Italian food is where it all began for Spicers group executive chef Cameron Matthews and his latest venture is a return to those culinary roots.
The former head chef at Long Apron Restaurant is opening Eremo, the first modern Italian restaurant of the Spicers group, at Pokolbin’s Spicers Guesthouse in November. Spicers Retreats purchased Peppers Guest House in 2016.
Matthews will also “oversee operations” at Restaurant Botanica, located at the nearby Spicers Vineyards Estate.
He has the qualifications. In addition to his executive chef role, Matthews was general manager of Spicers Clovelly Estate at Montville on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and in 2016 was awarded a prestigious Churchill Fellowship for his vision to eliminate food waste in high-end Australian restaurants.
Born in Bright, Victoria, Matthews spent the first 10 years of his career working at Syd’s Place, later renamed Simone’s Restaurant. He worked alongside Patrizia Simone and her mother, Maria, who he affectionately refers to as “Nonna”.
“Nonna is my barometer when it comes to food,” Matthews said.
“My restaurant up in Queensland was hatted and won all sorts of awards but my aim is still to be able to cook like Nonna. She used to braise tomatoes in olive oil with a little bit of potato in it and I couldn’t stop eating it out of the pot. How did she get so much flavour out of three simple ingredients? I try but my memory of her cooking is still better than anything I have been able to produce.
“At Eremo I want to have another crack at giving people the kind of thrill I experienced when eating Nonna’s food.”
Everything will be made in-house where possible.
“That’s not lip service either,” Matthews said. “For me, Italian food is about finding the best local produce and cooking it simply. The many regions in Italy all do things differently when it comes to food. I want to create a region of Italy right here in the Hunter Valley, so to speak. I want it to be different than what anybody else is doing out there, and in that way modernise it.”
To say Matthews likes to keep busy is, perhaps, an understatement. He has been living in the Hunter Valley for six weeks when the Herald calls and it’s his first official day off but he can’t sit still, let alone stand still.
“I’m confident in my ability but I’m nervous about doing things to the best of my ability. I want Eremo to be amazing from the get go – that’s what the venue deserves,” he said. “Nervousness is fresh and constructive and I get excited about it. Seriously, I’m bouncing around on the lawn just talking about it. I know some of the chefs down here already and they’re being really supportive, which is great.”
His wife and three children, who are happy and settled in their schools, remain on the Sunshine Coast. He admits it has made it easier for him to focus on the task – or tasks – at hand.
“To be honest it probably works out. As much as I miss them, it’s easier to be down here and busy. It might sound terrible to some but this requires every ounce of energy I’ve got.”