The food scene in Newcastle is growing in stature and popularity

JAMIE Thomas, head chef at Newcastle’s Family Hotel, got this food-lover thinking the other day. The Hunter Region is now firmly on the “foodie” map. But why?

Yes, we produce world-class chefs as well as fresh produce, and have award-winning restaurants and cafes to suit all budgets. 

Statistics show that visitors come to our region to wine and dine. It is a bigger tourist drawcard than our beaches.

But what else has contributed to our region’s foodie credentials? Some of the credit must go to the “locals”. The home-grown chefs, restaurateurs, winemakers and brewers who have chosen to further their talents and businesses in the region of their birth, rather than flying the coop.

HOME-GROWN: Chefs Lesley Taylor, Tim Montgomery, Chris Thornton and Troy Rhoades-Brown. Picture: Marina Neil

HOME-GROWN: Chefs Lesley Taylor, Tim Montgomery, Chris Thornton and Troy Rhoades-Brown. Picture: Marina Neil

Troy Rhoades-Brown springs to mind. He was born and raised in Valentine on the shores of Lake Macquarie, left Warners Bay High School to take up an apprenticeship at Merewether restaurant Pasquale’s and went on to work with acclaimed chef Robert Molines at Pokolbin. In 2005 Rhoades-Brown won the Brett Graham Award, established two years earlier by the Newcastle-born, London-based chef to support promising young chefs, and in 2014 he was named Young Restaurateur of the Year at the Appetite for Excellence awards.

Instead of heading overseas to perfect his craft, though, Rhoades-Brown did the unthinkable. He stayed put and opened his own restaurant – during the global financial crisis of 2009, no less. 

These days the two-hatted Muse Restaurant at Hungerford Hill winery is one of the Hunter Region’s most successful – and popular – restaurants.

Chef Tim Montgomery is another mover and shaker. He is joining forces with Thomas Robinson (ex Bacchus and  recently head chef for Colin Fassnidge at Four in Hand in Sydney), Ty Burford from the Burwood Hotel and Tim Perram from Hunter Valley Premium Meats to open a diner in Newcastle by early December.

He told the Herald’s Liz Love in August: “We got a great designer from Sydney to put together a ’50s diner meets pop-punk fit-out for a fabulous site right in the CBD, on the ground floor of the ATO building. That part of town is really about to be re-invigorated, particularly with the opening of the university city campus next year.”

Let’s not forget the “other” locals, though – the customers who aren’t afraid to give feedback, and whose culinary likes and dislikes have helped to shape the region’s food, wine, beer and hospitality landscape. They have helped to bring new dining strips to life on Newcastle’s King and Hunter streets, and in Islington. 

Jamie Thomas is the former executive chef of the Drink N’ Dine Group, a role which required him to oversee eight restaurants in Sydney hotels that had been completely refurbished and reinvented. Some went on to win awards, all are unrecognisable, both aesthetically and in terms of clientele. 

He has now turned his attention to The Family Hotel on Hunter Street, Newcastle West, working alongside Mayfield’s Steven Forbes, who spent 10 years in Sydney overhauling rundown pubs.

Thomas says he was surprised at the quality and diversity of Newcastle’s dining scene when he moved from Sydney to adopt the head chef role at The Landing Bar & Kitchen in April.

“It absolutely blew me away,” he tells Weekender.

“Even the markets up here, the produce is just incredible. It’s as good or better than anything I’ve ever found in Sydney farmers markets.

“Now that I’ve lived here, though, it doesn’t surprise me. I now know what restaurants have to work with up here. I mean, the fish I get comes straight off the boat and into the kitchen. It’s super fresh.”

He describes working at The Landing and the Family Hotel as a “huge learning curve”. This from a man who has years of experience working in kitchens worldwide. Thomas, you see, actually listens to feedback from the paying customers eating his food.

“I’ve been finding out what people like to eat up here. Some dishes, well, I already know that if I take them off the menu people will be upset,” he explains. ​

”The people in Newcastle are really receptive to most things. They’re not snobby when it comes to food and they’re certainly not afraid to tell you what they think.

“There’s nothing worse than not being busy at a pub, and scratching your head, wondering why. In Sydney we always opened a pub with big fanfare and you couldn’t keep up with demand, and then it tapered off and you’d stand there scratching your head and wondering why.

“Was it something I was doing wrong?

“The Newcastle experience has been exactly the opposite. We opened the door and absolutely no one walked in, and there we were scratching our heads wondering why, but over the past four weeks we’ve just been getting busier and busier and doubling our numbers.

Jamie Thomas, head chef of The Family Hotel in Newcastle West. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Jamie Thomas, head chef of The Family Hotel in Newcastle West. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

“It’s been incredible.”

One of the challenges faced by someone hoping to set up shop in Newcastle is finding a niche, especially against tough competition in hot spots like Beaumont and Darby streets. 

One Two Seven Darby, for instance, has just reinvented itself to remain competitive on the Darby Street strip. Now known as Black Sheep, the cafe opened its doors to the public on Thursday with a new look, feel, name and branding. The hook? Wholesome food with an edge. Staff tell customers where their produce comes from to help cultivate a community that is more conscious of the world we live in.

Competition is, of course, good news for diners who are spoilt for choice. But the competition is fundamentally healthy. Camaraderie is surprisingly strong in the Hunter’s hospitality scene, and rival businesses tend to work together as a team to raise the profile of the Hunter as whole.

This, in turn, raises standards and is a definite shot in the arm for local tourism. Indeed, the word is out that Newcastle and the Hunter can offer visitors a lot more than pretty beaches and a relaxed coastal lifestyle.

A report released by Destination NSW for the year ended March 2016 revealed adult couples were the most frequent visitors to the region (28.8 per cent) and the most popular activity (58.1 per cent) to do while here is to “eat out or dine at a restaurant or cafe”. Visiting friends or relatives was the second most popular activity (43.4 per cent) followed by going to the beach (25.3 per cent).  

As for day trips to the Hunter, there were more than 6.3 million domestic visitors in the past year, which is up 7.6 per cent on the year ending March 2015. 

This is no accident. There has been a concerted effort by business leaders, Newcastle City Council and community groups to reinvent the former steel city’s image. Small business owners have followed suit. Not only is the city now a respected creative hub, it is a culinary destination in itself.  

Hunter Culinary Association has played a part by identifying and nurturing young talent, and constantly finding ways to shine the light on the region’s food scene.

“I think regional dining often takes a back seat to the capital city dining scene,” chairman Ben Neil tells Weekender.

“But when you get the likes of high-profile chefs Colin Fassnidge, Justin North and Massimo Mele coming to our region, envious of the produce and trying to pinch our talent, it reconfirms how strong our region is as a dining destination.

“Unlike some of the capital cities, the Hunter Region has the added element of local producers that we benefit from. We are leaders when it comes to chef-planted kitchen gardens and sustainability, be it a small plot or the extensive kitchen gardens of Muse and Margan.

“Also, credit goes to former chefs Dylan and Elle who started suburban-based micro-greens business Newcastle Greens, who supply many local cafes and restaurants with in-demand greens.”

Then there’s the success of, and demand for, the region’s top-end dining experiences. 

“While the Hunter region has amazing dining diversity, from a strong coffee and cafe culture through to fine dining, our results in terms of the annual Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide awards champion our region,” Neil says.

“And not just with those awarded hats, but also those that secure a mention. There are a lot of success stories.”

Front-of-house service and a memorable dining experience go hand in hand, and Hunter Culinary Association is working to promote it as a career in itself through initiatives like the First Creek Front of House Scholarship. The Brett Graham Scholarship is offered to promising apprentice chefs. 

“Our front-of-house professionals are just as crucial as the chefs behind the stoves. The food is one half of the equation,” Neil explains. 

“Retention of our talent is the key to furthering the region’s success.”

Hunter Culinary Association chairman Ben Neil at the 2016 Food Fight held at Cypress Lakes. Picture: Dominique Cherry

Hunter Culinary Association chairman Ben Neil at the 2016 Food Fight held at Cypress Lakes. Picture: Dominique Cherry

If awards are a reliable indicator of success, the Hunter region’s food and hospitality industry is in good shape.

Muse Restaurant maintained its two-hat rating in the 2017 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide awards, while its sister restaurant, Muse Kitchen, kept its one hat. Both are run by Troy Rhoades-Brown and his wife Megan. Muse Restaurant was also a finalist in the Santa Vittoria Regional Restaurant of the Year alongside Bistro Molines. 

Bistro Molines, at Mount View, run by long-time Hunter restaurateurs Robert and Sally Molines, maintained its one-hat rating.

Margan, at Broke, finally received a hat. It’s been a 10-year journey for Lisa and Andrew Margan, who are two of the region’s finest advocates.

Newcastle’s Restaurant Mason and Subo continue to wear their respective chef’s hats with pride, and just last week Newcastle businessman and restaurateur Neil Slater received the NSW Lifetime Achiever award at the 2016 NSW Savour Australia Restaurant & Catering Hostplus Awards for Excellence. 

Major awards were also won by Hobarts by Lesley Taylor, at Wests New Lambton, which was named NSW Regional Restaurant of the Year and Regional Fine Dining Restaurant of the Year, and Merewether’s popular Table 1 Espresso, which took home the Regional Northern Consumer Vote award.

Pokolbin’s Estate Tuscany was named NSW Regional Caterer of the Year and took home a regional gong for Wedding Caterer of the Year. 

Regional awards also went to Circa 1876, for Caterer of the Year, The Cottage at Scone for Best Steak House and Grain Store Newcastle for Best Beer Cafe/Wine Bar, while Canon Food Bar Espresso, Warners Bay, was named Best New Restaurant.

The Best Breakfast Restaurant (Hunter/Central Coast winner) was Nice at Nelson Bay, and Lure, at Wests New Lambton, was named Best Seafood Restaurant – Informal. 

As a major city, Newcastle is coming of age. Step by step.