There are no stainless steel benches, cupboards or splashbacks here. Instead, the loud sounds of a would-be commercial kitchen - the clanging and cutting and cussing - head straight out and up into the sky to blend invisibly with the drifting smoke of the fire and the gentle wind moving through the trees. Where a cloistered kitchen of four walls and a ceiling tends to amplify the stress and pressure of a busy service, out here, the open space and infinite sky give it somewhere to go.
Chef Cooper Thomas is calm. Standing well over six-feet tall, the young chef moves in a square - between two portable fridges and his custom-made charcoal barbecue oven, where he is busy roasting porchetta for tonight's meal. Around him, he's set up three trestle tables; one stocked with knives and other cooking utensils, one hosting a single and a double burner portable gas stovetop, and one at the front acting as the pass for plating and serving the meals that he cooks out here in the bush, as The Wilderness Chef.
“Cooking outside doesn't feel like work for me," Thomas says. "It's so nice to be able to apply my skills in new surroundings, and cook for nice people who appreciate what I'm doing to make their event more special."
The Wilderness Chef is a part of a new adventure for Thomas, who has been working as a professional chef since leaving high school in year eleven.
"My parents said I couldn't leave school unless I had a full-time job. I started my apprenticeship working at a small cafe in Charlestown," Thomas says. "They made everything from scratch and that was a good lesson on how not to rely on off-the-shelf or store-bought foods and ingredients."
As a second year apprentice, Thomas worked in the kitchen at Queens Wharf Brewery, which introduced him to the fast pace of a commercial chef. He moved to Merewether Surf House where he learnt to cater for large groups for functions. Now, he is head chef at Talulah, in The Junction, which is where, he says, he really began to enjoy to cook as a professional chef.
"The family [Guy Ashford] that owns Talulah have a great attitude towards hospitality and food," Thomas says. "As a chef, I looked up to Duncan Crocket, who was head chef before me. He created a great culture in the kitchen. Everyone at Talulah has been a great supporter of The Wilderness Chef project, and I'm very grateful for that."
As The Wilderness Chef, Cooper caters all the food for events and other experiences based out in the bush, the backwoods, even the beach; pretty much any remote place where civilisation ends and the wilderness begins. The idea was born from a conversation his partner Ash Wheelhouse and friend Joel Alston had about weddings and elopements.
"Ash is a florist and Joel is a photographer, and they came up with the idea for a business that specialises in intimate weddings, with only a few guests; an elopement," Thomas says. "I cater the wedding as The Wilderness Chef, and Ash and Joel supply the flowers and photography."
Anteloping is the name of this business, which also includes a person to do hair and make-up, as well as a celebrant.
"We went to Kangaroo Valley in South Australia for a same-sex couple who had the official ceremony in Canberra, but wanted to do their vows properly in a place they know and love," Thomas says. "Recently, we did a vow renewal for a couple on Stockton beach, which was a bit of a challenge, but the food was great and the couple really enjoyed themselves."
On this particular trip that I am shadowing, Cooper has been cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 17 people over four days. The menu reads like it could have been written for any restaurant you might find walking down one of Melbourne's trendy laneways, or up one of Sydney's hilly side streets. On Friday night, guests ate Ras el hanout Cape Grim beef tagine, with spiced Israeli couscous, grilled haloumi, red capsicum, toasted almonds, and yoghurt. For breakfast the next day they were served organic quinoa and oat porridge, caramelised granny smith apple, raspberry, passionfruit, and toasted walnuts.
"My menus are based on seasonality, so I'll write it according to what I can get my hands on, and also what I know will be manageable to cook out here with limited equipment and facilities," Thomas says. "But, I love camping, I love being outdoors, and the challenge for me to cook to the high quality and standard that I set myself, and to the standard that people would expect from me as head chef at Talulah, is motivating."
A fire blazes in the middle of a ring of camp chairs, spitting out embers and sparks which cool quickly in the high altitude air and fall back to earth as innocuous fragments of ash. Taking a long-handled shovel, chef Cooper Thomas scoops up a spade-full of smouldering embers and dumps them into the bottom of his custom-made oven; a final blast of heat to crisp up the skin of the porchetta before it's ready to be sliced and served alongside some crispy potatoes, charred corn, and charcoal-grilled broccolini, a few sprigs of rosemary, accompanied by a generous drizzle of sweet and smoky red wine jus.
The wilderness diners can't believe their luck.
The final night’s dinner is served while the campfire burns and conversation ensues underneath the gum trees and the stars.
Chef Thomas says: "The satisfaction I get when people sit down to eat together, especially somewhere like this, and they tell me they enjoyed what I’ve created makes me happy and encourages me to keep doing this."