Sugar Mountain: Pushing the boundaries of the meaning of “Music Festival”

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It’s been a difficult few years for music festivals around Australia – Soundwave and Big Day Out have seen their last days, along with others that just couldn’t make ends meet due to expensive booking costs and poor ticket sales. More and more, music festivals have to provide something that goes above and beyond, and this extends to the food offering; UDL cans and soggy hot chips are a thing of the past.

Mushroom Records’ Sugar Mountain Festival, held across Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts, certainly delivered in this respect, providing top quality Americana food, Asian fusion, first class kebabs, sophisticated vegan/vegetarian food, craft beer and whiskey cocktails. Sugar Mountain’s culture-savvy attendees hungrily devoured these between performances across three stages from musicians including Alpine, Courtney Barnett and Dirty Three.

The festival’s Food and Beverage Curator, Arron Ollington says that the goal was to strengthen the focus on the food and beverage component of the festival so that the offerings were as strong as the music and art aspects of Sugar Mountain.

“We wanted to elevate all tiers so that it was an even playing field for all three components – arts, music, food and beverage,” Ollington says. “That’s why we wanted to work with vendors who you don’t often see at these events, and also catch some of the newer restaurants, like Biggie Smalls for example, which only just opened recently.”

Ollington says it was important to reflect all of Melbourne’s food offerings in the lineup.

“You’ve got to look after your audience, and the Sugar Mountain audience is pretty varied. We didn’t just want Northside and city restaurants being represented, so it was key to include some Southside operators too.

“We had to offer a really good spectrum of menu items, crossing all sorts of styles. Obviously you’ve got to have a burger option. You have to have a vegan/vegetarian option, and that’s where Transformer came in.
The Asian food always does well, so Hanoi Hannah, those guys were always going to go well with rice paper rolls and banh mi. And of course we had to have a barbecue option, with Meatmother.”

This broad lineup was coupled with the festival’s highly anticipated Sensory Restaurant – a collaboration between tapas bar Bomba, design outfit Tin & Ed and electronic musicians Cut Copy to create an all-round sensory experience for diners. Such was the hype that Sensory was sold out prior to festival day.

Ollington says that given the prevalence of food culture in Melbourne, events need to step up to the plate when it comes to their food offering.

“I think it’s the expectation these days,” Ollington says. “You have to offer that quality, and especially with a festival like Sugar Mountain where there’s so much emphasis put on the look and feel of the entire festival with the arts component, the music component and the food. You need to bring them all up to the same level [of importance] and I think that’s what a lot of festivals, especially in Melbourne, are really bringing to the fore.

“Because you know this city is crazy about its food. And I think that we’ll see more and more progress made in that area with greater food and beverage options at all festivals.”

A few foodie highlights of Sugar Mountain 2016:

St Leonard’s House of Love provided one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten in Melbourne and beyond. Their double cheeseburger with juicy beef brisket and short rib patty, melty cheese and “Leonard’s Sauce” which rivalled Maccas’ elusive Big Mac sauce, was a triumph.

Shake Shack, eat your heart out – the boys that have brought us delicious ribs and whiskey at Sweetwater Inn have hit the nail on the head yet again with this latest venture.

Billy Van Creamy were keeping it simple but delicious with their classic artisan gelato. We chose the salty peanut butter and chocolate flavours, and weren’t disappointed – creamy, salty, chocolatey, silky goodness.
The Jamieson Bar was Sugar Mountain festival’s first-ever cocktail bar and a sweet refuge from the main stages, where DJs and merry festival-goers could take a load off. Our favourite was the Cork Colada – a refreshing mix of coconut-washed Jamieson, pineapple juice, citrus, bitters and pandan tea syrup.

From the people that brought us Ferdydurke and the B East, Belleville’s mantra is “we do chicken” – and that they did on this warm festival day. We had the Japanese fusion-ish Karaage popcorn chicken with Tonkatsu aioli, however we were more taken by Belleville’s soft shell crab banh mi slider – a delicious combination of deep fried soft shell crab, brioche, slaw, loads of coriander and Sriracha Kewpie mayo.

Our predictably Melburnian craft beer cravings were sated by Sample Brew’s On Tap Brew Bar – a carefully created bar in collaboration with Folk Architects which served Sample’s moreish pale ale alongside their golden ale and brand new batch lager.

Last but not least, Sensory Restaurant – the most ambitious and highly anticipated of all in the food component of Sugar Mountain Festival, was created to be a feast for the senses from start to finish. Beginning with a rice paper, jamon, manchego cheese and tomato atop a glass of sweet vermouth, and ending with a raspberry/chocolate pop rock dessert cigar, the courses and matching drinks were served in an Alice In Wonderland-like environment, in time to music and specially-designed and ever-changing lighting, at a fast-paced 45 minutes.

“After last year’s event, we were looking into ways to elevate the food component even further, and that’s when the idea of a seated restaurant that was an interactive experience came up,” Ollington says.

“It was pretty amazing, that kind of Sensory experience at a festival – you come into it from this daylight environment into this crazy, surreal restaurant. The music was built like a journey and then all of the food components and food reveals were all timed to match it to create this short, sharp interaction of 40 or so minutes. The pace was solid.

“And that was the idea – to make the experience like a short music set, working with the same timing as a music set would be, and having that added to the lineup like was a set option you could slot into your day.”

Lauren Bruce

Lauren started her writing career as a communications adviser before she realised she couldn’t ignore her passion for food and the arts any longer. She gave up the world of state politics to concentrate on freelance writing and styling. She has since contributed to Spook, Paper Sea and Junkee and is a regular contributor to GRAM Magazine.