Top Hunter restaurants set their own trends

The Hunter Region’s food scene is better than ever but is word starting to spread? Or are we flying under the radar when it comes to national recognition? 

It depends who you ask. For Hunter chefs at the coalface, credibility is not gained by blindly adopting the latest food trends. Identifying our points of difference from other food regions and showcasing them, they say, is the key. 

EXP. restaurant owner and head chef Frank Fawkner reckons Newcastle’s casual dining scene is “carving it up” in that respect.

“Top gun chefs tackling casual eateries include Tom [Robinson] and Tim [Montgomery] at Rascal, Dave Griffin at Bao Brothers Eatery and Sam Alexander at Reserve. They are leading the charge,” he says.

“Griffin is serving modern Asian cuisine which will be Newcastle’s answer to Ms. G’s in Sydney.”

It’s a 40-minute drive from Newcastle to the Hunter Valley but their respective food scenes are a world apart. Newcastle serves its own and does it well, banking on casual, quality dining. Gourmet burgers, street food or craft beer anyone? Corey Crooks was ahead of the curve there.

Hunter Valley diners are typically from Sydney or overseas and it is the Valley that has become the battleground for national attention.

The Hunter and Upper Hunter’s diverse range of landscapes, soil and sub-climates certainly sets it apart. Award-winning agricultural products can be accessed with ease, including  beef, dairy, poultry, lamb, vegetables, fruit, nuts and grapes. Newcastle Greens and Little Hill Farm spring to mind. 

“Being both rural and coastal, the Hunter has an abundance of produce. I can forage beach plants in the morning and be picking wild brassicas in between grapevines in the afternoon. Our region is very unique,” says Joshua Gregory, chef at EXP. restaurant and founder of pop-up dining venture Hunter.

Passionate Hunter chefs or restaurateurs who ignore seasonality and quality local produce do so at their own peril.  

“You can no longer just serve quality food,” Fawkner says. “People are attracted to the story behind the scenes. If you are not using all of your produce and reducing waste, making your own sourdough, fermenting, culturing, making cheese, sourcing quality produce or breaking down whole fish, poultry or beasts you are behind the game. 

“Each restaurant has to stand alone with a unique experience that gives it an identity.”

Fawkner uses only Hunter-made tables, chairs and even art in his restaurant and chef Emerson Rodriguez is a keen potter makes plates and cups to use in his Lovedale restaurant.

Muse Restaurant’s Troy Rhoades-Brown is not one to follow a trend. His food tells a uniquely Hunter story and, these days, the two-hatted Muse and sister restaurant Muse Kitchen are setting the trends. 

“If you are serving or offering something that you don’t connect with or believe in but it’s considered trendy, you are probably heading down the wrong path in this industry,” he says. 

“What excites us at Muse is something that is unique to us or our region. We are currently teaming up with a local farmer who breeds lamb in his olive grove. We are still at a trial stage but we break down the whole lamb, leaving it on the bone, hot smoke it for two hours with olive wood and pits, then finish cooking it submerged in extra virgin olive oil served with olives all from the same farm.”

Restaurateur Lisa Margan also takes trends with a grain of salt.

“The trouble with trends is that they can become over popular and everyone gets sick of seeing the same thing. I can think of 100 examples of this. With my own restaurant I believe that if it doesn’t fit what we do or is not within the context of our rural setting then we don’t do it.” 

However Leonie Young, owner of The Essential Ingredient in Newcastle, makes it her business to know what’s hot and what’s not when it comes to food.

“Trends do have influence but there is always a local twist. Look at the menus of Subo, Restaurant Mason, Muse or EXP. and you’ll see classic techniques applied to native or Asian flavours,” she says.

“At present we are seeing lots of dried fruits and vegetable powders. Actually, anything preserved or dried is popular, from fruit to seaweed to dried fish roe.

“Peppers are being used to complement other flavours – smoked white penja pepper, java long peppers, Jamaican and wild voatsiperifery pepper are popular – but the biggest trend is dehydrated anything and everything.

“It’s not only a great way to preserve food without changing the basic ingredient, but also an interesting way to intensify flavour and colour.”

Gregory keeps an eye on food trends through social media but believes the Hunter Region has “developed its palette through the chefs it has produced” rather than a reliance on what is new and trendy.

Young agrees, saying the Hunter Region has “attracted significant attention” due to the talents of local chefs like Chris Thornton, Rhoades-Brown, Fawkner and Lesley Taylor.  

“It is also recognised as being a destination for excellent chefs looking for a sea change – Susie and Beau Vincent from Subo, Tim Montgomery of Rascal, Sam Alexander of Reserve, and Tom and Jacqui Brown from Sprout Dining. 

“But this isn’t new, really – we need to look no further than Robert Molines who came to the Hunter Valley years ago to set up home.”

The delightful Molines is revered for pioneering fine dining in the Hunter and mentoring so many of our most talented chefs. Just this week his one-hatted Mount View restaurant was the only regional restaurant to make Good Food Guide’s top French restaurants in Australia list. 

So, what else sets the Hunter Region’s food scene apart from others?

In addition to the diverse range of produce on our doorstep, it’s the people. Our hospitality industry has a reputation for being collaborative and supportive. Chefs are friends rather than rivals and are not only generous when it comes to charity events, but in terms of mentoring up-and-coming talent. 

Then there’s Hunter Culinary Association’s annual Food Fight and Brett Graham Scholarship, run in conjunction with TAFE NSW. Apprentices are given a unique opportunity to network with their more experienced counterparts as well as compete for industry and peer recognition. 

Given our unique strengths, then, is the Hunter’s food scene being given the attention it deserves on a national scale?

"You can no longer just serve quality food. People are attracted to the story behind the scenes."

Frank Fawkner

Restaurant Mason, Subo and Muse are known, says Fawkner, but as a region “it’s still very early days”. 

“The thought that comes to people’s minds when you mention the Hunter is still that we produce great wines. There is not enough exposure yet for up-and-comers in the region from the national food guides and I hope to be a part of changing this.”

Gregory agrees.

“Newcastle is still a bit of a dark horse in the food scene. It is difficult to shake the stigma of the ‘country restaurant’ when in fact it is our commitment to our region that makes us special. We have incredible chefs here but few are known on a national or international scale.”

As for Rhoades-Brown, he is still surprised at how little industry people know about the Hunter Region. “I think the next five years in the Hunter is absolutely paramount,” he says, “roads, infrastructure, education and tourism are gaining substantial traction and it’s up to the hospitality sector to keep up and show its identity.”