Great escape the Lexus way
Readers of First Class are likely familiar with the vehicle brand Lexus. Some are probably even owners of an ES, GS, RX, NX or LX (for those who are not into cars, these are models of Lexus sedans and SUVs).
But beyond wheels, Lexus, I have learned, is now also about experiences. Which is why a few weeks ago, they invited First Class to the Lexus Escape to Amazing experience at Margaret River in Australia.
Margaret River is a region in Western Australia. While slowly making a name for itself as a food and wine destination, it is not yet as well known as Sydney or Melbourne, which are on the other side of the ginormous map of Oz. The nearest big city is Perth, which is a two-day drive from Melbourne; in fact a plane ticket from Melbourne to Perth would cost practically the same as a ticket from Melbourne to Manila.
But for wine connoisseurs and gourmets, Margaret River is a must-visit. Considered one of the top five wine regions of Oz, it has over 200 wineries on its 5,000 hectares of vineyards (yes, that big!).
After experiencing it, I must say it is worth not only the 10-hour flight from Manila to Perth but also the three-hour drive from Perth to Margaret River. (Of course it helped that our drive from Perth to Margaret River was chauffeured and in a Lexus, either an RX 350 or an NX, so getting to the festival locations did not feel like an ordeal at all.)
Guests of Lexus arrived in Margaret River in time for Gourmet Escape, an annual food and wine festival that has, over the years, brought over 100,000 participants to Western Australia. Hannah Pike, creator of the event, shares that this 2018, the four-day festival included no less than 50 food and wine events with 60 “culinary stars” in 25 different locations in Margaret River.
Ticket holders to Gourmet Escape choose the events that they would like to attend. For us, though, Lexus carefully selected and even created private events, which resulted in an itinerary that was nothing short of extraordinary. For perspective: I have had the privilege of attending Madrid Fusion in Spain, the Bocuse d’Or and the Sirha food festival in Lyon, the Salone del Gusto slow food festival in Turin, the World’s 50 Best anniversary fiesta curated by Ferran Adria in Barcelona, yet I can honestly say that none of these were quite as magical as the Lexus Escape to Amazing gourmet experience in Margaret River.
Feast in the Forest
On our first day in Margaret River, we arrived at the Leeuwin Estate Winery, one of the five founding wineries of Margaret River, as the sun set and the great skies watching over the estate turned mauve and pink. After allowing us to breathe in the glorious beauty of the heavens against the silhouette of marri trees, we turned around to walk through a forest of giant jarrah trees that led us to the estate’s Safari Club, an old barn that was cleaned up and set up with long communal tables for the welcome dinner titled “Feast in the Forest.”
Before entering the hall, as night fell, we gathered round a large bonfire where a very regal representative of an indigenous tribe named Warich or “the White Belly Sea Eagle,” and his father, whom he acknowledged as the “speaker of the spirits,” performed a Welcome To Country, a ritual to highlight the cultural significance of the surrounding area of a particular aboriginal clan. “Our country is written in our songs and our dances,” Warich said. “We welcome you to the country. We let the country and the spirits know that we are here, that we mean no harm and not to harm us; that we have come to enjoy and respect our country.” We then acknowledged that the event was being held on traditional lands and that “we pay respects to the elders, past and present.” A beautiful, sacred beginning to a joyous feast!
The chosen chef for the Feast in the Forest was Paul Carmichael, a tall, hunky, long-haired New Yorker from Barbados. He was executive chef of David Chang’s Momofuku Ma Peche in New York before moving to Sydney to lead Momofuku Seiobo, where he was given a free hand by Chang to play around with the menu. Grabbing the opportunity to express himself, Carmichael let his Caribbean roots shine.
We had a taste of his tribute to flavors of the Caribbean at the Feast in the Forest dinner with such dishes as salted cod on sweet potato, pork jowl doused in an abalone caramel sauce, and fish head on chickpeas. While dinner conversation was alive with “oohs” and “ahs” and debates on what ingredients went into each dish, Carmichael tugged at the hearts of guests with flavors that, though foreign, surprisingly tasted familiar. His pork jowl reminded me of “liempo” while what he did with the sweet potato reminded me of “puto.” His twists on food were definitely foreign to my Asian tongue but the flavors somehow wiggled their way close to home. Other guests had similar comparisons to their local dishes and we all went home with an admiration for the clever albeit warm, even sentimental creations of the chef.
This was in stark contrast to the creativity we experienced the following day with Chef Paul Iskov, where practically all the dishes were absolutely foreign. Nicknamed “Yoda” (for his ears, when he was younger; for his wisdom, now that he is older), Iskov is known to be an expert forager.
Lexus made us experience Iskov’s intense dedication to gathering the best that nature has to offer by having us go foraging with him ourselves. He introduced us to flowers like the blue bell and a lot of edible leaves, and later, at lunch at the private space of Wise Wine Estate, he made us eat kangaroo.
On the final evening, when one would think that it would be impossible to top the first two events, Lexus pushed the pedal even harder.
The setting was the sprawling, majestic Fraser Gallop Estate and our fleet of Lexus cars arrived once again just before sunset for dinner beside the estate’s lake.
The chef chosen to reflect the grandeur of the estate on the plate was Chef Shaun Quade. This chef, who wants to up the ante in experiential gastronomy, exhibits creativity that is remarkably original. His Spring Chicken appetizer was adorably served on a “nest” and had guests debating which came first, the chicken or the egg? His Pearl on the Ocean floor course really tasted like the ocean, so much so that one felt like part of the cast of “The Little Mermaid.” And a poignant touch dedicated to the hosts was his dessert called the Lexus ES grill, which was a cake served in the shape of the new car model’s grill, where the emblem is placed.
Overall, the Margaret River Gourmet Escape has to have been one of the best gastronomic experiences of my life: I am still starstruck at the astounding beauty of Australia. Their produce is delightful. The techniques and attention to detail of their chefs are impressive. And while I am still partial to French wines—my name, after all, is Margaux—the wines we tasted, especially those from the Leeuwin Estate, had such impressive balance and character that I am convinced I must explore this wine region more.
If you have an opportunity to go to Margaret River next year, grab it! My only regret was leaving behind Riri, the red Lexus NX that was my car for four days (you cannot get around without a car). I have to confess I got a little emotionally attached and even named my car Riri on the second day.
Lexus did not exaggerate when it said it would be an “Escape to Amazing!!”
More about the Lexus experience at lexus.com.ph. More about the Margaret River Gourmet Escape at gourmetescape.com.au.
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