Troy Rhoades-Brown should be celebrating.
After another successful year creating gourmet offerings with the finest local produce, Muse Restaurant has once again held onto two chef’s hats during the annual Good Food Guide Awards.
The Pokolbin fine diner is one of only four regional restaurants in NSW, and the only venue in the Hunter, to wear two of the coveted hats.
But while he admits the accolade is something he and his staff are all proud of, Troy said it is not what drives them to provide the best possible dining experience for their customers.
“Awards are fantastic; they’re a great pat on the back for yourself and the staff, the team in general,” he said.
“As long as it’s always kept in (perspective) that that’s what it is - a pat on the back and a bit of industry recognition. It’s not a reason why you open a restaurant. It's not the reason why you turn up to work.
“You're there to be in a great work environment and make your guests happy and feel special, and keep your team strong and happy as well.
“Awards are great, but they definitely have a place where they sit in terms of the bigger picture.”
For Troy, that bigger picture first began at the age of 16 when he began working at a small family-owned Italian restaurant in Newcastle called Pascalles.
Continuing his training in the Hunter under the experienced eye of industry icon Robert Molines at Robert’s Restaurant, Troy’s budding career in the kitchen received a huge boost in 2005 when he was awarded the Brett Graham Scholarship, granting him a trip to the UK to work with the former Newcastle chef at his Michelin-starred restaurant The Ledbury.
Four years later at the age of 24, Troy took the bold step of opening his own restaurant amongst the tranquil surrounds of the Hungerford Hill Winery in Pokolbin.
With such highly regarded chefs influencing his earliest years in the industry, it is little wonder Troy is also passionate about helping to develop the next generation of chefs and hospitality staff.
“It’s such a rewarding feeling to own a restaurant that provides a training ground for young chefs and front of house professionals,” he said.
“We watch them grow and succeed within the business, or sometimes leave to open their own restaurants or take on fantastic new management roles elsewhere.
“That said, my focus on the incredible importance of job satisfaction and retention is paramount more so than ever in this industry's current climate. I'm so proud of how loyal my staff are to Muse Restaurant and how much they enjoy their jobs. At least six of our senior front of house team have been working at Muse Restaurant for the last six to nine-and-a-half years each. To have that type of support and wealth of knowledge, just on the floor alone, is absolutely priceless.
“At the end of the day when you step back and look in, I think it's such a wonderful thing and such a great feeling to have the staff that work for you be proud of where they work, be proud to tell people the restaurant that they work for. I mean, what else could you want?”
Troy is equally passionate about ensuring the dining experience at Muse Restaurant is continually improving, with a focus not only on the flavours coming out of the kitchen but on the interaction between the front of house staff and the diners as well.
“I think the ethos behind the menu has grown and been refined and been critiqued, but it's always had this underlying drive towards fresh, and exciting, and clean food, with dishes that are unique and, above all, delicious,” he said.
“And almost everything that we bring to the table represents the time of year, and all the sub-seasons within that, as well as the region that we're from, which is the Hunter Valley. We aim to support, show respect and showcase the best of our local producers, large and small, but almost always it is a family-owned business.
“Regarding the service and the front of house, I think even back in 2009 when we opened, we were fully aware of and understood the true importance of service, to try and over deliver on guests' expectations.
“There has to be that underlying humility and intuitiveness that comes from the floor staff, and you need to be able to feel their genuine love and passion for bringing that food to the table and the way they describe it and deliver it.
“So (our commitment) had to be to everything, to the whole experience, and the focus needed to remain on all of that, all of the time.”
Over the years Troy’s passion for using local produce and ingredients has been widely recognised, earning him a string of awards and accolades including being named the Unearthed National Next Gen Chef during the 2015 Delicious Magazine Produce Awards.
For the Pokolbin chef, however, creating a new menu of contemporary Australian cuisine has always been about the flavours, not the fanfare.
“As a chef, I've always loved the creative and expressive element about putting together dishes, and I've always been lucky enough to have a like-minded head chef, like my current head chef Mitchell Beswick, or Frank Faulkner, who's now at EXP, to bounce ideas around with,” Troy said.
“When we collaborate and start to go through new dishes that we want to put on the menu, it's always from three different things.
“There’s what's coming into season ... usually locally ... and then what we are receiving or what our commitments are with our local producers, and where that fits in.
“Then also, generally, it’s what we're interested in at the time. It might be something unique. It might be something different. It might be something that we haven't tried or tasted before that we would like to see on the menu or something that we may have preserved from past seasons when we have an abundance of something locally, and we're trying to store it. Something as simple as a summer sweet corn from Morpeth where we dry the cobs out, and then shuck the kernels and store them, and make our own milled, fresh polenta.
“Another part of inspiration comes from things that we've developed over the years at the restaurant that we’ve come to refine and love, like base sauces or seasonings or base preserves ... stuff like our own miso pastes, or our own togarashi seasonings, our own black garlic, and kimchis and ferments and pickles.
“We pull all four of those things together and figure out where that will fit on a menu if it's balanced with the rest of the menu and how long we’re going to have it for in that season.”
Right now, Troy said he is particularly excited about using the beautiful heirloom tomatoes that are coming into season, and the local mulberries that are in currently in abundant supply, as well as the tri-leaf wild garlic flowers, which they have been using the last remnants of before they finish up for the year to create mouth-watering salted caper bulbs.
“Some things that we’re making at the restaurant that we’re also excited about is a blood orange and red chilli kosho, which is like a zest juice and chilli ferment that we ferment for about three to six months, and then we turn it into a paste, to flavour different sauces and dressings,” Troy said.
“Another one is our next batch of miso, which has just came out of a six-month ferment, which is based on bunya nuts, an Australian bunya-bunya nut from some trees at Branxton, which we fermented with some Australian koji rice and some soybeans. We’ve just had a look at it, and it's absolutely fantastic.
“It’s just a constantly evolving menu between myself and my head chef Mitchell at the moment. We are both on a very similar wavelength in what we like to play around with.”
Muse Restaurant is preparing to celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2019. While for some restaurateurs the thought of notching up such a significant milestone may have them dreaming of the next project, Troy said his focus remains on improving what he already has.
“My plans are definitely not to open another restaurant or to expand what we do,” he said.
“I think a lot of restaurant groups, big restaurants, fine dining restaurants, are not really looking to expand at the moment but to consolidate and drive what we have and what we do well.
“We have a very, very busy restaurant and what we do is really good; we’re just focussed on improving that.”