Giorgio De Maria, co-founder of Rootstock, a not-for-profit sustainable food and wine festival

“It’s okay to say that Ben will be there, but not what he’s doing,” Giorgio De Maria, co-founder of the sustainable food and wine festival, Rootstock, warns me. “Because he wants to do something completely different to what he does normally.”

In this context, De Maria could only be referring to arguably the most influential ‘Ben’ in Australian food culture, Ben Shewry, one of the country and the world’s most celebrated chefs – a New Zealander who emigrated to Australia in 2002 and has since come to define, in part, what we think about when we think of an Australian cuisine in the 21st century. That Shewry, the chef and owner of Attica in the Melbourne suburb of Ripponlea, should want to be involved in this year’s fifth iteration of Rootstock sounds as though it is an endless source of pride for the effusive De Maria. It’s almost as though the latter can hardly believe his luck at having one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants wanting to contribute to his industry-driven, volunteer-run, not-for-profit event all in the name of cutting loose and having a bit of fun.

That Shewry’s contribution should not only dramatically divert from his practice at Attica but from the remainder of the festival’s program makes his involvement all the more significant. While I’m not at liberty to disclose the particulars of what Shewry and his collaborators – Attica’s operations manager Kylie Staddon; chefs Matthew Boyle and Charles Gerein – have in store for this “anti-fine dining party”, you can begin to discern something of the attitude from its name, Ripponlea Riots, and the form it will take: four hours worth of twenty minute sessions for small groups staged across the afternoon of Rootstock’s second day. Immersive, theatrical and entirely unexpected, these riots will not be suited, De Maria promises, to those easily offended or accustomed to your garden variety food and wine festival. Luckily, Rootstock caters toward neither party. Instead, it’s in a league that is entirely its own.

Generally speaking, De Maria, also a wine importer by trade, still approaches the chefs, artisans, producers, winemakers and farmers who contribute to Rootstock. It’s telling that, bar preexisting engagements that prohibit them from doing so, “so far nobody has said no.” Their goal, according to co-founder James Hird, Wine Director for the Icebergs Group, is to create a dialogue around food, wine and sustainability that places farmers and producers at its centre and in direct conversation with their customers, not sales people. That proximity to the maker forms a large part of Rootstock’s appeal, at least from a consumer’s point of view, when it means you’re able to meet firsthand the producers not only of some of the most interesting wines coming out of Australia – Shobbrook, Ochota Barrels, Lucy Margaux and Hochkirch amongst them – but from around the globe. The iconoclastic Sicilian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti will this year make the voyage south for Rootstock (presumably by way of reparations for having closed her vineyard for harvest on the day I set aside to visit it earlier this year), as will Georgian producer Pheasant’s Tears, who produce wines in keeping with ancient Georgian methods that see them ferment and age local varietals in qvevri, clay vessels lined with organic beeswax that are buried in the earth.

Over five years, the festival’s drawcard wine program, De Maria says, has grown into a solid, constant idea. This year sees the event move into a different space at Carriageworks, the inner Sydney multi-arts precinct, but the basis for the festival remains the same. A strong line-up of themed Rootstock tasting bars will form the grounding of the experience, including bars dedicated to the wares of saké importer Black Market Saké, a house-curated orange wine and pétillant-naturel bar and one celebrating Tasmania’s Two Metre Tall and their phenomenal wild fermented beer. “We’re not going to serve any commercial beer,” says De Maria. “We’re taking up [Ashley Huntington’s] Farm Bar and [we’re putting] it in Sydney, and then we [will] ship it back. We’re serving only exclusively his beers.” After all, it was at Rootstock that Huntington reconnected with Noma sommelier Mads Kleppe, a meeting that lead to the conception of the brewer’s Snakebite, a barrel-aged cider-come-ale, being developed for Noma’s six week Australian residency.

The scene at Rootstock Sydney, now in its fifth year at Carriageworks

In recent years, the Rootstock organisers have worked with the Victorian academic, author, conversationalist and farmer Bruce Pascoe to raise awareness and support a crowdfunding campaign dedicated to the recovery of traditional food plants, in collaboration with Indigenous communities in New South Wales. Then named Gurandgi Munjie, the group’s Pozible campaign not only met but exceeded its target, all the while growing native Australian yams, grains, vegetables, fruits and herbs at plantations across the state and providing employment, education and training for young Aboriginal people in the process.

This year, Rootstock aims to further amplify those efforts through the construction of a sustainable, closed-loop kitchen with a wood-fired oven, a ‘cooking tree’, and a butterfly spit designed by architects Penny Fuller and Jad Silvester of Silvester Fuller, whose environmentally, economically and socially sustainable plans will be fabricated in collaboration with the metalworks sculptor, Dion Horstmans. Rootstock aims to raise $22,000 to fund the kitchen, and following the weekend-long festivities, the kitchen will be dismantled and donated to three Yuin communities on the south coast for their ongoing use, Digging Stick foods, Yuin Women’s Group and Wurdi Yuang. In keeping with the thesis central to the festival, it’s the intention of the project to showcase how innovative, sustainable design that provides maximum output with minimal environmental impact and low operating costs ultimately benefits communities for whom a sense of well-being is inseparable from the land on which we all live.

Some of the country’s most celebrated and innovative chefs including Shewry, Jock Zonfrillo of Orana, Kylie Kwong (who will be serving wallaby tails cooked over charcoal), Ormeggio’s Alessandro Pavoni and Café Paci’s Pasi Petänen will cook in those three kitchens throughout the event, which also includes a dynamic program of talks staged across two days. A ‘Mortadella Party’, featuring contributions from Luke Powell (of LP’s fame), Monty Koludrovic (also of the Icebergs Group) and Bologna’s Orsi San Vito, will close out the festivities.

For all that, De Maria says that while he is most excited to experience first-hand what Shewry has planned as part of his Ripponlea Riots, he still most looks forward to seeing “a lot of chefs working together in [the] food and wine area, it will have a fantastic vibe.

“So that room with the kitchens that we made, it’s going to be an incredible addition in comparison to the previous years. The festival will feel much more complete.”

Rootstock will take place from November 25-26 at Carriageworks in Sydney. Tickets are available here.

Tile and cover image: Supplied/Courtesy of Rootstock

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