From Perth heading south to Albany there are hundreds of kilometres of coastline from which some of the freshest seafood in Australia is harvested, and often cooked just a few hundred metres from where it is caught. There are also sweeping valleys full of vineyards that produce award-winning Margaret River whites and reds. The region has a range of boutique brewers harnessing the area’s pure rainwater to make their beer, some of the best chefs in the state rattle the pans in restaurants ranging from fine dining to beachside casual and artisan producers – from bread to preserves – who like to keep things local.
This is foodie country, and there is a strong food culture in the south west of the state, which culminates in Margaret River Gourmet Escape, an annual event that takes place every November, attracting the biggest names in the international food scene. The most recent edition saw Marco Pierre White sing the praises of the region to media on the lawns of the luxe Cape Lodge while Rick Stein, and his son Jack, made good use of the local seafood. In previous years René Redzepi has marvelled at the quality of the local dhufish and Heston Blumenthal even found time to catch some waves with some local chefs.
Big name locals love the event, too, which is why Guillaume Brahimi of Guillaume at Bennelong forwent his usual fine dining fare to create a beach barbecue right on the sand at the Audi Gourmet Beach BBQ at Castle Bay Beach, where guests happily chomped on lamb cutlets by candlelight under the cover of huge tipis.
The key difference in this region is that the people come for the lifestyle – the surfing, the weather, the natural beauty – and they stay to enjoy, and enhance, the food scene.
Perth boy Tony Howell started off in the capital’s first fine French diner, Louie’s, but moved to Margaret River for the surf, and to run the kitchen at Cape Lodge.
“It comes down to what you have to cook with,” says Howell, who is now executive chef of Margaret River Hospitality Group – that operates the White Elephant Café at Gnarabup Beach as well as Morries Anytime in Margaret River village and The Common at Margarets Beach Resort. “The produce you get; we can be cooking something that has been caught a couple of hours ago, you don’t have to do too much to it.”
And this close proximity to such amazing waves, including those that host the Margaret River Pro surfing event, means surfing is never too far away.
“My business partner will be on the coffee machine all day and he is looking at the surf and if it is good enough he will make the call, and he’s gone,” laughs Howell, adding that he always makes sure he has cover. “But we work hard – it is work hard and play hard.”
Howell and his fellow Margaret River chefs surf and cook with passion, this is inspirational country whether you draw your inspiration from the land, the sea or the passion of producers.
Howell loves having the international guests each year and they love to come to the south-west.
“I took Heston surfing and he said it was one of the best days of his life,” Howell says.
There are over 40 surf spots along the coast to choose from, ranging from beginner to pro. Fancy a beer after taking on the waves? The south-west has a wide range of boutique brewers to help you out. Eagle Bay Brewing collects rainwater to make its pale ale, kolsch and Vienna brews. Over at Colonial Brewing it’s Small Ale is a refreshing and fun “like a punch up the nose with a tangerine”, it also comes in a radical new can design that you will be seeing on other beers very soon.
Chef Paul Iskov has created a pop-up dining company that uses the best produce year round, Iskov forages in the south-west. “We try to organise a tour with an elder or someone who can take us on a cultural tour, we learn a lot more and we are able to ask for permission,” Iskov, displaying a respect for the land that is common with the chefs in the region.
Iskov is also a regular further south at the Taste Great Southern that takes place in the towns of Albany, Denmark, Mt. Barker and Frankland River. Events include the “lunch by the lake” with a noted chef, Albany’s Seafood Night Markets and Porongurup Wine Festival.
Wine is obviously one of the biggest features of the region with Margaret River alone home to more than 220 wine producers alone with more than 100 cellar doors to choose from including the venerable Vasse Felix where chef Aaron Carr was recently crowned the West Australian Good Food Guide’s Chef of the Year in 2015.
Carr was another talent lured down south by the lifestyle, the surfing, the beauty and the sense of community.
“I live five minutes from Castle Bay Beach, and you don’t always appreciate it when you live here, but when you bring people from London or overseas they are amazed by it,” he says.
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