The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival was devised and, initially, financed by leading Melbourne ad-man Peter Clemenger as a way to reinvigorate Melbourne after a failed bid for the 1996 Olympic Games. The first festival had just 12 events.
In 1990, the announcement of Atalanta as the venue for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games was a blow to the city and to the team who had put together Melbourne’s bid. It was especially bitter as stories emerged of IOC officials being bribed with cash and a range of benefits, although the official line was that the location would guarantee large television revenues.
Peter Clemenger was part of the Olympic bid team and believed, in the wake of the disappointment, the city needed a boost. In 1991 he began to approach potential sponsors but was unable to raise the money required to finance the event. He then made the decision to finance the festival himself.
Among the dozen or so events of the first Melbourne Food and Wine Festival was the World’s Longest Lunch. It was held at the MCG. At the time, I was working at Peter’s advertising agency, Clemenger Melbourne, and Peter bussed everyone on staff to the lunch. On a perfect day, as roadies were setting up for a Linda Ronstadt concert elsewhere on the famous turf, we enjoyed a superb three-course lunch.
The World’s Longest Lunch has become a regular event at the Festival and has been held at diverse locations including St Kilda Pier, the Albert Park Grand Prix track, the banks of the Maribrynong River and Lygon Street, Carlton. From 400 people at the first lunch, it has grown to more than 1500 people, seated at a 500m long table. As the Festival has spread beyond Melbourne itself, subsidiary Longest Lunches have popped up in regional areas.
The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, held in early March, now comprises hundreds of walking tours, special restaurant menus, masterclasses and events featuring a roll call of local and international celebrity chefs. From one man’s vision, the Festival has become a signature event on the Melbourne calendar and has helped the city become established as the foodie capital of Australia.