Photograph by Jayne Newgreen
I sometimes wonder how much longer I can abstain from the restaurant scene. Lately I get seriously toey when I flick through a new cook book or magazine. I am becoming extremely critical when I dine out and think,” I’m sure I could have cooked that dish with a little more finesse.” I may need therapy because who would seriously want to spend 80 to 100 hours a week, smelling like animal entrails, deafened from exhaust fans and stamped with an assortment of burns, broken nails, calloused feet and lemon juice marinated finger injuries. Who would want to throw themselves into the hell fire of a booked out service on a 38 degrees day wearing a double breasted jacket with long sleeves and freshly ironed hound’s-tooth pants. ME. I want it all and spending a few hours with The Avoca Hotel's head chef Christopher Howe has just ignited my passion like a brulee torch on free range methane.
2014 has been a great year for you Christopher, you are very much in the lime light as one of Victoria’s leading chefs, can you share a few of the high lights?
I'm certainly not sure about being 'one of Victoria’s leading chefs', although it's definitely something to aspire to. A few of this year’s highlights would have to include being reviewed by Larissa Dubecki and subsequently receiving a mention in The Age Good Food Guide for 2015, the first for the hotel. Also further recognition for The Avoca in this years Golden Plate Awards, taking out the award for Best Hotel in the State for the second year running. Other highlights are less obvious - hearing diners trying and enjoying something new to them is always rewarding.
You trained with Richard Mee at Macarto are you from the Hepburn region?
No, I'm born and bred in Melbourne. Growing up, some close relatives owned a holiday house, a sweet little miners cottage just outside Daylesford so school holidays were often spent exploring the area. During my 20's my girlfriend at the times mother lived in the town, and we would visit often. So you could say I have had a long affinity with the region. When considering making the career change to commence an apprenticeship and train to become a chef, Daylesford was firmly on my radar.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to be apprenticed to Richard Mee. I cannot speak in a high enough regard for his skills, professionalism, passion and ability to teach. I also commend him for taking on me as a first year apprentice at age 37. I would not be where I am now in my cooking without his support and tutelage.
What other restaurants have played a part in your career as a chef?
None directly (I've only ever worked at Mercato for my apprenticeship, then at The Avoca as Head Chef), however many indirectly. I have been interested in food for a long time, and over the years I have had the opportunity to dine at some outstanding restaurants both here and overseas. Often it is not the famous or hatted restaurants that I find the most rewarding. In my previous career I was fortunate enough to spend a considerable amount of time on assignment in Japan, one of the most inspiring restaurants I've ever experienced was a little modern place in Hiroshima call The Paragon with an open kitchen cooking Japanese - Chinese fusion. The dishes were astounding and I still recall and find inspiration in those experiences daily, however unfortunately the restaurant is no longer there.The chefs that have played the biggest part in my development as a cook would be Teague Ezard both at Guernica and Ezards, Ben Shewry at Attica, and more recently Kazuki-san at Kazuki's. That said, I can learn from observing a hawker making awesome char kway teow in the back streets of Georgetown!
Three things that Richard taught you that you do every day?
1/. Make everything from scratch
2/. Respect the flavour of the main ingredient - let it shine, don't overcomplicate it
3/. Mise en place, mise en place, mise en place!
Do you feel you have developed your own style of cooking at the Avoca? How would you describe the style?
I'd like to think I have.
As the Head Chef at the only pub in a town of a thousand people, in a great community which is the centre of a wonderful and highly regarded wine region I see my role as to not only meet the needs and the expectations of both the locals and those travelling through, but to push them and challenge them a little too. As a result we run three menus - the bar, a seasonal dining room menu and a weekly specials board that broaches both. This approach allows the kitchen to experiment and push the boundaries of what customers may expect to find in a country pub, whilst also ensuring those who desire classic pub staples are not disappointed. Hence my food at The Avoca is tricky to define, at its edgiest I draw much from Asian cuisine however I am very interested in indigenous foods and flavours, and I passionately attempt to weave the concept of terroir as it pertains to food through my dishes. I guess my style when I push the envelope in somewhere in between.
The owners of The Avoca - Alison and Ian are completely supportive of this concept as can be evidenced in their offerings of real craft beers and handpicked spirits both local and from around the globe, and their one-eyed dogged philosophy of only stocking wines in which the fruit was grown in the Pyrenees region. I'd like to think I pay homage to that though my cooking.
What is your favourite world cuisine?
If I had to name one, Japanese. The respect, the consideration, the simplicity, the history, the depth, the aesthetic, the flavour is inspirational. I have so much to learn.
What area of the kitchen are you most happy working in?
Obviously in the kitchen at The Avoca one must wear many hats. If I had to pick a single section it would be on oven or pans, I like to be in the thick of the action.
What are the tools you couldn’t live without?
Being a small country pub we do not have many fancy toys to play with, so I'll hang on to my 25cm Japanese Damascus chef's knife, F. Dick boning knife, and our little ice cream churner that enables my to surprise diners with flavours they've never heard of before, let alone eaten.
Looking back over the last few years are there some food trends that are in your opinion done to death?
Living and working where and the way I do, I don't get to eat out anywhere as much as I used to so I honestly do not consider myself being in a position to have a strong opinion. That said dude food, mason jars, crates or cooking something sous vide just for the sake of it, rather than an obvious benefit would make an appearance on my hit list.
What are you looking forward to trying in 2015?
Prosciutto from our home raised pigs that we slaughtered, butchered and processed and hung for 12 months on site. I can hardly wait!
I'm looking forward to meeting a rising consumer demand to know more about where their food comes from, how it was grown or raised, its variety or breed and its inherent characteristics, how it was processed, and what it took to get it to them.
I'm looking forward to a conversation regarding tenderness vs. flavour in meat. Which is more important and how do we as chefs provide that balance?
I'm looking forward to a solid clarification of the term 'Free Range' in all relevant products so that we can offer choices that our customers can trust.
An increase in locals growing fruit and veg, especially heirloom varieties for the pub and tentatively fronting up to the bar asking Ian and Alison if they happen to need anything.
Playing and learning more with pickling, brining and ferments, age old crafts, long ignored, now resurfacing.
What have been the most popular dishes at The Avoca This year?
Why the house-made chicken parmigiana of course! We are a country pub after all.
Seriously, in the dining room the dishes I get the most positive feedback for this year were for the Waubra venison tataki, the white miso basted kangaroo with shiitake, and the constantly revolving Tuki lamb special, that lamb is so good!
Have you recovered from Christmas lunch? Was it at the Avoca or did you manage to escape and enjoy some great Australian Wine or beer and A cricket match?
Always tricky working in hospitality, following my Christmas eve dinner service at The Avoca I'll join Jayne's extended family on the Mornington Peninsula for a lunch of amazing crayfish and abalone care of Jayne's dad, a passionate diver. Duck, turkey, ham will be on offer, along with numerous tasty salads and sides. There will be more food than people can eat! As the majority of guests drive on the day the wine selection is sufficient and the beers are lights. Still a couple of cracker bottles seem to always be absorbed by a few discerning diners.