As fine dining restaurants in the cities open casual bistros, fine dining in regional areas is taking off. Rob Johnson reports
When Mathew Macartney comes to work each day, he arrives via a heritage-listed 19th Century garden designed by the botanist who helped found the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. He strolls past gracious period artworks adorning the walls of a stately mansion constructed from hand-hewn bricks. His dining room has views of rolling hills and grazing cattle, framed by opulent, gracious drapery. He enters the kitchen to work on fine dining fare inspired and informed by an employment history working under some of the best chefs in Victoria and overseas.
It all sounds like a fine dining fantasy; old world European chateaus and pastoral bliss. But it’s part of the reality that helped Mathew’s restaurant, Eleonore’s in Chateau Yering, win the award for Modern Australian Restaurant at last year’s Savour Australia™ Awards for Excellence. Eleonore’s is one a slew of fine dining restaurants that have popped up in regional areas around the country in the last few years. While the trend in CBD dining seems to be towards more casual dining—and while tough economics keeps a cap on the total number of regional restaurants—there’s still a perceivable growth in the number of fine dining restaurants making their marks outside of metropolitan areas.
A few years ago, if asked to name a well-known regional fine-diner, you may nominate the Lake House at Daylesford, or Selkirk’s in Orange. Now restaurants like Restaurant Como in the Blue Mountains are winning the Silver Service Award in the latest SMH Good Food Guide, or restaurants from Mollymook, Mildura, Port Macquarie, North Rothbury, and Bunbury are taking home major awards at the Awards for Excellence.
Part of the drive towards high-end dining in the regions is proximity to produce. It’s certainly one benefit that appeals to Mathew Macartney. “I think regional Victoria is doing some of the best food in Australia at the moment,” he says. “So I think the benefits for fine dining here are we get to do paddock-to-plate stuff—we grow our own vegetables, and we have a range of producers literally at the back door. It’s a real benefit to see that great produce come to fruition on the plate, and to showcase those flavours that come from the region.”
Macartney came to the Chateau Yering in the Yarra Valley after a nine-year career at Daylesford’s award-winning Lake House. His career started as an apprentice at the Snooty Fox in Olinda, progressed to Café Cuccina in South Yarra, and finally to the Hotel Sofitel under Raymond Capaldi and Marcus Moore.
During his tenure at Lake House Macartney’s professional skills were continually extended and refined as he progressed from Commis to Head Chef, punctuated by regular short term opportunities in Fiji, New Zealand and Dubai. When he won Australia’s Best Sous Chef, the prize was a six-week appointment to any restaurant in the world. He chose Restaurant Daniel in New York.
“Like regional restaurants everywhere, we have great weekend trade, but the challenge is maintaining that consistency during the week.” Mathew Macartney, Eleonore’s at Chateau Yering
But it was the location of Chateau Yering that inspired him more than anything else: “It’s a gorgeous hotel and restaurant here, so that was a big attraction for me,” he says. “I think I brought a level of enthusiasm and organisation to the role, and a passion—we’re surrounded by this beautiful building, and the food should be able to at least match that.”
Which is all fine and good, but could the same restaurant formula work in the main street of a country town?
“It probably could still work, and there are places that do it. But I think our advantage is it’s pure escapism.”
But a pure escapist location can be a double-edged sword, with one of the key problems identified by Macartney being consistency of custom. “The greatest challenge is getting consistent numbers,” he says. “Like regional restaurants everywhere, we have great weekend trade, but the challenge is maintaining that consistency during the week. Following from that, staffing for that trade is a challenge. We are very consistent, but it would be good to have consistent numbers too.”
It’s a consistent problem for all regional restaurants, but particularly exacerbated for fine dining: appealing to the locals enough to cover the seasonal (or mid-week) drop in trade, but maintaining a quality and consistency necessary to justify the tag. And many owners of regional fine diners have reported back that locals will generally baulk at paying “capital city” prices for a meal, no matter how good it is.
Peter Bacon, general manager of Bannisters in Mollymook, has had to address the same problem. In fact, he faced a further hurdle when British celebrity chef Rick Stein went into a joint venture with the hotel to create one of his branded outlets there—the restaurant at Bannisters is now Rick Stein at Bannisters.
“There was a concern amongst the locals that the restaurant was going to be inaccessible [when Rick Stein came along], but I don’t think that turned out to be the case,” he says. “I think we’re shy of Sydney prices, and there are always some less expensive things on the menu. But for us, the important selling point is the dining experience. If people don’t dine out much, it’s a cracking experience because there’s not that stuffy grandeur about it. There’s a pleasant and welcoming feel about Rick’s food. We’re replicating that in the restaurant.”
Similar to Macartney’s experience at Eleonore’s, it was the close proximity of local produce that really appealed to Rick Stein when he was thinking about setting up shop on the New South Wales South Coast.
“When I was introduced to Mollymook about six years ago I knew that one day I would open up a restaurant celebrating local fish and shellfish but keeping it really simple,” he has said. “Bannisters is the relaxed seaside hotel that I was looking for, so I jumped at the opportunity.”
Peter Bacon adds, “The whole foundation of Rick’s style is based on local produce. So 90 per cent of our seafood is from Ulladulla, 95 per cent of the staff are locals and we’re putting a huge focus on training. We have our own herb garden, and vegies come from Shoalhaven Foods. It’s all about local produce cooked simply.
“We used to do that before Rick came along, and Rick sharpened us to it. I find it frustrating that we’d be buying snapper from Sydney Fish Markets that has been caught in Ulladulla, driven to the fish markets, then driven back here. It really comes down to a matter of consistency and quality. You have to get it fresh and keep it local to maintain that quality.”
“Many owners of regional fine diners have reported back that locals will generally baulk at paying “capital city” prices for a meal, no matter how good it is.” Mathew Macartney, Eleonore’s at Chateau Yering
Bacon points out that they’re frequently using the same suppliers they always did, although with a bias now towards more seafood than meat and poultry. But even with that adjustment, Stein’s inspiration drove them to sourcing a local butcher for their meat, and Bacon says, “it’s sensational to have people like that on your doorstep. We just didn’t look hard enough for them before.”
He adds that they don’t always succeed is sourcing everything locally: “But we try. We used to have these great mussels from Jervis Bay, but the fisheries have shut that down. My definition of local is within 100km of where you are, so now we’ll use Clyde River oysters, for example. But we’re realists—the menu changes daily and is based on availability. With poor weather down here, you may be in a position where you have to source from Sydney.”
The real challenge for regional fine dining, they both say, is staff. “Sourcing kitchen staff is not so hard,” adds Macartney. “I have some excellent people here, and an advantage is we do have time to spend and good quality food to work with, and we can work from the ground up. It is harder to source dedicated staff for front-of-house positions. In Europe, being a waiter is a career. Here it’s something you do while you’re at uni.”
As a way of overcoming that problem, he says, is having rigorous training systems set up: “We put in as much information and time and knowledge as we can into training. Sometimes you’re lucky and you get someone who’s serious about the job, and then it all comes together. Sometimes you get someone who isn’t that serious, but those people tend to fall by the wayside.”
Bacon says the same thing happens at Bannisters, with a detailed training manual developed well before Rick Stein came on board.
“It goes from the basics of things like carrying three plates, and etiquette, all the way through to managing guests as individuals,” he explains. “Training is difficult because there are no right or wrong answers in hospitality. So we try to cover everything. We do food tastings once a week, and wine appreciation once a week—our restaurant manager here is Toby Evans, whose father is wine writer Len Evans, so he’s very knowledgeable about wine. We’ve developed all the training manuals ourselves. We’ve probably been slow getting onto it, because we’re busier than we expected to be. And of course you have to wait for people with the right attitude. I’d sooner get in and wait tables myself than hire someone with the wrong attitude.
“The group of people we have here at the moment are fantastic. They know that a job here goes on their CV and they can take it overseas with ease. You’ve got service and restaurant procedures training, knowing how crockery should be polished, even down to lists of what cutlery to put with shellfish. It’s very detailed.”
Having said that, Bacon is very aware of not knocking too many rough edges off them, as he sees that personality in the staff as an added benefit for customers: “We are a fine dining restaurant, but we have a bit of theatre and entertainment added to it as well. The service was always of a high level, but there’s something quite raw and friendly with the local staff that makes it unique.”