Hunter pride will be on the line this month when two of the region’s finest chefs line up against the cream of Sydney’s kitchens for one of the hottest events on the local culinary calendar.
It will be saucepans and whisks at ten paces when the four chefs converge on Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley to battle it out during the ninth annual Hunter Culinary Association Food Fight on Monday, June 18.
This year’s event will see the chefs go head to head to create a classic meal with a modern twist, with each taking one lunch course to showcase their own interpretation of a time-honoured dish or flavour combination.
Among those responsible for carrying the Hunter’s hopes into the contest will be EXP. Restaurant owner Frank Fawkner. Known for his love of fresh, local produce and his willingness to experiment with seasonal flavours, Frank is one of the bold young chef staking the region’s culinary experience to new heights.
After discovering his love for food in high school, Frank started out as a kitchen hand at Mount Broke Wines’ The Cow Café when he was just 15.
Once school was over, he entered into an apprenticeship at the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley where he worked for three years as part of its launch team before his desire to expand his culinary horizons took him to London, where he scored a job as the chef de partie under TomAikens at Tom’s Kitchen.
After a year overseas Frank and his wife Emma returned home to the Hunter where he once again scored a role as chef de partie, this time at the acclaimed Muse Restaurant in Pokolbin under chef Troy Rhoades-Brown.
During the next three years, he worked his way up to become head chef, along the way helping the restaurant secure a two-hat status in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide.
In 2015 Frank left Muse to open his own venture, EXP. Restaurant,at Oakvale Winery, with a focus on creating a dining experience that was delicious, entertaining and interactive.
Last year he also launched another passion project, Fawk Foods, producing a range of black garlic products. Joining him on the Food Fight line-up this year is Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley executive chef Hamish Watt.
Beginning as an apprentice at Rockpool under renowned chef Neil Perry, Hamish’s career took him to London for ten years where he honed his craft and love of cooking at various restaurants and kitchens, including Pissarro’s on the Thames and Kensington Place.
Returning to Australia Hamish took up the executive chef role at the Botanical Garden Restaurant in Sydney, and then opened a restaurant in Surry Hills before a tree change drew him to the Hunter Valley.
With both having worked at Crowne Plaza, Frank and Hamish will have somewhat of a home ground advantage for this year’s Food Fight, however the Hunter chefs will need to rely on more than just familiarity with the kitchen when they go up against their Sydney rivals, ACME owner Mitch Orr and Aria head chef Joel Bickford.
Mitch has also spent plenty of time honing his skills overseas, with the 2010 Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award winner working in some of the world's best kitchens, including the likes of Sepia, Osteria Francescana, Duke Bistro and a pop up at London’s Michelin star restaurant, Lyle's.Joel, on the other hand, was raised in the Blue Mountains but moved to Sydney to pursue his passion for cooking.
He has trained under and worked with chefs such as Stefano Manfredi, James Viles ,Anthony Mussara and Sean Connelly, and spent time at no less than eight hatted restaurants including The Gantry, Bel Mondo, Eschalot and Biota.
If the quality of the chefs isn’t enough to have you snapping up a ticket for the Food Fight, the mouth-watering menu certainly will.
The event will open with an offering of four different canapes prepared by apprentices from a number of Hunter restaurants,followed by a four-course meal that includes scampi cocktail, carpaccio parmigiana, lamb roast and strawberry Eton mess.
Each course will be matched with a Hunter Valley wine and served up to a crowd of around 350 hungry diners-come-food critics, who will vote for their favourite dish at the conclusion of the lunch.
To ensure there is no local bias or preference given to a particular chef rather than the tastiest course, none of the diners will know who is responsible for which dish until after the votes have been cast.
But the Food Fight is about more than just awarding an honourary title to the winner. It’s also about helping the next generation of chefs develop their culinary skills by raising funds for the Hunter Culinary Association’s program of scholarships and educational experiences.
This includes the prestigious Brett Graham Scholarship, named in honour of the former Newcastle chef who runs London’s acclaimed Michelin starred restaurant, The Ledbury. Valued at $10,000, the Scholarship includes a return flight to London and travel assistance for the recipient, as well as the opportunity to work with Brett at his Notting Hill restaurant, and enrolment into the Certificate IV in Commercial Cookery at TAFE NSW.
Association Chairman Gus Maher said each year they offered around $30,000 worth of scholarships and assistance to help young and aspiring chefs take the next steps in their careers. He believes gaining experience overseas can be an invaluable part of a chef’s development.
(Left: Frank Fawkner)
“This year we’ll probably do about $30,000 worth of scholarships, mostly in cash but some in experiences to young chefs, which is something I’m very proud of,” he said.
“To do that we need to raise money … the Food Fight is an important part of the year where we raise money through an auction, thanks to the generosity of our partners and the people in the Hunter Valley and Newcastle. It is our fighting fund for the year for the scholarships and experiences and educational things that we do for young chefs."
Overseas experience, be it through a scholarship or be it through just going over there and working for different people, is absolutely critical for chefs.
“The chefs that are at the Food Fight this year have had significant overseas experiences in renowned restaurants that have helped them shape their early careers and what they want to bring back here to the Hunter and other places, in an Australian style.”
The auction at this year’s Food Fight will feature 11 amazing items, which Gus believes will encourage a healthy dose of competitive bidding between guests. Among those likely to attract the keenest bidding is a money-can't-buy “London Experience” donated by
Brett Graham, which includes dinner at The Ledbury with the chance to enjoy canapes in the kitchen and help prepare your entrée.
There’s also lunch at Brett’s Harwood Arms Pub, which is the only pub in London with a Michelin star, as well as a trip to the English countryside for lunch with Brett at one of his deer
farms, and $4000 towards the cost of airfares.
“One that always goes well every year is dinner for 12 at Brokenwood, with the chefs being Andy Wright from The Cellar, Troy Rhoades-Brown from Muse, Garreth Robbs from Bistro Molines and Frank Fawkner from EXP. And that’s with wines and accommodation for
12 people as well,” Gus said.
“I’m always heartened by the generosity of our sponsors and donors, and whilst I don’t expect it, it doesn’t surprise me that the industry is so supportive (of the Food Fight and auction) given the wonderful job that I humbly believe we do in not only supporting young chefs but also perpetuating the Hunter Valley’s culinary industry.“
For example, a couple of the alumni from the Brett Graham Scholarship, Troy Rhoades-Brown from Muse, Garreth Robbs from Bistro Molines, Chris Thornton from Restaurant Mason, they’ve all won the Scholarship as young chefs, gone over there to London, then come back
here even more polished and look what those guys are doing for the industry.
“That’s what I find really heartening - when all of those dots are being joined.”
Tickets are still available for this year’s Hunter Culinary Association Food Fight, which will be held on Monday, June 18 from 11am. For more information visit www.hunterculinary.com.au ■