Chef Hat Season

Words by Sean Melrose, interviews by Shawn Sheather.  

It’s Chef Hat season and AGFG is dropping in on some of Australia’s best and brightest restaurants, to talk about success, how things are going in the kitchen and where the motivation comes from that keeps them at the top of their game.

Butter Poached Squid with lardo, fennel and ink emulsion by Cameron Matthews at The Long Apron. 

Long Apron | Montville, QLD

Unique in the sense that Long Apron doesn’t conform to the regular rules of a high-end restaurant, led by Cameron Matthews, this venue derives its inspiration from exceptional producers that service the Sunshine Coast area.

"I vote for a new TV show called ‘Master Producer,’ the real heroes. Our smaller producers are the ones that deserve a lot of the credit, without them kitchens like ours couldn’t do what we do,” says Matthews.

Matthews has just been selected as a Churchill Fellow and will head overseas to study with the world’s best sustainable restaurants, a big focus for the hatted chef who wants the industry to be a place he could see his children working in.

Though he’s been involved in a host of amazing projects, the Queensland Chef says the charity dinners he’s done stand out, "they are really satisfying knowing that it’s making a difference. Apart from that I love doing Taste Port Douglas, it’s such a great food festival and the atmosphere up there is awesome.”

A fan of creating dishes using scraps and trim as a basis, Matthews maintains that with a little work they can turn anything into something beautiful. For the Queensland Summer, the restaurant will be switching to simple, lighter options and Matthews will soon be pickling cherries for next year, a routine he has kept up each year since his days as an apprentice Chef.

Chocolate Kiwifruit at IDES. 

IDES | Melbourne, VIC

While they’re quoted as saying their cuisine is soul food, the style IDES brings to the table could be also described as ‘a little different,' much like head Chef Peter Gunn’s ideas which he guesses are "just a little more left of field than most.”

The Smith Street, Collingwood venue has a fresh take on design to match their creative dishes, as Peter says, "the Chefs engage as much with the guests as our service team by delivering the food to the table and having a work area in the centre of the dining room.”

It’s not that they’re pushing the boundaries, as Peter explains, theirs is just a natural approach to food, "it starts with an ingredient, then we work with it on its own, add something that we think goes with it, then something else.”

It’s the process of this ever-evolving creative style that fuels his motivation. As he admits, "I find it hard to maintain interest in things, especially if I’m not into it from the start.” In Peter’s view it’s a "slow burning” work in progress that demands he upskill constantly in a wide range of areas to keep him evolving as a Chef.

Inspiration has also come from Ben Shewry, who Peter worked with closely at world number 33 restaurant (as ranked in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list 2016) Attica in Ripponlea. "He very much inspired my creative brain to kick into gear and working side by side with him for many years has had a major impact on my relentless drive to succeed.”

As 2017 kicks off IDES’ Head Chef Peter Gunn, now wearing two Chef Hats (15), is adamant that they are only just getting started. As people continue to stream through their Melbourne doors, rest assured the experience will in turn adapt, change and grow.

 

Warm ricotta and nettle, roasted chicken and brassica at Brae. Photo by Colin Page

Brae | Birregurra, VIC

Situated on 35 acres of farmland the well-known Brae, now ranked at number 65 in the world, is earmarked for a big 2017. The entire establishment, from the farm to the restaurant and guest suites, is all managed sustainably, a perspective that seeps through into the food, which is created with exceptional ingredients and the greatest care. It’s like Brae Head Chef Dan Hunter says, "it’s pretty hard to argue with the quality of flavour when you taste a just picked organic version of something over a cold stored chemically raised product.”

Dan uses all the achievements and accolades to help the restaurant advance, as receiving awards has the effect of increasing his hunger to improve, as opposed to perhaps taking it easy, "I use [the reviews] as a way to evolve, we’re quite conscious of the fact that everything can be lost or taken away, including restaurant guide rankings and reviews, so it’s good to move on from them as quick as possible,” he says.

Since February 2016 Brae has started offering accommodation to go with the restaurant, creating the opportunity for a truly complete weekend away. The rooms serve as a support to the restaurant, contrary to the traditional hotel setup, which lends a uniqueness to visiting Brae at Birregurra. No doubt a highlight of staying at Brae is the generous and healthy farm style breakfast, built from on-site and local, seasonal produce.

Lamb with sheep's milk, peas and grilled lettuce at Royal Mail. 

Royal Mail | Dunkeld, VIC

Laying claim to one of the most comprehensive and varied wine cellars on the planet, Royal Mail’s collections of Bordeaux and Burgundy alone are valued at around $2.8 million. There are bound to be some incredible pairings when you find a wine list that’s rated as one of the top 50 in the world, at a restaurant with 3 Chef Hats.

It’s this dedication to wine that saw the restaurant recognised in 2014 and 2015 with the US Wine Spectator Grand Award, an honour that’s given to venues that show a special dedication to the quality of their wine setups.

As is the trend, produce is harvested daily from a large organic kitchen garden, while lamb and beef originates at their own farm, all complemented by accompaniments from their associated orchards and olive groves. A better backdrop for a hotel and restaurant than the southern tip of the vast and dramatic Grampians National Park, is hard to imagine.

For more great experiences at Chef Hatted restaurants near you, peruse our just announced, 2017 Chef Hat Awards