WHEN Neroli Foster moved to Newcastle a decade ago, there was nary a scintilla of culinary excitement in the city centre.
Today there is so much happening, she says, that it’s difficult to fit in all the dining hot-spots on the pop-up dinners and tours she runs via her business Underground Epicureans.
‘‘I love Newcastle and I love sharing what there is here,’’ says the Hamilton mother-of-two.
‘‘People from outside Newcastle are talking about how the city is changing and the food scene .. Newcastle is about to take the stage.’’
Raised in Tamworth, Ms Foster moved to Newcastle with her husband following a stint abroad. When her youngest child started school she began thinking of ways to spend her free time.
‘‘For a year I threw around ideas that my husband declined, crazy ideas, like owning a goat farm with late-rising goats,’’ she laughs, adding she just wanted to make cheese.
In late 2012, her friend Ben Armstrong, head chef at Three Bean Expresso in Hamilton, encouraged her to try her idea of a pop-up dining experience in a secret location.
‘‘The pop-up idea was all about getting people to see a space in a new way and having dinner in some place they would never imagine dining.’’
The inaugural Underground Epicureans pop-up dinner was held at The Lock Up in Hunter Street, with guests seated at tables in what was the exercise yard.
‘‘It’s a really rough looking space so I wanted proper linen, cutlery and glassware to contrast,’’ she said.
Armstrong recreated dishes from his childhood, giving classics a modern twist and sharing his memories and that dish with diners.
Ms Foster has since held about half a dozen events per year, with guests dining in places including a roof-top penthouse apartment, a cinema, a warehouse, furniture store and laneway. Venues are only ever used once and their location is never revealed until the last moment.
‘‘The location is a surprise until the day of the event and that’s a big thing for me,’’ she says.
Epicurean Excursions, the latest extension of Underground Epicureans, was born last year when Ms Foster conducted a walking food tour in the Newcastle CBD in conjunction with Tower Cinemas to promote the film The One-Hundred Foot Journey.
‘‘We had a journey around all the eateries near the cinema and it was great fun and far easier than pop-ups,’’ she says.
Buoyed by the experience, she launched The East Feast, a four-course moveable feast featuring four secret locations.
‘‘It’s a long lunch tour, you sit down and have a meal and wine and the chef has a chat, and it’s all about experiencing different restaurants, everyone mingles and by the end you go home with 10 new friends,’’ she says.
More recently Ms Foster launched The Western Frontier Excursion of the once unsavoury West End, now brimming with foodie favourites ranging from the hatted Subo to comfort food havens Papa’s Bagel Bar and One Roux.d Baker.
‘‘The West End is more of a wandering and tasting tour, visiting seven places,’’ she says.
Ms Foster plans to grow her Epicurean Excursions, perhaps exploring fresh produce, cycling and destinations including Morpeth.
She says her group bookings cater to events such as hen’s parties but are also ideal for business networking.
At present the vast majority of people who embark on the secret tours are local. Ultimately, though, she wants them to attract ‘‘outsiders’’.
Bookings and more information at epicureans.com.au.
ASTHMA awareness will peak in May, with three Hunter businesses teaming up to raise money for Asthma Australia.
The inaugural 5k A Day In May event was co-founded and launched last year by boutique property investment company Carnelian Projects and Inspire Property & Finance.
The event asks participants to walk, ride, run or swim five kilometres every day in May to raise awareness and funds for Asthma Australia.
Carnelian Projects’ director Kerri-Ann Hooper’s son Cameron has suffered asthma from a young age, meaning the family has spent lots of time in doctors’ surgeries and hospital.
‘‘Advances in modern medicine has allowed us to manage his asthma better but there’s still a long way to go,’’ she says.
Her husband, Wade Hooper of Inspire Property & Finance, has also lived with asthma for most of his life.
‘‘Exercise is an important part of asthma management, which is why the fundraiser encourages participants to get active,’’ he said.
This year Genesis Fitness has also partnered with the event and through its network of 10 gyms will educate its clients on asthma management and encourage them to take part.
Genesis managing director John Pirlo said many of the gym chain’s members lived with asthma and while people were aware of the illness, there needed to be more information about ways to manage it.
‘‘Our aim is to inspire a world of more movement so that the community becomes healthier,’’ he said.
Participants can compete in the event on their own or team up with others.
For more information visit 5kadayinmay.com.au.