Margaret River Region True Star of Gourmet Escape
The gourmet-weekender is a star-studded affair, but the region itself, its environment and produce, emerges as the true star.
Small town but not small time. It’s been a Gourmet Escape weekend of big name chefs, beach barbecues, gourmet get togethers, live cooking demonstrations and slow winery dinners. The consistent star across all platforms? The Margaret River region, its environment and its produce. We spend some time chatting with visiting food industry identities finding out what they love most about the wild South West.
Jo Barrett, Oakridge Estate, Yarra Valley.
Teaming up with chef Evan Hayter at Arimia was an opportunity for Jo Barrett to share her passion for paddock to plate cooking with a likeminded chef in a region Jo believes fully expresses the philosophy. “The way Evan produces food is really Margaret River,” Jo muses. “He has a pig and a trout farm, he’s growing his own vegetables, so you eat what is growing around you. Even the setting in the trees – there is such a sense of place with what he’s doing.” Working together over months, Jo and Evan teamed up to produce From The Earth, a dinner focussed on a hyper local, no waste food philosophy: Jo’s XO sauce was made using Evan’s trout and the marron shells from Evan’s marron dish, served with a steamed egg custard made from the cast-off whey from Jo’s house-made cheese. It’s a circular approach to food that keeps the land, the plate and the chef tied tightly to the environment in which they cook. “I’ve just been so excited to work with a chef who is representing the region,” said Jo. “You have to respect that.”
Not only is Nigella Lawson the undisputed queen of the modern culinary world, she is also one of the Margaret River region’s biggest fans. It was a return trip for the domestic goddess this year, and no less special an occasion for it. “It’s hard to resist that extraordinary combination of outstanding natural beauty, wonderful food and produce and excellent wine,” Nigella enthuses. In particular? “For me it’s a lot about the seafood – yabbies and the marron in particular, and the sweetest-fleshed crab and rock lobster. Having said that, I ate the most wonderful lamb when I was here last time, too: I remember every exquisite mouthful. And the Margaret River wood-fired bread is food of the Gods.” Seems like local baker, Santana Thorburn, and winemaker and farmer, Dave Hohnen, from Arkady Lamb have both done their bit to keep Nigella smiling.
It’s been six years at Gourmet Escape for Rick Stein. Seems the honorary Margaret River local just can’t resist our marron. Or that easy going Margaret River charm. “We have the same driver for the last six years, a guy called Nugget,” Rick grins. “And we just had the most wonderful conversations as these tall trees pass by and the odd winery. It’s just a tremendous sort of feeling of being out in the country with a bit of class as well.” Having talked seafood at the award-winning Wills Domain, son Jack worked with chef Seth James to bring Rick’s grilled marron to the table. A bit of tarragon. A splash of Pernod. Some great local olive oil. Enough flavour to shine the spotlight on one of the region’s most sought-after local ingredients.
A trip to Margaret River for Gourmet Escape is mostly about the wine and the fishing for legendary Sydney-based chef Tetsuya Wakuda. “I love fishing,” Tetsuya laughs. “I don’t even care if I catch anything. I love the river at Cape Lodge. I’ve been told there are marron in there…” The cheeky chef lets his sentence trail off. His grin is suggestive of a secret late-night fishing rendezvous. After all, what better to pair with his favourite Pierro chardonnay than a little of the fresh-grilled shellfish? Jokes aside, Tetsuya’s relationship with the region is significant: the chef uses everything from Margaret River marron and truffles and veal in both his Sydney and Singapore restaurants. His longstanding friendship with Pierro owner Dr Mike Peterkin also plays in to his South West connection. “I have such great relationships with the suppliers and producers that I have known from day one,” Tetsuya says. “Pierro Estate make us our own chardonnay. It was always my favourite chardonnay. Now he (Mike) is like a god here, and he said to me, ‘you use our chardonnay so much, I am going to make you one’.” Now that’s friendship.
“I love the west of Australia – you can get away from it even while you’re working. In my industry to be able to go to a beach where there is no one is very special.” Just like his dad, Rick, Jack Stein is a bit of a veteran of the South West. In his fourth Gourmet Escape year, Jack is well placed to give a bit of insight into what makes the region so special. “The food and the wine and the people – they are the most welcoming in Australia,” Jack says of the West. “All the chefs are on the same level and we get to come and exchange ideas and learn about wonderful ingredients we don’t really know about from the local chefs.” For Jack, his time in Margaret River has been an education in dhufish and marron. But also in the importance of lifestyle and philosophy when it comes to producing great produce. “You’ll find stuff in Margaret River like the organic and biodynamic approach of Fair Harvest Permaculture farm and café. Watching the faces of chefs that come to the area – it just changes their perception of the world.” In Jack’s thinking, the high-octane intensity of cooking can lead to a blinkered view of the world. A place like Margaret River, he says, is important for being eye-opening to all comers.