Breaking New Ground: Sugar Mountain Festival

It’s no secret that food and beverage culture continues to ramp up in Australia and beyond. Our restaurants, kitchens, restaurateurs, chefs, bartenders and baristas are all getting elevated to star status, and food has become a vital aspect of all major events on Melbourne’s entertainment calendar.

Gone are the days of dirty hot dog and donut trucks and Mr Whippy vans. Now, almost all our events and festivals are likely to incorporate a large smattering of epicurean food trucks and pop up stores serving craft beers, cocktails, tacos and bao, successfully delighting attendees while elevating the event experience to a more sophisticated level.

But since their partnership with Mushroom Group in 2013, Sugar Mountain Festival Directors Brett Louis, Pete Keen and Simon Huggins have been focused on taking this notion of dining experiences at festivals even further. Working closely with Sample Beer’s Aaron Ollington, they seek to bring Sugar Mountain’s food and beverage category onto the same plane as music and art.

“Year to year, we reach out to restaurants we think are new and interesting, but also that we think are delivering something quite unique,” Keen says. “They’re also always reflective of the Melbourne community as well – Lazerpig is very ingrained in the northside, as is Mr Miyagi; same thing goes for Pidapipo and the Carlton community.”

While the food offering for the general festival is very considered in its own right, the cornerstone of Sugar Mountain’s food aspect is their Sensory Restaurant, a concept that debuted at last year’s event.

Sensory is a dining experience that affects not just your tastebuds, but all your senses. Described on the Sugar Mountain website as “a multi-dimensional ‘Immersive Restaurant Experiment’”, artists of different disciplines are engaged to create a 60 minute “set menu narrative”.

“Sensory was an idea that we wanted to explore to [work towards] breaking that mould, using the three categories that we’re working with – music, art, food. Last year was an intro to Sensory via some renowned local names in their own individual areas.”

“It’s interesting new ground,” Keen says. “In recent years, we’ve kind of been trying to shape more of a higher offering and create something that’s less what you previously envisioned or imagined at music festivals and make something that’s definitely our own.

“For any cultural event, people are so often used to seeing art at festivals and food is tucked away in a corner and I think it’s really the food that’s breaking through and giving people a new idea of what we’re trying to [achieve with the festival].”

While they were very happy with the initial Sensory event – which incorporated food and drink from Bomba, music and lighting from Melbourne band Cut Copy and an Alice in Wonderland-esque fit-out by artists Tin and Ed, Keen says the Sugar Mountain team are looking to step it up even further at next year’s event. The 2017 lineup includes food from innovative chef and owner of Ides, Peter Gunn, who will be working alongside New York artist Daniel Arsham and featuring music by S U R V I V E, the composers behind the score of the now cult classic TV series Stranger Things.

Keen says the Sugar Mountain team are happy with how the inaugural event played out in that it fostered their concept of elevating a restaurant to an all-round sensory experience.

“The first run of Sensory could’ve gone terribly wrong, but it actually went pretty well; we noticed what works and what we can make even better,” Keen says.

“Last year, Sensory was set in more or less a restaurant with a really warped environment, and that was a stepping stone [for future events]. This year, we’re stepping into new ground again, working with international artists [to create the restaurant], and It’s coming together really well.”

S U R V I V E in particular was a great get for the Sugar Mountain team, Keen says, given the ever-growing hype around the Stranger Things series and anyone associated with it.

“[Getting S U R V I V E to score Sensory required] a lot of patience, to be honest,” Keen says. “They’re quite heavily into creating the new work for the second series of Stranger Things at the moment, so we had to be a little understanding of their schedule.

“Initially, I think they were more kind of scared that we were imagining a Beyonce-sized kind of production – but once they got a better understanding of what we were after, they realised that they were [well positioned to take part in] what we were hoping to deliver. At any rate, all of the collaborators were all really pumped to work with Pete [Gunn] and work with food. Because it’s something [they hadn’t done before] and the concept is interesting to them.”

Keen says the reason he thinks the collaborators are working so well together is due to the boundary-pushing ethos of the three entities that challenges traditional forms of creative output.

“With Pete’s food, you’re either going to love or hate it. It’s amazing food, but it’s very polarising. And we felt like S U R V I V E and Daniel were also very much like that [in their disciplines] as well. Each individual collaborator has a mature and unique delivery.

“Pete’s food for example is kind of reimagining and repurposing ingredients. Like Daniel Arsham in his work will use [everyday objects] that you’ll know and love – basketballs, guitars and keyboards etcetera – but will reimagine them by using minerals like crystal or volcanic ash to 3D print [those objects] so that they can live again in a new form. All the collaborators this year are kind of repurposing, reimagining quite simple and common aspects and ingredients; they’re taking something that was pre-existing and making something entirely new out of it. And that’s [exactly] what we’re trying to achieve with Sensory on the whole.”

Keen says attendees can expect a completely different experience at Sensory 2017 compared to the inaugural event.

“We feel like we’re on track to deliver something quite interesting. We can’t give too much away but…  this year we kind of want to skew the restaurant experience again… maybe you’re not in the one communal space, maybe you’re moving around a little. But I don’t want to reveal too much!”

For Sugar Mountain’s full food and beverage lineup and to buy tickets to Sugar Mountain and Sensory Restaurant, head to


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