IT’S just past the peak lunch rush and Phil Wood removes the microphone headset he uses to communicate with his team of 16 chefs and slides behind a table at Pt. Leo Restaurant.
The softly spoken, congenial executive chef earnt his stripes at Neil Perry’s sprawling Rockpool Dining Group before landing the plum role of culinary director at Pt. Leo Estate.
The $50 million project on the Mornington Peninsula is bankrolled by Melbourne’s Gandel family, which amassed its fortune via commercial centres including Gladstone, and arguably titillates all the senses, encapsulating as it does food, wine, art and design.
“The restaurant has had a luxurious start,” says Wood, keeping a relaxed eye on the sleek dining space which has stunning vistas over the sculpture park that unfurls on the lawn sloping gently to Point Leo beach.
“We’ve been able to turn away people, which we don’t like doing, but it’s a good omen.”
Wood’s plans for his menu changed rapidly once he moved from Sydney to the lush Peninsula, about an hour’s drive south of Melbourne.
“Normally in a city environment I have been driven more for an idea then look for the produce after but here it’s finding product and making dishes around it and it’s been quite refreshing to do,” he says.
In the lead up to Pt. Leo’s November 2017 opening, Wood spent many hours forging relationships with local suppliers and trying his hand at that most opportunistic chef pursuit of foraging – with mixed results.
“The first time I got stranded,” he laughs. “I was down on the beach at Point Leo at an inlet and the tide came in and I had to get picked up on the other side.”
Though the process of unearthing suppliers has been a slow one, Wood has been impressed by the local talent.
Intent on celebrating the region’s best produce, the menu features goats cheeses from nearby Main Ridge Dairy, potatoes from Hawkes Farm and salads, mushrooms and other snippets from Benton Rise Farm. Each week or two, a new local supplier finds its way onto the list.
Wood is building up Point Leo’s garden, cultivating bee hives, exploring the options of locally-sourced beef and raiding the personal garden of John and Pauline Gandel, who he says “love to come in on a busy Saturday and say they can’t get a table, which has been quite funny”.
“They have been really hands-on and involved and supportive, it’s been really refreshing,” says Wood of the project’s elderly but sprightly owners.
“They don’t need to be as hands-on as they are but they love the space and love seeing people in it.”
On the day Weekender popped in, the steady crowd of visitors to Point Leo seemed thoroughly engaged by the offering.
Designed by Melbourne-based architects Jolson, the semi-circular building is heralded by the Grand Arch, the impressive steel sculpture by Inge King which looms large in the forecourt leading to the entrance.
Blending seamlessly with the landscape and the sculpture park beyond, the building’s interiors are all curved surfaces, tactile layers of concrete and timber and ample natural light, all of which add depth and warmth to the restaurant and cellar door.
It is a sheer joy to stroll through the sculpture park curated with equal parts brio and passion by Geoffrey Edwards, the former director of Geelong Gallery and former head of sculpture at the National Gallery of Victoria. The park features 50 works by local and international artists that are placed along two paths, one shorter than the other but both with stunning panoramic views across Western Port Bay to Phillip Island.
The next stage of Pt. Leo will be the opening of a 40-seat fine diner adjacent to the main restaurant, with both spaces under the careful watch of Ainslie Lubbock.
Asked how he can possibly improve on what is a rustic yet super polished restaurant menu, Wood laughs, explaining it is not the first time he’s been asked.
He says it comes down to produce and technique, adding that the fine diner will offer a more detailed service and plating, without losing its vibrancy.
“I think food from a kitchen should feel alive and if you refine it too much you can lose the liveliness that makes it a convivial experience.”
Pt. Leo is just one of the many cultural experiences on the Peninsula, a long-favoured holiday destination of Melburnians. Also worth a sticky beak, and a stay if you can afford it, is five-star hotel Jackalope, where Hunter-raised Martin Webster is head chef at hatted restaurant Doot Doot Doot.
See ptleoestate.com.au and jackalopehotels.com.