August 14, 2012
Steve Carne and Jodie Jones. Photo: Rodger Cummins
A new type of pioneer is finding flavour in faraway places, writes Paul Mitchell.
THE small town of Heyfield, about 200 kilometres east of Melbourne, is best known as a thoroughfare for visitors to the Victorian Alps. It's the kind of place where you might expect gristled pies and dim sims in a bain-marie as your lunch fare. That's what makes Cafe 3858, with its 1970s record sleeves for menus and perfectly brewed coffee, such a surprise.
''We've been here almost 18 months and we're sort of waiting for the quiet period, but it's consistent from week to week,'' Jamie Riley says of the cafe he runs with his partner, Zac Stamos.
Riley grew up in Heyfield and returned with 16 years' Melbourne culinary experience, including a stint at Prahran's Flying Duck Hotel. He and Stamos took over a local eatery, extended and rebadged it, and dished up a new menu for the locals. ''They freaked a bit at first. I really did have to push them to try something new,'' Riley says.
Heyfield has a reputation as a centre of snow-frolickers' accommodation, but it remains something of a rural outpost. A gay couple establishing an upmarket cafe in a town that posts its footy team on the supermarket notice board must be made of stern stuff. Riley says he got some taunts when he was younger, but times have changed. ''They're pretty progressive people. We associate with a lot of the older crowd; 75 per cent of our clientele are older people. It's never mentioned and I don't think it's ever frowned upon,'' he says, adding that the food culture is changing, too.
''When they try something new, they usually like it. I keep it fairly simple, but try to mix it up, just gradually,'' he says, adding that the current menu includes the standard home-made burgers, but also arancini balls with goats' cheese and sage.
To the north-east in Bairnsdale, Stephen and Erica McDonald added a cafe to their Provincial Lane antique and gift shop in July last year. Since it opened, the cafe has been overrun. ''It's blown Erica and I away,'' Stephen says. ''We do 90 per cent of our cooking on premises; we don't freeze a thing. But it's the environment that has won people over as much as anything. We're very fussy with cleanliness, presentation and service.''
To the sound of smooth grooves and the smell of fresh-baked muffins, you can enjoy a great coffee. ''My son-in-law is the barista. He was a computer tech and we put him - and our daughter - through William Angliss coffee courses,'' Stephen says. ''Everyone loves our coffee. That's where our reputation is.''
Cafe 3858 and Provincial Lane Cafe are just two examples of the new guard; those setting up shop don't have to look far for inspiration from the pioneers who've gone before them.
Chris Talimanidis, who at 78 says he's Australia's oldest working chef, runs Chris's Beacon Point, near Apollo Bay on the Great Ocean Road. With previous restaurants in Lorne and 40 years' experience, Talimanidis is acknowledged among his peers as the pioneer of west coast fine dining.
''I'm old-fashioned, but the cooking has changed a lot and my customers, nearly 40 per cent, come from overseas now,'' he says of his hatted restaurant, adding that it is always difficult to attract diners in winter. Paying the higher wages staff demand outside Melbourne is also a challenge, but he says he also has advantages, such as the local seafood from his fishmonger of 40 years. ''And I have the most beautiful view in Australia.''
Not far down the road, George Biron has run his Sunnybrae Restaurant and Cooking School at Birregurra for more than 20 years. By word of mouth and a blog, he has survived and thrived in the bush not far from Colac. Biron says he has a supportive wife and learnt by working with regional pioneers Talimanidis and Patricia O'Donnell at Mietta's Queenscliff. He is also well-known among the locals.
''I'd worked in the district for 10 years before we opened Sunnybrae,'' he says. ''We knew a lot of people and we were well linked in the restaurant business. People think it's a really weird location, in the middle of nowhere, but we're not. We're in an ideal position for a country restaurant because it's close enough for people to come down here and then go home.''
Famous for the late-'60s rough-and-ready play named after it, Dimboola in the central Wimmera is not the kind of place you would expect to find a gourmet outlet such as Mason Clarke Preserving Company. Open for four months, Mary Clarke's cafe-cum-larder is luring people from around the district, to such an extent that the local shire is planning a farmers' market to capitalise.
''My husband's been here since the '80s, so he's the face of the business,'' she says. ''I'm a graphic designer, but I had a preserving business in the '80s. The idea here is to use the fruit that's in the town and get the community on board - which they have done, providing excess fruit and vegies. I cook them up in cakes or preserves, and we serve coffee that we roast here.''
Clarke thought a cafe based on preserving couldn't be more than a moderate success in an area where surely every family still practised the art. But she has had to close the doors for three days a week so she can get her preserving done.
''Regular customers are frustrated on those days that they can't come. Dimboola people just love it and I'm delighted because they have a sophisticated palate. There's a real misconception that country people don't understand good food.''
That was chef Steve Carne's experience when, with his wife Jodie Jones, he owned and operated Sourcedining in Albury. The restaurant was a runaway success, drawing diners from hours away. After some time off, the couple has moved even further off the beaten food track - and over the border - to the tiny town of Howlong.
''With The Kitchen at the Courthouse Hotel, we wanted to do a bistro-type restaurant, make it a little easier by not being as 'fine dining' as Sourcedining was. But obviously really focusing on quality produce,'' he says.
Although he and Jodie are doing something simpler, Carne says they can't afford to be too basic. In the age of the celebrity chef, he agrees with others that country people's palates have changed, they are better cooks at home, and if restaurants want to do be simple they have to make quality their emphasis. ''That's why we hang our own meat, cut our own steaks, shuck our own oysters, do our own fishmongering. We might use a few techniques from Source, but essentially it is simply plated, 'high-produce' food.''
That said, as Carne suggests, it's still the country. And like Melbourne restaurants that have to please everyone from vegans to the gluten intolerant, he has to meet all dietary requirements: ''We're in a hotel situation; you want old Bill to come along with the family, and if he just wants steak and chips, he can have it. But when he eats the rump from Yalandra wagyu, I want him to go away and say, 'That was the best cut of meat I've ever eaten.'''