Experiences of a travelling Chef
We picked Margaret River in Western Australia’s South-west as a place to stop and work for a while, there wasn’t a lot of science in our decision, but I new there were a lot of restaurants, cafes and tourists so probably a lot of jobs on offer coming into the summer season. In a previous life when I lived in Perth I drove the Bussell Highway down to Margs as the locals affectionately call it, on a number of occasions to sample its lush wines; vineyards such as Leuwin Estate, Voyager. Vasse Felix and Evans & Tate are known the world over. Fast forward 17 years since I was last here,r, and there are many more players who have taken advantage of this micro climate which is very favourable in producing premium wines, not to mention a handful of micro breweries with eateries attached, distilleries, chocolate shops, Olive Oil producers, and cafes all of which has contributed to the growth of Margaret River township.
Our suspicions proved correct, after putting myself on a Margaret River Facebook Job site, a lot of interest was generated and job offers followed. We made our way from Perth stopping in the lovely seaside town of Busselton for a few days which gave us an introduction to the beautiful coast line on offer down this way. Apart from Vino, Margaret River is famous for its waves, there are countless rugged and beautiful beaches, all of which have a gnarly surf break or two with names like Boneyards and The Womb, that attract surfers the world over. In recent times sharks have also renewed their interest in these waters which has lead to the cancellation of some major surf tournaments.
Margaret River is funnily enough is named after the river which also goes by the name of Margaret. Margaret was supposedly early pioneer John Bussell’s Niece and you cross her before you hit the town centre, the river is surrounded by a nice park which is the starting point for a gentle 17km walk or cycle trail to 10 Mile Brook Dam. You can also cross the footbridge and gaze into the murky depths of the tea coloured river, if the light is right you may see some large marron (native freshwater crayfish) who bask in the reassurance that they are protected in this part of the river when yabbie season comes around, you may even see the very rare hairy marron whose last remaining habitat is Margaret River.
Our first base in the Margaret River area was the Gracetown Caravan Park which was a beautiful introduction to the area; more a bush camp with sites dispersed amongst the trees, kangaroos with joeys in their pouch grazed fearlessly near campers and an outdoor cinema showing family favourites on the weekend. A short drive down the road is the beautiful coastline with a protected small beach in Cowaramup Bay for swimming and frolicking and the infamous Northpoint surf break out to sea for the experienced board rider.
Travelling mode over it was time to get to work, the first time for me in about 4 months. In the end I chose Amelia Park Restaurant, in actual fact it was chosen for me as the other serious offer evaporated by the time we arrived in Margs. Amelia Park Restaurant sits among the vines at Amelia Park Winery in the Wilyabrup area north of Margaret River. A large modern building less than 2 years old with a grand entrance: A herbaceous wall, water features and an impressive large door way that leads you into a very smart dining space, with 2 modern chandeliers, art work and seating that would not be out of place in any Michelin graced restaurant. The star of the show here however was the view looking through the wall of large windows out to the vibrant green vineyard and the wooded hills in the distance.
Amelia Park Restaurant is owned and operated by Blair and Renee Allen who have carved out a great reputation in running restaurants and kitchens in the state’s South-west. After spending time in this kitchen I have never worked with a Chef who works as fast, methodically, efficiently and as neat as Head Chef Blair, his pace almost had the whole kitchen running. He is the first to arrive and the last to leave the kitchen. The menu has a French influence but uses local ingredients such as Wagin duck, Manjimup Marron and Venison from just down the road. Everything is made from scratch and every dish is innovative, and balanced with flavours and textures. The engine room of this kitchen is the WA made Zesti wood fired electric oven, like a furnace when stoked up, and used to cook most of the meats to give a wood fired note, as well as the house made sour dough loaves in the morning , and more gently braise the lamb shoulders long and slow overnight to melt in the mouth consistency.
This was the big league for me and a bit out of my comfort zone, Blair and the team needed an extra pair of hands over the busy festive season, he also arranged one of the chefs to pick me up each morning for the 20 minute journey from Margaret River to work; when your only mode of transport is also your house, it makes it a bit hard on the family if you have to bring them to work with you each day. We stayed at the Margaret River Tourist Park who were able to put us up for the whole of the summer even know we arrived relatively late to expect a site over the busy festive season.
Amelia Park only does lunches (apart from the odd wedding or function in the evening) so we had about 3 hours prep time before the action starts, we could do up to 200 covers between 11 and 3:30 so it was all about the prep. I worked in the Pastry and Larder sections, Pastry is more of my thing so was happy working away there making each component for deserts, petit fours and functions. Larder was a different story, this section made all of the starters and Entrées as well as many of the side dishes; lots of prep, lots of components and very busy during service, Kim from Korea was in charge, he worked like a machine and was a hard task master. Over time I got up to pace with the flood of hand written checks that would fly in, timing and organisation were key to keep on top of the chaos, and some times I was half a step a head of Kim which was satisfying. The Menu although complex was intelligently designed to be able to be prepared and plated in very quick time, meaning on busy days, tables could be turned over within the relatively short lunch window.
The spacious open kitchen was well designed by Blair and thoroughly cleaned down at the end of service by all chefs, it was spotlessly clean and needed to be as it was on show for all to see. On occasion there was a satisfying cool glass of Eagle Bay ale to be had after a busy day in the kitchen, enjoyed on the deck overlooking the vineyard.
This region is exceptionally busy over summer, but as the kids head back to school business starts to slow down, unfortunately as I was a casual employee my hours slowed down too. Many people who call this town home need 2 or 3 jobs to make a living and manage the ebb and flow of the tourist and viticulture seasons. For us it was time to move on after nearly 3 months in this beautiful corner of Australia, key the Littlest Hobo theme song….