The Margaret River region is drawing culinary stars like a magnet from all over the world. Janine Pittaway meets a couple of them.
You know the Margaret River region is truly on the map for quality food experiences when accomplished Spanish and French chefs like Santiago (Santi) Fernandez and Romain Lassiaille choose to call the region home.
Santi and his young family moved to Margaret River in late May and he is now busy getting acquainted with Voyager Estate as the iconic winery’s new head chef. The 38-year-old has come from Sault restaurant in Daylesford, Victoria, where he had been head chef for the past five years.
Prior to moving to Australia, Santi established his culinary career among Michelin-starred restaurants Tristan in Mallorca, Restaurant Toni Vicente, Santiago de Compostela and Tapies Restaurant, Lleida. His career has taken him from Spain to Germany, Mexico and Russia, working with small teams of four up to catering for 800 guests for the Spanish Kings Cup Sailing Competition.
While in Moscow he met his Brazilian wife Meire and they moved back to Spain when they had their first daughter. Moving to Australia in 2010 came at the right time for them and it has helped him perfect his English, which he now speaks fluently along with Spanish, Portuguese, and German.
Santi said he was happy to be living near the sea again, having grown up on the coast of northern Spain where he loved fishing in summer and snowboarding in winter. He sees similarities between country Victoria and the Margaret River region and he’ll continue to focus on local produce in his cooking.
“I come from a small town and my experience in Victoria confirmed to me that I prefer living in smaller places where you can be in direct contact with suppliers and see the farming practices. It took me back to my roots. This is what I hope to also experience in Margaret River and I’ll start by getting to know local farmers and producers.
“Working in regional restaurants you are more connected to the countryside and it is much friendlier. I’m looking forward to getting out, being part of the active community and becoming a local.”
A look at Santi’s Instagram account (@santi.fernandez.chef) will show you he is passionate about beautifully presented food and colour is an obvious influence. Despite the stunning food presentation, Santi said he liked to keep his menus simple.
“I don’t like to work with many ingredients at the same time and prefer to have just three to four dominant flavours,” he says. “Especially in a long tasting menu, I like to keep it simple but use colour.
“When preparing a menu, I’ll choose a key ingredient, have a concept in mind and discuss and trial this with my kitchen team and then work on flavours and presentation.”
The artistry in Santi’s food harks back to his childhood and subsequently culinary school.
“Art is a strong influence on me. My grandfather was an artistic stonemason and he was a big part of my life. I think his artistic creativity and passion has stayed with me.”
His parents had a restaurant and, as the oldest of four children, he worked from a young age as a kitchenhand, peeling potatoes and washing dishes.
“A new world was open and I had a couple of teachers at culinary school who really pushed me. Spanish chefs are known for their innovation and use of new techniques and I really developed a passion for cooking.”
Santi is taking on another creative challenge at Voyager, and wants to expand on the estate’s ‘wine-first’ concept, telling the Voyager story via a wine and food sensory dining experience.
“I want to work with the winemakers and Voyager Estate’s in-house sommelier to match our wines in the best way possible with contemporary cooking style and techniques.
“Pairing isn’t my background. A menu normally starts with the chef but I’m attracted to the idea of working around the wines. Wine is something that is alive and Voyager has fantastic wines.
“I had heard about Margaret River from chefs talking about the Gourmet Escape and then understood the prestige of the property when I first visited.”
Santi is looking forward to settling into Margaret River’s laid-back lifestyle and spending time with his family, fishing, and cultivating the kitchen garden.
Pullman Bunker Bay Resort
In a curious coincidence, Romain has also come to the Margaret River region most recently from Daylesford, Victoria, where he was chef de partie pastry at the two-hatted Lake House. He joined Pullman Bunker Bay Resort in September last year as pastry chef and in a short space of time has taken the resort’s dessert offerings to new heights.
Romain hails from France and has worked in numerous French Michelin-star rated restaurants, from Peru to Switzerland. He says while his mum inspired his early love of food and sweets, it was Thomas Sporrer at Gstaad Palace in Switzerland who has provided professional inspiration.
“He inspired my creativity. He has such an innovative and crazy style – he loved perfection on a plate, and we would always strive to do things creatively to improve our skills. From an early age my mum was always cooking and making a lot of sweets when I was little, I would help her in the kitchen. It was my favourite place to be with my parents.”
Romain’s personal cooking style has a less traditional influence.
“I’d describe my style as ‘freestyle’ because before I became a chef, I was a professional skateboarder. Skateboarding inspired my style because in both you need to practice, practice, to fail, to learn to do better. It’s the failures that teach you the most, and the perfection of the perfect ride or perfect dish is for such a fleeting moment, you have to be there to experience it. ”
Nature also inspires him now he’s in the Margaret River region.
“Working in the south west it is nature that inspires me. It is so quiet down here in winter – there is no stress, which allows my creativity to flow.”
And his favourite ingredients? Vanilla, sugar and fresh seasonal berries. You can enjoy Romain’s sweet delights at a Pullman Bunker Bay High Tea, or when dining at ocean-view Other Side of the Moon Restaurant for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Coming soon to Vasse Felix
Vasse Felix have just announced the appointment of a new Head Chef at the multi-award winning Restaurant. Brendan Pratt will join Vasse Felix in late July 2017, replacing longstanding Executive Chef Aaron Carr.
Perth-born and trained, Brendan’s international experience includes positions with Michelin Star Restaurants The Fat Duck and The Ledbury. Since returning to Perth in 2012, Brendan has been employed as an Executive Chef within The Frasers Restaurant Group.
Paul Holmes à Court said Brendan’s experience, interest in working with wine and passion for the superb local produce of the South-West made him an excellent candidate to steer the menu in the Vasse Felix Restaurant.
“The Vasse Felix Restaurant was well-served since 1995 by Aaron Carr. Aaron’s reputation as a talented and experienced chef and an all-round top bloke is recognised widely within the industry. We looked for similar qualities for his replacement, and have found these in Brendan Pratt, who will relocate from Perth to Margaret River for the position,” Paul Holmes à Court said.
“In recent years, our menu has evolved to consist primarily of local produce, sourced seasonally to complement the Vasse Felix wine collection. Brendan will continue with this focus, supported by our long-serving team of Chefs,” Paul continued.
Brendan said the opportunity to work with the South-West’s outstanding wines and produce in a fine-dining capacity, in addition to the lifestyle benefits presented by the Margaret River Region drew him to the Vasse Felix position.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Vasse Felix – virtually every visit I have made to Margaret River has included lunch at the Restaurant,” Brendan Pratt said.
“I’m looking forward to uncovering more of the phenomenal local produce being grown in Australia’s South-West. Margaret River is one of Australia’s leading culinary destinations, so to take the reins of such a well-regarded Chef position is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My wife and I are excited to commence our new life in Margaret River,” Brendan continued.
The Vasse Felix Restaurant has received many awards and accolades including, Top 100 and #1 Regional Restaurant WA – Gourmet Traveller, and Top 100 Restaurant – The Australian Financial Review. They are open for lunch daily with an a la carte menu as well as a five course tasting menu ($95), with matching wines ($130).