Melbourne’s internationally-renowned Vue De Monde for $250 and donate the difference ($275) to help feed the needy. If that money came to FareShare, you’d be paying for 550 meals. I reckon that would give you just as good a feeling as eating snail porridge. Maybe even better.