Cool climate flavours

By Louise Johnson

January 12th, 2009

There's an inherent relationship between the seasons and dining when you step into Australia's regional areas. Salix chef Bernard McCarthy has found the seasons and the cool climate wines produced by sister vineyard Willow Creek have defined the restaurant's style of food.

"I see quite a defined style of food that doesn't really change. Only the ingredients and what's fresh changes. I think that's inherent in a cool climate region where you have chardonnay and delicious pinot. There's always game flavours on, there's always duck, quail, there's hare, there's venison and these things marry beautifully with our pinot noirs and then fresh things like scallops and great abalone, what I call really clean flavours to match our chardonnay," he says.

Bernard's background is in fine dining, training in Melbourne institutions such as Fanny's and Haskins & Tansys before taking on his first head chef role at Madame Jo Joe's in St Kilda. He was part of the launch team for The Hairy Cannary in Little Collins Street, famous for bringing tapas style dining to Melbourne. After a stint in Shanghai and Western Australia, Bernard and his wife Rachael have settled on the Mornington Peninsula with their family. Rachael manages special events, including weddings and corporate functions for Salix while Bernard drives the kitchen for Salix Restaurant and the tapas menu available at the cafe and Willow Creek's cellar door.

Salix isn't trying to be anything more than an excellent vineyard restaurant. In 2008 they won the best restaurant in a winery category for the inaugural Mornington Peninsula Regional Awards for Excellence  and the Victorian State Award for Excellence. Bernard says he is long past striving to copy dining trends. "I like to think that I have my own style that doesn't need to follow all the time. I'm confident in the way I cook and so I don't need to think about which style is better. I just like what I do."

Living on the Peninsula you can't help but become part of the community and Bernard has developed much more of a relationship with local growers than he ever had working as a city chef.

"You lose touch with the seasons sometimes in the cities. But here, especially when the seasons change, you notice new produce coming on and other things becoming hard to get," says Bernard. And so the menu changes to match.

"It is more of a community feel. We live in an orchard really and so it's important to actually know the grower and get it straight from them, it's just a nice way to live too. 

"Chefs bang on about these new philosophies - seasonal, fresh and whatever, but the regions just do it. We don't have all these menus saying produce grown within 100 kilometres, naming the producers and saying it's free range. It's just what regions do because we do have that resource. We just say "local" and it is local. It's from Max. He brings it to the back door."

The kitchen is driven by the seasons also. Everything at Salix is created from scratch - every chutney, preserve, bread and pastry is made on the premises. "We have to down here. Winter is quiet and you need to be able to maintain your staff at that time of the year. In summer we are doing hundreds of covers a day and then in winter you might do 20, so you have got to make sure that staff are still learning all those skills to get through the quiet time."

Working on a winery means wine also drives the menu, with gamey flavours often featuring to complement the cool climate pinot noir and chardonnays from Willow Creek Vineyard. "Often grapes from the vineyard are used in cooking too, though it's such a small window of opportunity when they are picking to get out and grab some," he says.

So the Salix menu is produce driven. "It's a cliche," he says, "but that's what it is. It's what I do. Then I cook that produce with skill and then present it in its natural form and in that way I let the food reflect. I know that the eye does eat the food first but it's also how the whole dish tastes to me and I'm one to take an ingredient out, not to put an ingredient in. So I look at a dish and then I'll take something out of it. I don't think that adding ingredients actually adds to the dish."


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