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Feeding the fans & fuelling the fire

Home cooks feed family, pitmasters cater for bigger crowds. But try providing for 100,000 people in one afternoon. RUPERT BATES heads to Melbourne to talk to chef Markus Werner

 Rupert Bates   Winter 2022

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It was a poignant time to be in Melbourne and heading to The G, the iconic MCG sports stadium, Australian home to cricket and AFL – and spiritual home of Shane Warne.

The Australian superstar cricketer had died suddenly just a few weeks earlier, with his state memorial service at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The pause by Warnie’s statue beside the MCG in the city of the legendary king of spin’s birth was a very different kind of reflection.

The ground the morning of my visit was eerily quiet. There was no grand sporting occasion beside the Yarra; I was there to talk to Markus Werner, the man tasked on match days and beyond to feed armies of supporters and visitors, not just to the MCG, but Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open tennis, across the road, as well as running many other outlets across Australia and New Zealand, as corporate executive chef of hospitality giant Delaware North.

But we were not going to talk simply about pies and pots at the Boxing Day Test or the AFL Grand Final, for Werner is also a man passionate about BBQ in the brief respites from his extraordinary culinary schedule in both menu creation and food delivery.

I would like to say that Werner was going to cook the ultimate BBQ on the MCG for me – another time maybe. But he always looks to embrace live-five cooking at his venues, sporting or otherwise.

“We run stations at stadia, using hibachi grills and smokers. We have house-smoked brisket and pork legs on all charcuterie boards in the Smoke and Smoulder (Marvel Stadium, Melbourne) and also house-smoked Samba ham,” says Werner.

“Our steak restaurants serve the famous O’Connor Tomahawk and we have plenty of grain- and grass-fed steaks from different regions.”

 

 

Okay, it’s Australia v England, Boxing Day lunchtime and we’ve slipped past security and the ground staff. The BBQ is alight beside the wicket graced through the ages by the greats of the game. What are you cooking?

“A chargrilled Barramundi entrée, with chimichurri, pumpkin and mango chilli salsa. I would use this combination to bring in the flavours of the Australian tropics and of course throw some prawns on the barbie too!”

His main course would draw on the food provenance of Victoria’s Gippsland region. 

“A rump cap (marble score 4) is one of my favourite cuts, quickly smoked and sous-vide for hours, before finishing on the chargrill, slicing and serving.”

Grilled asparagus, baby carrots, Rooftop honey-smoked almonds, charred baby cos and pickled red onion would accompany it.

At home Werner uses a stainless-steel Beefmaster to barbecue, with the gas convenient for daily use.

“You can fit enough pork knuckles on the rotisserie to feed a party. I cover the grill section with volcanic rocks for even heat. I have just moved house and sadly said goodbye to my big wood-fired pizza oven. The bread came up so well in the oven, as did the marinated Sunday roast – and pizza, of course.”

He is looking at an Ooni Karu 16 multi-fuel oven (right) for his new decking. “I have heard very good things about this oven. You can use it for wood-fired pizzas, gas heated, or take it on your next camping trip.”

One of Werner’s tips in his basic Aldi wood smoker at home, is to soak birch or cherry wood in apple juice, while his go-to traveller is a small, charcoal LotusGrill.

“Our picnics are next level!” 

I suspect that’s not simply down to the equipment, chef.

Werner loves to put fresh, un-shucked oysters on the BBQ, before dropping in garlic butter when they open.

“But for me the ultimate live-fire food is goat. It has a strong, unique flavour and can handle both the smoke from the cooking and the heat very well.”

Werner is from Germany, a renowned BBQ nation and the fire kingdom of the sausage, while suckling pig or pork knuckles on the rotisserie are meats he could never walk past “particularly if brushed with beer and paprika”.

Born in the medieval fortified town of Dinkelsbühl in Bavaria, Werner was raised on a small farm, eating what the land produced. 

“I grew up eating duck, pigeon, lamb and venison. My father taught me as a child that if you looked after your animals well, they reward you on the plate. I have taken this concept with me throughout my career. 

“I need to know where the produce comes from and I make sure I give it as much love when I’m cooking it as the farmer did producing it,” says Werner, with entertaining and sharing great food giving him as much pleasure and satisfaction as the cooking itself.

The family now lives in Werribee in the outer Western suburbs of Melbourne. 

“I overlook the river where I can throw a line in and can see fields of broccoli and cauliflower.”

Travel has informed his love of cooking too and as a family they won’t consider a country to visit unless “we can get excited about the food”.

“How people eat plays a big part in their culture and I pick up new ideas whenever I travel.”

The food supply chain and his relationships with producers, farmers and growers, recognising excellence, provenance and welfare, is hugely important to Werner – the likes of O’Connor beef from Gippsland, Roaring Forties lamb from Geelong, Great Ocean Road duck, Aquna Sustainable Murray cod, Infinity blue barramundi from Werribee and Mount Zero olive oil.

I continue our conversation a few months later just after the AFL Grand Final, knowing that Werner, like myself, is a Geelong Cats fan and they won the Flag this year, crushing Sydney Swans at the MCG in front of 100,000 fans – that’s a lot of mouths to feed.

“Most of the catering is done before the first bounce at the Grand Final. There was a lot to organise before half time too, but I got to catch a few glimpses of the game and was naturally delighted with the result!”

I’m not sure I can wait that long Markus but book me in for Boxing Day lunch 2025 for Australia v England in the Ashes at the MCG. 

If it’s a barbecue and England are 150 for no wicket so much the better, although my Melburnian wife might not agree – with the score, not the food.


 


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