“The Italians are fucking cheats – you can quote me on that. They can’t cook and they can’t play football,” Irishman Stephen Russell boasts to me. Like many of the chefs here participating in Foodball, he’s being serious about his soccer… seriously cheeky, that is.
I’m here in Moore Park for what has to be one of the year’s biggest gathering of Sydney chefs in a purely social setting. The excuse is a friendly game of soccer, grouping dozens of chefs in the primary countries of the participants: England, Australia, Ireland, Italy, France and New Zealand. Friendly doesn’t mean that there’s no passion here – these are chefs after all – so there’s bumping, trash-talking and plenty of teasing.
The list of team captains is like a who’s who from the Good Food Guide: Balzac’s Matthew Kemp represents England, Assiette’s Warren Turnbull does the same for New Zealand, and so does Marque’s Mark Best for Australia, Bilson’s Manu Feildel for France, the Four in Hand’s Colin Fassnidge for Ireland, and Pilu at Freshwater’s Giovanni Pilu for Italy.
Iconic Aussie chef and French restaurateur Tony Bilson stands at the sideline, chatting to his crew who make up much of the French team, and Italian chef John Lanzafame is also hanging out as a spectator, so we chat about the ex-Hugo chef’s massive new restaurant venture at the Le Sands Pavilion in Brighton, slated to open later this year. Even with plenty of veterans on hand, the real stars here are the next generation of younger chefs, who are supplying the primary firepower on the field, and probably also in their respective kitchens.
The Italians arrive with the largest roster and what looks like the greatest talent, so most people here look upon as the boys in blue as the team to beat. The Italians win their first match, then pull up with a nil-nil tie with France in the next game, which still keeps them on top of the rankings. “You get a point for that? For doing fuck all?” heckles Balzac’s Matthew Kemp, pacing the grounds while England waits for its next match. The Italians take the razzing with a smile.
The day is roasting 30-plus degrees, and I’m having enough trouble spectating from the comforts of a shady tree. No doubt the heat is downright oppressive on the field, and players come to the sidelines drenched in sweat. It makes the James Squire beer and Buller wine on offer a hard sell, as most everyone opts for water. Except for the Irish, who are treated to bottles of brew thanks to Stephen Russell’s parlour trick of yanking off bottlecaps with his teeth.
Regardless of the swelter, the chefs – some joined by their partners and offspring – all seem to be enjoying the rare chance to escape their stoves and catch up. It’s a Monday, but for the hospitality trade, for all intents and purposes, it’s a Sunday.
Foodball is the brainchild of Mel Nathan, editor of trade magazine Food Companion International and also a co-owner of Glebe Point Diner. She regularly gets chefs together for informal gatherings, but says she was astounded by the extra-large response to her inaugural soccer event. “It’s bigger than Ben Hur,” she says, with a glint of irony. “It’s unusual to get 50 of the world’s best chefs on one field.” The goal (no pun intended), she says, was to put the spotlight onto chefs and their countries, and to support the trade. She describes how it all started with a simple conversation with the Four in Hand’s Colin Fassenridge, and then steamrolled once other restaurants found out about it. “I thought it would be another chef event, but it just caught on.”
Amid the feisty competitiveness, there’s some silliness on the field. One player falls, so another chef extends a friendly hand, then mischiefly spins his fallen opponent around in the grass like he’s forming crop circles.
The Italians meet the Irish in the finals, and the favourites seem to have slowed in the afternoon heat. The game ends up finishing 0-0, so it goes to the requisite shootout. Grand National chef Russ Johnson scores the winning goal for the Irish, giving the underdogs the title. They celebrate with their trophy, a frypan donned with a soccer ball in the centre, into which they pour the sponsoring James Squire beer and share amongst their teammates for a drink. They spray other beer bottles like celebratory Champagne and then smile “Potatoes!” for the cameras.
Following the game is an evening awards ceremony, where Bilson’s Manu wins the award for “Most Flamboyant” player for his acrobatic goalie play (apparently inspired by parents who worked in the circus), Assiette’s Turnbull wins for “Best and Fairest”, and an imported London chef on holiday, ‘Stormin’ Norman, graciously receives his “Two Left Feet” award. As for the Australians, they get the Wooden Spoon for last place, so it’s hoped that the Cheferoos don’t foretell any similar performances for the Socceroos come World Cup time. Even those who don’t win awards walk away with something – impressive sunburns to wear to work the next day.