Melbourne Food & Wine Festival is a yearly highlight for more than just the locals. Each year, as the city heaves with one-off food events, chef collabs and pop-ups from international names, the rest of the country descends, too, tastebuds primed. This year, events will take place from Friday March 15 to Sunday March 24, and even for the chefs working the festival – like Dan Hong (executive chef at Mr Wong) – it’s always worth the trip.

“[Melbourne Food & Wine Festival] is the most well-known food festival, it’s the one of the oldest food festivals in Australia, and it’s always known for being one of the best, if not the best,” says Hong. “I try to go to at least one or two events when I have the time, because every year they always have amazing international chefs that come from around the world.”

While Hong’s past personal highlights haven’t always been open to the public (a chefs-only trip to Brae, for example, and hosting a Flower Drum collab dinner), this year, the chef has plenty on his to-do list that’s worth a trip to Melbourne for any food lover.

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Taste of Chengdu

Mapo tofu is a dish that epitomises the fiery cuisine of China’s Sichuan province, combining silken tofu, ground beef and numbing spice. It’s said to have originally come from Chen Mapo, a Chengdu restaurant where the dish has been a fixture since the 1860s. This year, the restaurant’s chef Zhang Fa is bringing his authentic mapo tofu to Melbourne. “He’s a master in Sichuan cuisine and they don’t usually do this stuff, these old-school master chefs from China,” says Hong. “I reckon he’s gonna bring a lot of ingredients from China – special Sichuan peppers and dried chilies and condiments that you probably cannot get here. I think that alone will be quite unique.” Taste of Chengdu will run for three nights, from Friday March 15 to Sunday March 17, and is $128 for two people. Bookings are essential.

Gaa at Evergreen

From her Michelin-starred Bangkok fine diner, Gaa, chef Garima Arora crafts singular Indian cuisine – like blue swimmer crab and macadamia milk curry served on ice. For her residency at Evergreen in Crown Towers, Arora is keeping the eight-course degustation menu under wraps – but Hong reckons this is one worth travelling for. “She’s an amazing chef and I’ve respected her and followed her for a few years now, so that would be a very exciting and delicious dinner,” he says. Arora’s pop-up runs from 6pm for eight nights during the festival. Tickets are $250 per person and bookings are essential.

Dan’s Diner

From Michelin-starred chefs to line cooks, everyone has a soft spot for nostalgic comfort food, especially when it’s served up in an old-school diner. At Dan’s Diner – this year’s Fed Square centrepiece – three high-profile Dans (Wilson, Hunter and Puskas of Yakimono, Brae and Sixpenny respectively – no Hong unfortunately) are giving old-school diner dishes a MFWF-style update. “Dan’s Diner looks amazing,” says Hong. “I like it especially when you have these amazing chefs, like Dan Puskas and Dan Hunter, who normally do crazy, highly technical fine-dining food, doing their own take on diner dishes. It’ll be really interesting to see what they come up with.” In a collaboration with Dan Murphy's, Dan's Diner runs for the duration of the festival and is open for both bookings and walk-ins.

Dan Hong at Pidapipo

Can’t get enough of Hong? While tickets to his dinner at Yugen Dining have sold out, he’s also collaborating with Pidapipo’s Lisa Valmorbida at the gelateria’s Laboratorio in Fitzroy. Expect Asian-inspired treats, both sweet and savoury, sold over the counter and available for just one day. There are no tickets, so you can rock up and order while supplies last. Plus, there’ll also be a special gelato flavour by Hong available throughout the festival – keep your eyes peeled on socials to find out what it is.

More Events To Check Out

Outside of Hong’s picks, there’s a stacked program of more than 400 events to choose from. We’ve rounded up our mates at Hector’s Deli and France-Soir to transform Hector’s in Fitzroy into a night-time bistro for two special evenings, and Free to Feed is hosting a special Persian New Year party. The Baker’s Dozen is back with treats from the likes of Bread Club, Falco, Holy Sugar, Mali Bakes, Mietta by Rosemary and more, while the Arbory Afloat team is throwing a taco and tequila fiesta. Plus, a group of nonnas cooking traditional Italian at Ronnie’s, Tom Sarafian teams up with Lee Ho Fook, an Indonesian affair at Makan, and plenty more – see you there.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.