Last summer Don Monk and his partner Charlotte temporarily closed their restaurant (the Old Cable Station) in Stanley and started a pop up restaurant at Spring Vale Vineyard on the east coast of Tassie. The locally sourced produce, all cooked in their wood fired oven, combined with the delicious Spring Vale wines and the spectacular setting – nestled right in amongst the vines – provided us with a number of those “life doesn’t get any better than this” moments. As soon as you’re greeted by Don – normally as you enter the restaurant and pass by his glowing wood fire oven – you get the feeling that you’re in for a friendly and fun dining experience. By the end you’ll swear that you’ve known him all your life and that you’re ready to throw in whatever job you’ve worked hard to establish to come and wash dishes for him.
As plans are being finalised for the pop up to reopen this spring (given the success of last year it would be rude if it didn’t), in this next instalment of our catch up with the chefs and cooks who are shaping the Tasmanian food scene we pick Don’s brain about all things food.
What is it about wood fired ovens that makes the food taste so good?
If you have ever experienced fresh produce cooked in a wood fired oven, you’ve undoubtedly noticed a significant taste difference. In part, the enhanced flavour that wood-fired cooking offers is due to even heat distribution. In addition, cooking in a wood fired oven imparts a unique, smoky flavour that is impossible to replicate with a traditional commercial or domestic oven.
You straddle the line between chef and front of house, do you have a preference?
The front of house and chef/cook rolls in our restaurant business at Spring Vale Vineyard are very much linked to the experience we have created for our guests and I enjoy both facets. I believe that our experience brings the chef/cook into the dinning space to interact with the guests and creates a point of difference in what we do. I also love to have a chat and I enjoy cooking and plating great food - I get a fix of both in our pop up experience.
What are the benefits of a pop up restaurant as opposed to a permanent restaurant?
The unique experience and intimate feel lent by a pop up restaurant is the reason for their popularity across the country at the moment. Having the restaurant literally perched on the edge of the vines in Spring Vale’s “A” block is pretty special. The “wow’ factor works really well - when guests stumble across our experience in the vineyard they are more often than not blown away at having found a hidden gem.
What Tasmanian produce are you enjoying at the moment?
The “pop up” experience at Spring Vale will be re-opening in early November and my partner Charlotte and I have been playing with some new menu ideas during the winter months. Green lip mussels, pacific oysters and fresh Tasmanian scallops are in perfect condition on the coast at the moment and will be during the early part of the season. Simple fresh produce cooked in the wood oven served without pretence !
What is it about food and wine that make for such a perfect partnership?
Food and wine are natural bedfellows that have a long history of partnership at the table. Historically in many countries wine was often enjoyed as a safer drink compared to local water which carried various diseases, and wine was matched with whatever food was available. As agricultural and culinary traditions developed, so too did winemaking traditions and today alliances have been developed between local food and wine offerings and these alliances have come to define their epicurean culture we enjoy today!
What is your favourite drop at the moment?
Spring Vale Vineyard 2015 Sauvignon Blanc is my current favourite drop. A well crafted and beautifully balanced wine with intense passionfruit, golden delicious apple aromas and subtle savoury palate, perfect with Chill Mussells.
What is your food guilty pleasure?
Hot Chocolate Fondant Pudding served with salted caramel ice cream, just amazing!
What are the must have items in your kitchen?
Fresh produce is the key to my cooking and this combined with the creativity that my partner Charlotte brings to that produce giving it flare and life on the plate in a simple no fuss way. For me it’s all about the produce and not fussing with it. If you start with quality it’s pretty hard to mess it up.
How would you describe the Tasmanian food scene right now. What can we do to make it better?
The Tassie food scene right now in vibrant, creative and bold. We have some great eateries in every corner of the state with passionate restaurateurs creating environments for chefs to shine. For me once again, the access to fresh seasonal produce is making our job of putting good food in a good environment with good service very easy to attain and maintain.
We have dropped the ball in a major way at the training level of hospitality and catering service and we are also at risk of losing the agricultural, fishing and processing expertise again due to a lack of training. As a priority, this needs to be addressed urgently.
If you could only eat one style of food for the rest of your life what would it be?
Thai food is a big favourite of mine and I also love provincial Italian cuisine. It’s hard this one. Let’s sit with Thai.
What dish would you cook to impress your wife?
My partner Charlotte love my curries, she is very fond of the “Butter Chicken” I make. I also do a stunning “Sunday Roast” my grandmas potatoes are pretty special - Charlotte loves a good roast.
Wood fired pizza or wood fired crayfish?
Wood oven roasted Crayfish by a country mile.
What’s your advice for anyone wanting to get into the food scene?
The food scene is not for the faint hearted. Keep your focus on having a significant point of difference in the food you create, the service you provide and the ambience that surrounds these ingredients.
Pan Seared Tasmania Scallops (serves 2 people) a light lunch or a lovely entrée.
· 200 gms of Fresh Tasmania Scallops ( well drained)
· ¼ cup of finely chopped curly leaf parsley
· A single shot of “ Pernod “ (can be substituted with a dry white wine, Chardonnay works very well)
· 1 cup of fresh cream
· A pinch of Tasman Sea Salt and a pinch freshly ground black pepper
· A splash of Freycinet Olive Oil and a small nob of butter.
· In a skillet fry pan, add the Olive Oil, the nob of butter and heat over a high flame.
· When the oil , butter and salt and pepper start to crackle add the scallops and toss gently over the high heat until they start to turn opaque ( we don’t want them over cooked and turning into rubber marbles )
· Add the shot of Pernod to the hot pan it should ignite with the heat as it is pretty potent on the alcohol side!
· Once the flames burn off add the cream and poach the scallops for a further 20 seconds.
· Remove the scallops from the pan, place into a serving bowl leaving the heat high under the sauce you have just created until it comers to the boil and thickens to a pouring consistency.
· Pour the sauce over the scallops, sprinkle with fresh parsley and a pinch of pepper, serve with a rustic piece of baguette.