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  • Quentin Von Essen

YES, CHEF! Cooking up a Storm in Wine Country

As a region, the Hunter is a culinary destination like no other and features a diverse and abundant dining experience ranging from charming cafes to hatted restaurants, which proudly showcase the regions passionate and talented chefs, regionally sourced produce and award-winning wines.


The Hunter Valley wine culture has inspired a strong food culture and vice versa. The two simply go hand in hand, and it is no coincidence that some of the best restaurants in the world happen to be located in some of the finest wine-growing regions - where wine is often just as prevalent in the cooking process as it is in the glass.

The Hunter’s reputation as a wine region is unquestionable, but it’s also home to some of the most creative and edgy restaurants making their presence felt on the regional culinary stage, with the much celebrated hatted trio of Muse Restaurant, Muse Kitchen and Bistro Molines leading the way.

There really is no other wine region in Australia with such a large number of quality restaurants and all in close proximity - a fact that has been embraced by Australian and international visitors alike. To help you understand why the Hunter has become one of the nation’s most exciting culinary destinations we take a peek behind the kitchen doors to learn more about the Head Chefs orchestrating this culinary charge and taking dining excitement to the next level.

One of the most respected names in Australia’s food scene is undoubtedly Robert Molines. The European-trained chef moved to the Hunter Valley with his wife Sally in 1973 and is renowned as the man who brought French food to the region. He is now widely regarded as one of the great Hunter Valley chefs –but it was his childhood in Algeria and France that exposed him to a mix of French, Italian and Mediterranean cultures and sparked his interest in food.

Robert completed his culinary education at the Catering Institute of Menton in the South of France before serving his apprenticeship at some of the top hotels in Monte Carlo, Monaco, Nice and Cannes. He arrived in Australia in 1968 where he gained experience with renowned restaurants such as Eliza’s in Double Bay and Beppi’s in Sydney before moving to the Hunter to take on the role of Chef Manager at the Happy Valley Restaurant in Pokolbin.

Since then Robert and Sally have operated a number of well-known restaurants that include the Cellar Restaurant, The Verandah Restaurant at Calais Estate, as well as the multi-award-winning Roberts at Pepper Tree, which they opened in 1991.After a brief sojourn in the French Bistro at the old cellar door at Beltree on Hermitage Rd, they made the inspired decision in 2008 to start Bistro Molines – a one chef hat rated traditional French bistro located at Tallavera Grove Vineyard in Mount View.

It is here that Robert has truly been in his element and it shows – he was inducted into the JK Walker Culinary Hall of Fame alongside other legendary Australian chefs and has received Sydney Morning HeraldGood Food Guide chef’s hat awards each year since 2010.

In June this year, both Robert and Sally were also inducted as Hunter Valley Living Legends. But his enduring legacy must be the way he has nurtured a generation of the Hunter’s top chefs, including Lesley Taylor (Robert’s first apprentice) and Troy Rhoades-Brown (pictured below). Troy is the perfect example of the top-class chefs currently creating gastronomical delights in the Hunter.

Troy began his cooking career at the age of 16, working for a small family-owned Italian restaurant, Pascalles, in Newcastle before moving to the Hunter Valley to work for Robert Molines at Robert’s Restaurant. In 2005 Troy was awarded the Brett Graham Scholarship, a highly coveted accolade that comes with the chance to undertake work experience at the famed UK restaurant The Ledbury.

A few years later Troy and his wife Megan took the plunge into the world of restaurant ownership, opening Muse Restaurant (two chef’shats) in 2009 followed by Muse Kitchen (one chef’s hat) in 2011.After taking out the title of Young Restaurateur of the Year 2014 at the Appetite for Excellence Awards, Troy was named the NextGen Chef in Delicious Magazine’s 10th annual Produce Awards in 2015, cementing his status as one of the nation’s most exciting culinary talents.

While Troy may have only dipped his toe into the London dining world, The Cellar Restaurant’s Andy Wright grew up fully immersed in the scene. After spending his childhood years in London working at the local Italian restaurant after school and at weekends, Andy completed his apprenticeship in 1983.

He then spent a decade working at various hotels and restaurants before becoming the Head Chef at the House of Lords in 1994 and later running a private dining room for the directors of J Walter Thompson in Mayfair, London.Andy migrated to Australia in 1996 and became the Sous Chef at the Nikko Hotel, Darling Harbour before moving to the Hunter Valley in 1997.

Andy worked as the Head Chef at Roberts Restaurantbefore moving on to Pipette at Cypress Lakes and Seasons Restaurant at Hunter Valley Gardens, where he was also involved with the kitchen set-up for Harrigan’s Irish Pub.He and his wife Janet became part owners of the highly popular The Cellar Restaurant in 2002, before taking control completely in 2005.

All-around nice-guy Matt Dillow is another local chef that has beenkicking culinary goals since he opened his first restaurant in the region 11 years ago. Since then, Matt has cemented his position as a leading culinary force in the Hunter’s hospitality industry by embracing his Maltese heritage and bringing a touch of the Mediterranean to the valley.

The father of two has earned a reputation, not only as a cooking maestro but as a savvy business operator who over the past 11 years has had no less than three highly regarded dining venues under his belt which were very popular amongst local, interstate and international visitors.

Having sold two of the restaurants (The Verandah and Twine), Matt has retained the Deck Café in Lovedale and continues to host food, wine and produce tours to Tasmania, New Zealand and Tuscany which are fast growing in popularity. Born and raised in Parramatta - Sydney, Matt discovered his passion for food at a young age, indulging in his love of cooking when he was just 15.

After undertaking his apprenticeship with Rydges Hotels and Resorts, Matt went to work as a full-time chef at the stylishly-restored Hotel CBD Sydney and the multipurpose Slip Inn in Sussex Street, before finding himself back at the Rydges Hotel in North Sydney in the position of Head Chef.

A desire to sample the flavours of the world saw Matt travel through Europe to experience the cultures and cuisines of Spain, Greece,Portugal, Prague, England, Germany, Demark and France. He returned to Sydney to undertake the challenge of revitalising the historic Barren joey House as Head Chef of the Palm Beach venue before heading north to the Hunter to take the reins of his own establishment, opening the Verandah Restaurant in the picturesque surrounds of CalaisEstate in 2007.

It wasn’t long before Matt was exploring additional dining venturesin the Hunter and went on to establish the popular The Deck Café at Gartelmann Wines in Lovedale and creating his own catering business now operating out of Tamburlaine Wines. RidgeView Restaurant’s Executive Chef Donna Hollis (pictured below) was born and raised in the Hunter Valley.

She began her apprenticeship at Il Cacciatore Restaurant in Pokolbin before leaving to take up a role at Monte Pio in Maitland. She returned to the vineyards as Head Chef at Casuarina Estate,working there for more than three years as she discovered her passion for the flambé style of cooking. Donna has also over the years been an ''in demand'' chef - working with some very well-known chefs at events that include the Seasons Plate Lunch at Wyndham Estate and Opera in the Vines as well as well at many concerts and long lunches.

Donna has also cooked at numerous private dinner parties and for a number of celebrities that include Billy Thorpe and the cast of Home and Away.As the Executive Chef at RidgeView Restaurant, Donna has been able to demonstrate her creative, passionate and self-driven personality,through her food preparation and cooking as well as incorporate her love of fresh local produce on the seasonal menus.

Donna has also been instrumental in introducing a refreshingly different style of dining at RidgeView with a menu that includes traditional and contemporary Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences throughout the inviting menu and also the popular Cypriot Mezze - complemented by an excellent selection of wines.Newcastle born, Timothy Suffell is very much as home at the Verandah Restaurant which he and his wife Amanda purchased from Matt Dillow. Tim was drawn to food at a very young age largely due to the influence of his grandmother - a Fellow of the City of London’s Worshipful Company of Cooks for her skill in confectionary and pastry.

His grandmother instilled upon him not only her knowledge but her creed: good food, good wine, good friends. After completing school, Timothy headed to Sydney, where he began his apprenticeship at Hugo’s in Bondi Beach (one chef hat restaurant) before moving back to the Hunter Valley to finish his training under Executive Chef Jean Marie at Cypress Lakes Resort.

Throughout his career, Timothy has had the privilege of working at some of the finest establishments and with the best chefs the country has to offer including Warren Turnbull at Sydney’s Cruise (two chef hat restaurant) and the opulent Lizard Island Resort.

Timothy’s love of travelling has had a large impact on his style of cooking, with Eastern Mediterranean techniques and flavours shining through his classical French training to ensure each dish he prepares is a unique gastronomic exploration. Another Sydney-born chef who gave in to the temptation of a Hunter “tree change” is the man behind one of the wine region’s newest restaurants, Hunters Quarter.

Attracted by the lifestyle, wine and food offered by the region, owner and head chef Brian Duncan and his wife Jen made the move to the Hunter Valley where they opened their restaurant at Cockfighters Ghost Vineyard in Pokolbin. Describing his style as modern European, Brian brings a wealth of well-travelled experience in fine dining to the Hunter’s culinary scene, having worked at the Dorchester Hotel (three Michelin stars) and Claridges Hotel (one Michelin star) in London.

Brian was also the executive chef at two of Sydney’s most iconic venues - Level 41 and The Establishment – and even cooked for Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2014 Winter Olympics! Working with a simple philosophy focused on fresh flavours, he uses local and seasonal produce to produce a modern Australian menu exemplified by its balance of flavour and texture.

Another French chef who has had an interesting journey to the Hunter is Jean Marc Pollett – Executive Chef at Mercure Resort Hunter Valley. With Jean Marc at the helm, éléments restaurant serves up the perfect wine country dining experience with a menu driven by the fusion of classic French cuisine and fresh Australian produce.

Born and raised in Calais, Jean Marc was admitted to hotel school in Paris at the very young age of 15 - working long hours at the Grand Hotel in Paris, for minimum wages every weekend and then spending his weekdays studying. Being on low wages meant he could only afford a small room on the top floor of a very cheap hotel in ''Rue Provence'' which was also very popular with the local prostitutes in the area. Despite the hardships, Jean Marc fell in love with Paris - captivated by the fast pace of city living, its parks, museums, galleries and restaurants.

After almost five years, Jean Marc left Paris to go to Toulouse where he worked for a few months in a small country restaurant, before moving to Monte Carlo where he was the Sous-Chef at the five-star Beach Plaza Hotel. After Monte Carlo, Jean Marc put his heart and soul into his career with a brief stint in Geneva before travelling overseas to Australia where in 1985 he worked at the Hotel Regent Sydney before joining the Peppers Group where he was the Executive Chef at Peppers Guest House and then Peppers Anchorage until 2008.

He was then asked to join the Mercure Resort Hunter Valley as Executive Chef and Director of Food and Beverage where he has been for the past ten years and is considered one of Hunter Valley’s most respected chefs. While Pollet's background is French, his experiences in Europe and Asia have had a significant impact on his methods and menus with distinctive French, Mediterranean and Asian influences evident and flowing into the mix of his cooking.

Creativity was also at the heart of fellow Hunter-bred chef Frank Fawkner’s culinary outlook when he opened EXP. Restaurant at Oakvale Wines in 2015. After beginning his cooking career at the age of 15 at the Mount Broke Wines cafe, Frank was part of the team involved in the opening of Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley before heading overseas to work for Tom Aikens at “Tom’s Kitchen” in Chelsea, London.

On his return to Australia, Frank took up a position at Muse Restaurant working with Troy and Megan Rhoades-Brown, where he later became Head Chef and helped steer Muse to two hat status in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide. For many chefs, the accolades may have proved sufficient, but Frank has always been ambitious, and in March 2015, he decided to fulfil a long-held dream to go out on his own, setting up EXP. Restaurant at the historic Oakvale Winery in Pokolbin.

With its hand-crafted furniture, open-style kitchen and colour coded crockery designed to reflect the theme of the menu cleverly, Frank has made his mark on the Hunter’s culinary landscape with his creative dishes, culinary skills and unique dining experience. His latest nod came in the form of the winning dish at the 2018 Annual Food Fight, where he beat top Sydney Chefs Joel Bickford and Mitch Orr to claim the prize for the Hunter.

Frank is now also opening Fawk Foods Kitchen & Bakery within the Polkobin Village and will be serving breakfast and lunch options accompanied by coffee, cakes, patisserie and bread. Set to open in the first week of July, the venue will be the Hunter Valley’s first dedicated bakery and will open seven days a week, catering to locals and tourists alike.■

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