Little Beach Boathouse head chef Ben Way’s day starts at the crack of dawn with phone calls and text messages, searching for the latest fresh catch from Port Stephens commercial fishermen.
Sometimes, his day ends knowing exactly what he will get in the morning.
“We have a guy who supplies us with local king prawns,” he says. “Sometimes when we do a wedding, at midnight, you can actually see the guy. He’s only a hundred metres over there [he points into the bay] and he’s trawling for prawns. Sometimes he drops them into me in the morning and they are still warm. We ice them all down and with rock salt and salt.”
Way, a former head chef at Muse Restaurant in the Hunter Valley, has worked hard to put his mark on the idyllic Little Beach location in Nelson Bay with his business partners. Their work is bearing fruit: the restaurant won the 2017 Best Seafood Restaurant in regional NSW in the NSW Restaurant & Catering Assocation Awards.
“The biggest buzz for me is making sure i can get local seafood,” Way says. “Sometimes I can’t. And I won’t sacrifice locality for quality. My menu is based around stuff I know I can consistently get and of an extremely high standard.”
While the menu features favourites like squid ink spaghetti with king prawns, mussels and squid, miso-glazed Atlantic salmon, the Boathouse prawn cocktail (with local prawns) and steamed Spring Bay mussels, there is always a busy specials board featuring fresh local catch.
“I really like to think I strive to showcase the local area the best I can,” Way says “I push my specials, I push my local fish as soon as it comes in. I don’t know what I’ve got til 7am. I can’t put it in writing. I haven’t got enough time. So we have a big specials board. The regulars, first thing they do is look at the board. The regulars will always have swordfish, or blue-eyed cod. They trust us to do a good job with it.”
The market fish dish has a solid template, Way says: always local fish, with a fresh salad.
British-born Way doesn’t attempt to emulate fresh dining trends or chase the status of a “hatted restaurant”. He’s quite happy to let the food do the talking.
“For me, I am absolutely produce-based,” he says. “And everything can follow. When I get an amazing fantastic piece of tuna, why do anything different, why try to show off, when all you need to do is show off the produce.
“For me, the biggest thing i learned [in fine dining] was restraint. When you have great produce, why would you muck around with it. My menu reads simply: it is essentially about the primary cut.”
Way is proud to be part of a Port Stephens food scene that is lifting its game. Little Beach Boathouse’s success speaks for itself: the team has grown from 12 to 45 in four years, the main dining room is serving up to 160 meals on a Saturday night and is booked out for a month in advance in the summer.