There is little wonder that the Margaret River region is a paradise to visitors from our neighbouring countries. Pristine beaches, expansive and untouched wilderness, world class wineries and incredible produce; all only a few hours flight away from the densely populated cities of South East Asia.
At least 47 percent of international visitors to Western Australia are from Asia, and unsurprisingly many of these return with a piece of their heart left here. Luckily, a number of culinary masters have decided to take the leap and settle down in the South West of Australia. Leaving the familiar sights, smells and tastes of home and relocating to a country town can seem daunting, but the incredible power of food has helped these stovetop artisans settle into Margaret River life.
Food brings individuals, families and communities together. It has an almost magical way of unifying people, no matter what the circumstance. Christmas day might be rife with family tensions running high; but by the time that last bite of turkey is eaten and the pavlova is on its way out, all is forgotten. Right? Well, most of the time.
Cassandra Charlick sat down at the table with some of the region’s most loved food personalities, to find out how they discovered Margaret River and how life here has developed their flare in the kitchen approach to the spice drawer.
Owner and Head Chef of Chow’s Table, Mal Chow grew up in Kuala Lumpur, and his culinary skills have been refined during stints at some of the best restaurants in Australia including Vue de Monde in Melbourne and Tetsuya’s in Sydney. His food at Chow’s Table, however, has taken him full circle back to where it all started. “I decided to go back to my roots and do Chinese/ Malay, something Margaret River hasn’t seen before. Chinese/Malay was the type of food I was brought up with. Malaysia has a mix of Chinese, Indian, Sri Lankan, Portuguese and Malay influences. It’s a melting pot when it comes to different kinds of food. Curries to fried noodles to roast meats. Everything in one country.”
Chow found himself drawn to Margaret River through family ties, this time though, thanks to Amanda, his wife and mother to their two boys. “Margaret River has so much to offer. I think even sometimes I take for granted how good we have it here. Wine, beer and food. That is my ideal day off in the region. Doesn’t matter what type of food or what type of wine, beer and food. We’re spoilt for choice down here.”
There are, however, some challenges with trying to capture the comfort food of his childhood when living in regional Australia. “Being Down South, it’s hard to get certain Asian products, specifically Chinese sauces and fermented products. Another major difference to cooking back in Malaysia is having to adjust taste to suit the palate down here: tempering the spiciness of the food and the way the presentation of the dishes. At the same time though, the fresh produce makes life easy to work in the kitchen here. Being in the Margaret River region, we are lucky to have similarities, an abundance of fresh seafood and fish, fresh fruits and vegetables. I found I can be a bit more playful with my food mixing both Chinese/Malay cuisine with the varietal of produce we have here in Margaret River. Marron, yabbies, venison are products we can get readily in Margs and I’ve made certain dishes that are famous back home but done differently here. For example, I’ve done Singaporean chilli yabbies.”
Miki’s Open Kitchen
Seeking a different quality of life, Miki moved to Margaret River from the city of Nagoya, Japan, where he grew up in the ghetto of Nakamura. “I was born into a concrete jungle. Downtown Nakamura used to be an “Akasen citai” surrounded by geisya and yakuza offices. A bit like a red light district but still lively. Even though it’s a busy town; in the Nakamura neighbourhood people live closely together and therefore know and help each other. Food growing up there was in line with the lifestyle of the people. Busy parents working in the afternoon told their kids to go and shop for street food for the family dining table, such as “Kushikatu” (panko fried pork) on skewers, “Okonomiyaki” (Japanese savory pancake) and “Tenmusu” (small onigiri with shrimp tempura).”
Whilst there are many differences between his hometown back in Japan, there are plenty of similarities. “Japanese and Australians both avoid disagreeing with each other (even when they really want to) so that there are always friendly vibes!”, Miki says with a laugh. “I saw the quality of life and the spirit of people surrounding this town. Margaret River has a collection of people from other places and the town has been built by the people who chose to live here and want to be part of the town. My ideal day off is paddling out with my son, I just couldn’t do that back in the middle of a city in Japan!”
The region has played a major part in the evolution of his cooking style, not simply thanks to alternative produce and customers palates, but very much thanks to a different beverage of choice. No longer in the realm beer and sake, living and working in a wine region has influenced his approach to kitchen. “My process of creating dishes has changed, keeping in mind how the dish will pair with a particular wine was not a concern until I was working down here.”
Teddi’s Big Spoon
Jin and Teddy are a perfect pair. Both chefs in their own right, Jin moved here from Seoul 13 years ago. She was busy studying restaurant management when she met Teddy, also a working holiday maker and a chef from South Korea. The two fell in love with the town of Margaret River and with each other, opening Teddi’s Big Spoon three years ago on the main street. “We were so impressed with the lifestyle and beautiful environment when we arrived here. It was so different to back home in Korea. In Korea, the population density is much higher than Australia, it is very competitive to get a good job. Work is the priority in Korea but in Australia, we are able to focus on our family being the most important part of our lives.”
The restaurant is a family affair, with two young children in tow and a close knit team of staff. Jin is often the friendly face you will see front of house at the restaurant, that is, when she isn’t busy making the ample kimchi supplies. The restaurant uses kimchi as a key ingredient on the menu, along with a host of traditional Korean flavours. “When developing our menu, we tried to adjust the level of spice in the menu for Australian palates, and also the unfamiliar smell of Korean traditional ingredients. Soybean paste and fermented cabbage kimchi can be rather pungent to noses that haven’t grown up with it like we have!” Teddy is well known for some of the fastest knife skills in the region – a quick look at the dishes coming out of the kitchen and it is hard to believe that there’s not a mandolin in sight. It helps to have wonderful produce to work with though. “We source as many ingredients as we can from local suppliers, the community is one of the greatest parts of living down here.”
Familiar to most from last year’s Masterchef television series, food photographer and self-taught kitchen goddess, Samira Damirova has brought the flavours of her motherland Azerbaijan to Margaret River.
“I was born and grew up in Baku, Azerbaijans ancient city of wind and fire. Baku is situated on a peninsula on the west coast of the Caspian Sea where the streets of the Old City (Icheri Sheher) are paved with cobble stones and inhabited by timeless architectural paragons. For centuries, Azerbaijan, has been known for its food and spice trading ties through the famous Great Silk Road that connected the Far East with the West.”
“I have had the greatest fortune to have grown up in a family of incredible cooks. Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers were remarkable in their culinary skills along with my parents who have deeply influenced the way I cook today. Most of my childhood was spent at my maternal grandmother’s house. She worked at the local flour mill plant, often received as a part of her pay cheque a few sacks of flour and so as one could imagine there was no shortage of it in the household. We often sat in the kitchen for hours making traditional meals such as dumplings, meat and vegetable pies, bread and other countless pasta endeavours.”
“My husband, Troy, an avid surfer and the lover of ocean and the country side meant we eventually moved to one of Western Australia’s most renowned tourist destinations, Margaret River. Here, we are surrounded by so much beauty and abundance; there’s an ample array of glorious produce to work with. It’s a pure blessing.”
“My passion for food spilled into food photography which has led to my food photography business I run alongside private cooking classes from my home studio here in Margaret River. I’m now working on my first cook book to introduce Australians to the culinary customs and recipes of my home land.”
Margaret River Kimchi
Visitors to the Margaret River Farmers’ Market find it hard to walk past Jindu’s delicious (and generous) helpings of his kimchi without taking some home. Having moved to Margaret River eight years ago from Daegu in South Korea, it was a big shift to a rural town of 14,000 from a city of over 2 million people. He discovered the region after visiting his sister living in Perth, and was drawn to the natural environment and the small town community. “The sheer number of people combined with heavy traffic and noise is intense in South Korea! I think the balance here is a little bit better – or certainly in Margaret River, where life outside work is more relaxed and the sense of community is strong.”
Jindu’s Kimchi is handmade, using local ingredients from the region. The tradition of the fermented dish goes back for over 2000 years and has numerous health benefits, though Jindu has his own twist on the recipe, even creating a vegan version. “I’m now much more interested in discovering and sourcing new natural ingredients and working on ways to incorporate that in my food. Having lived in Margaret River, I have learnt just how important it is to use fresh and local ingredients to obtain the best results. There is a shared passion for life, work and food here and back in Korea. In both countries people love to eat great food and try new tastes.” And what to do with a day off, now he has that work/life balance here now? “Coffee, maybe a snack and the view from Surfers Point or sitting amongst the regions Karri forests are simple and hard to beat.”
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Image Credits: Cassandra Charlick, Elements Margaret River