Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine
Produce driven Regional cuisine, traditionally more pared back, is progressively developing a sophistication, and identity of its own.
Closer and more collaborative relationships are being forged between producers and chefs in Regional areas.
Local Farmers’ Markets form an integral part of the regional cuisine, offering visitors an insight into both the community and its food bowl.
Regional menus should ideally showcase the best seasonal produce that is representative of the area.
by Erin Ogilvie
Byron has come a long way from a hang out for surf-loving backpackers and kids celebrating finishing school. While Cheeky Monkey’s still claims to be “Australia’s number one party bar”, the coastal NSW town now boasts a number of fantastic places to eat for the culinary fussy. Many of the local chefs have left big cities, tempted by idyllic surrounds, a slower paced life, and easy access to local produce. After working in Sydney establishments including Bather’s Pavilion, Scottish-native Gavin Hughes is now the head chef at the The Byron at Byron. We spoke to him about why he made the move and what he loves about cooking in a regional area.
Gavin was born in a rural area on the west coast of Scotland, which he says is one of the country’s most beautiful parts.
“They call it The Gateway to the Highlands. We have access to the most amazing cattle – venison, deer, sheep – and beautiful deep water fish. It was one of the things that inspired me to become a chef.” He says, growing up he believed a chef was “someone connected with the land.”
Gavin didn’t come from a cooking family – in his words, there’s no romance behind his decision to become a chef. His family were quite poor – “I was brought up on the bread line” – and his mother was a self-taught cook who knew how to get creative with budget cuts of meat. “Most of the food she cooked was convenience food. She did make a mean stew and pastry, which I loved because it was homemade and full of flavour.”
When he was 15, he ended up in Food and Nutrition classes, where he discovered a love of food, and quite a knack for it. “I was actually amazed with myself, because I was creating things and they were turning out. I was so excited about it, and I thought, I really wouldn’t mind being a chef. My uncle was a chef in the British army and always told me it was a good career.” He laughs: “Obviously I didn’t go into the military – I was too scared.”
Starting out washing dishes at a nearby hotel, he completed a full-time professional cookery course then moved to Glasgow at 19, where he got a job at One Devonshire Gardens, one of the most prestigious properties in Scotland. “A lot of people who stay there are quite discerning. You know Gordon Ramsay, that angry guy who swears a lot? He had a restaurant there for a while and he couldn’t make it work. He even had a Michelin star, but he went under. It’s a tough business, and it was quite humbling when you see a guy like that, who can’t make it work, you know? We all have something to learn from that.”
After Glasgow, he moved back closer to home. “I got my first Head Chef position in a small hotel on the west coast, and that’s where I hired my second chef, who is now my wife. She works for me here
[at The Byron] too. We went on to work in the French Alps for three years, then she fell pregnant and wanted to return to Sydney, where she’s from.”
Gavin spent nearly four years working in Sydney, with most of it spent at Aqua Luna, a modern Italian restaurant in Circular Quay that is now closed. “The Head Chef, Darren Simpson, was headhunted to come to Aqua Luna in 2000 for the Olympic Games, from the River Café in London. It was quite a significant career change for me, because it was my first job working in a ‘non-pretentious’ restaurant, if you like, where it was produce driven. It was all about organic produce, which I didn’t know anything about at the time, and where the food was sourced. He was inspiring to work with because there was no bulls**t; it was just well-sourced food, cooked with honesty. I found this fantastic because you learn to cook one way with a lot of chefs. He had a very unorthodox approach to food, and he was a bit crazy but also very, very talented. Actually a lot of chefs are like that! It was so refreshing to do real, bold food, and just be cooking again. I was really lucky to work for him.”
Working endlessly long hours, Gavin and his wife began to tire of Sydney. “We desperately wanted to get out of the city. We’d just had our first child, and some of our shifts were 16 hours. You kind of lose your passion when you’re doing hours like that, especially when lots of things are changing in your personal life. We just hated it to be honest.”
They had holidayed in Byron and loved it, so decided to make a sea change. Gavin received a job offer from a venue, now called The Balcony, where he cooked a paired down version of his Aqua Luna menu. “I only had a couple of kitchen staff; we used to do the washing up and everything.” After less than a year, the restaurant changed hands and Gavin was thrown a lifeline from the Head Chef at a new resort called The Byron at Byron. “There were not a lot of choices up here, and I thought I was going to have to go back to Sydney again. It was incredibly stressful.” The resort opened Christmas in 2004 and after less than 8 months, the current Head Chef left and Gavin took over. “It was a natural progression I guess. It’s been one big learning curve; I’d never actually run a big resort kitchen before, I had no experience in that, so it’s been challenging. Still is, believe me.”
Gavin says that some of his challenges have been no different to being in the city. “It’s very hard to find quality staff up here, then it’s very hard to keep them. We are over-saturated with restaurants now, which is a good thing, but it dilutes our chances of trying to find chefs. I think it’s an overall issue that a lot of restaurants have, even in Sydney; that there is a skill shortage of good chefs.”
However he does admit that there are unique regional challenges too. “It can be hard with suppliers up here. I realised that I have to actually work with people, and coax them, rather than be so demanding. It took me a while to adjust to that. You have to build up a good relationship with your suppliers, but I’ve been here long enough now that I definitely think I’ve managed to do that. It takes a while though.”
One of the ways that he forged good relationships with his suppliers was through the Byron Farmers’ Markets. “I’d been going to the markets, rain, hail or shine, for god knows how many years. We take our guests to the markets to get them out of the resort life and to integrate with the community as well. Because it’s as much about people as it is about produce.”
He was made an honourary member in 2011, which he says was an overwhelming recognition to his love of the local produce. About 85% of his menu is local, sourced within a four-hour drive of Byron. “We use the best chickens I can get, and they’re from Coffs Harbour. Our lamb comes from Armadale, and our beef comes from Glen Innes.”
“In my opinion, seasonal and local ingredients should always reflect on your menu. It allows for spontaneity as well, which is a good thing in food. For example you might only be able to get figs for a month, so we include them as a special, and they always sell so well because there’s a story behind it. People want the story; they want to know the black figs are from John with his farm ten miles over the hill. It’s quite personal, and it’s about making the producers shine. We just want to showcase our farmers and not do too much with the food.“
When asked how he classifies his style of food, Gavin is characteristically droll. “I would call my food a bit like me: honest, soulful, flavoursome. Not too over glorified or pretentious.” He becomes serious. “It’s just about keeping it understated, and hopefully trying to deliver more when you get it on the plate. All our dishes are accessible because I want people to read our menu and think: “I don’t know what to have – it all sounds delicious.” I try and do a menu based on what I believe our guests want, which can be very difficult because you’ve got to be flexible: some people want fine dining, some people want rustic.”
And would he call it Modern Australian? “I guess so, but it’s also a bit European because I am European. Sometimes Modern Australian gets a bit lost, where it’s too confusing. You can’t go from Indian to Scottish to Italian; it’s got to have a set theme to it. I don’t like to have a glossary of terms on a menu because I think it’s condescending and patronizing. I just try and write my menu as I’d write an email to my sous chef, you know?
“I’m just a cook, and I’m privileged enough to have a fair profile and be in a good position, and it’s very humbling. I think I’m quite lucky because I don’t feel as wiped out at the end of the week as I did working in Sydney. You still work hard and you still work long hours, but, and it sounds a bit spiritual, it feels a bit more relaxed up here.”