Ac­claimed chef James Viles of Biota re­counts his early years in Scone in the NSW Hunter Val­ley and the trip that changed his life and ca­reer for­ever.


Country Style - - CONTENTS - Biota Din­ing is at 18 Kan­ga­loon Road, Bowral, NSW. (02) 4862 2005; bio­ta­din­

THE COUN­TRY TOWN of Bowral in the NSW South­ern High­lands is beau­ti­ful all year round, but es­pe­cially so in au­tumn. “Three weeks ago, those trees were green. Now they’re red — and how amaz­ing do they look?” says James Viles, ges­tur­ing out­side from the bar of his restau­rant, Biota Din­ing. “But you know what? I might not have no­ticed them be­fore.” By ‘be­fore’, he means prior to his six-year stint as a chef in the Mid­dle East. Given the pro­found ef­fect the time away had on him, it’s not sur­pris­ing he talks about the ex­pe­ri­ence of­ten. “I went there at age 24 think­ing, ‘What, I get a com­pany car and a house? This is the bee’s knees!’ But it wasn’t. I had 110 chefs and five restau­rants, and I’d sit in an of­fice all day, or­der­ing food from nine dif­fer­ent coun­tries that just ar­rived on the load­ing dock the next week. There was no con­nec­tion with the food; some­times I wouldn’t even see it. And yet I was still wear­ing a chef’s uni­form. But I guess some­times we need to do some­thing that’s not right to re­alise what is.” It’s fair to say he missed Aus­tralia. “Of course I did!” he laughs. “I missed our free­dom and our easy­go­ing way of life, our parks, our trees, our sea­sons. I’m sur­rounded by in­spi­ra­tion here. I walk around with fresh eyes ev­ery day now be­cause of the life­style I led over there.” Ul­ti­mately, it’s what pro­vided the mo­ti­va­tion for Biota, which opened in 2011 with a fo­cus on lo­cal pro­duce and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the folk who grow it, those who cook it and the lucky ducks who get to en­joy it. It also means James has been able to re­con­nect with his ru­ral roots. Born on Syd­ney’s North Shore, James was two years old when he and his par­ents moved to Scone, in the Up­per Hunter Val­ley, where his two younger sis­ters were born. Ten years later, the fam­ily upped sticks and headed to Bowral, where his par­ents still live to­day. James now lives on the NSW Cen­tral Coast, where his wife, Polly, is from, along with their two young chil­dren. His daily com­mute to Bowral and back means leav­ing home — an old beach shack the cou­ple has been grad­u­ally ren­o­vat­ing — at 5.30am. “I work all the time, from 8am till mid­night and l’m al­ways trav­el­ling, too,” he says with a shrug. “But it means when I am home, it’s qual­ity time. I can’t go in to work, so I’m fo­cused on the kids.”

“I’m sur­rounded by in­spi­ra­tion. I walk around with fresh eyes ev­ery day.”

GROW­ING UP IN Scone, I was al­ways muddy. I loved be­ing out­doors — and I still love it. I don’t even re­mem­ber our TV. I’m sure we had one, but I was al­ways out­side. We had a big old cedar house on acreage, and I re­mem­ber wak­ing up in the morn­ing and there would be kan­ga­roos out the front, box­ing. My sis­ters played to­gether while I’d go off and do my own thing. I’d go miss­ing for an en­tire day some­where on our prop­erty, rid­ing my bike and building cub­bies in­side wil­low trees. There was a lot of space, rolling pad­docks and dirt roads. We had pet sheep, goats and dogs. It was a beau­ti­ful life. It’s hard to imag­ine now, but I was the tini­est kid at school, with the skin­ni­est legs you’ve ever seen, socks pulled right up to my knees, and glasses. And I was as thick as they come! I loved wood­work and cadets, but most of my mem­o­ries of school are that it was a chore. It’s not that I was naughty — but I didn’t lis­ten. I wasn’t very aca­demic; I had a fruit­ful mind, and I was al­ways think­ing about other things. >

I was 11 or 12 when we moved to Bowral, and I got a job af­ter school in the butcher’s shop in town, wash­ing up and mak­ing sausages. I couldn’t wait for school to fin­ish ev­ery day be­cause I couldn’t wait to go to work — it was some­thing I could do with my hands. I don’t re­mem­ber get­ting paid; the money just went in a bank ac­count, but I used to get paid in meat, too. My mate and I would ride our mo­tor­bikes all week­end and then have a big bar­be­cue with all this meat I’d earned. That’s when the food thing started for me. From there, I took a part-time job in the kitchen at a five-star ho­tel in Bowral. It was a very dif­fer­ent world to the one I grew up in. I en­joyed be­ing there, with adults… and I heard a lot of words I’d never heard be­fore! It all seemed very ex­otic — the head chef was Amer­i­can and the sous chef was from Italy. I lived for that on the week­ends. Af­ter a while, they got me mak­ing canapés for the guests. I’d go out back then there was no spe­cial name for it. Th­ese days, they put la­bels on ev­ery­thing. The word ‘for­age’ makes me laugh! It’s ridicu­lous. My book [ Biota: Grow, Gather, Cook, $59.99, Mur­doch Books] is 250 pages and I’ve man­aged not to use the word once. At school, I took up home eco­nomics so that I could eat some­thing de­cent, be­cause my mum and dad don’t re­ally cook. A few of us en­tered a com­pe­ti­tion for young cooks, and I had to make an en­trée, main and dessert, all us­ing egg­plant. The dessert was an egg­plant panna cotta. It was foul! Just think­ing about it makes me want to gag. Maybe they felt sorry for me, but I ended up win­ning it, and I was of­fered an ap­pren­tice­ship at the ho­tel I’d been work­ing at. I was only 14, so I had to get ap­proval from my par­ents, the school prin­ci­pal and the ed­u­ca­tional de­part­ment to say I could leave school be­fore I was meant to. We went to buy a uni­form from John­son’s Over­alls, the big old chef’s out­fit­ters on Ge­orge Street in Syd­ney. I was a whip­pet — my voice hadn’t bro­ken yet and I only weighed about 36 kilo­grams — and they didn’t have any­thing to fit me. I had to get it all cus­tom made. I was the tini­est thing you’ve ever seen in a chef’s uni­form. And that was the end of my child­hood. You leave school and you leave your friends be­hind. In­stead, I was work­ing my arse off, break­fast, lunch and din­ner five days a week… for $162! I never went to par­ties. I never had an eigh­teenth party. I missed all the stuff that other kids were do­ing. I don’t want my chil­dren to miss out like I did. Where we live now, by the beach, our kids have a dif­fer­ent life to the one I had. My daugh­ter has a lit­tle surf­board and she’s en­rolled in Nip­pers next year. I can’t surf to save my­self, but I’m sure there are lots of kids that can’t ride mo­tor­bikes or horses like I did. I loved my child­hood; I’ve got a lot of great mem­o­ries. But grow­ing up in kitchens def­i­nitely changed me. As a boy, I was a bit of a scaredy-cat and quite sen­si­tive. I tough­ened up, and I learnt to put my feel­ings on a plate.

you’ve ar­rived at Prom Coun­try Cheese. Farm­ers and cheese­mak­ers Burke and Bron­wyn Bran­don, who live here with their chil­dren, Michael, 16, and Ka­t­rina, 14, and a flock of 400 dairy sheep, were just as struck by the land­scape when they first saw the Mo­yarra farm in 2011. “We knew at some point we wanted to have a cel­lar door for our cheese, so we wanted some­where ap­peal­ing and in­ter­est­ing. It just grabbed us,” says Burke. Hav­ing met at agri­cul­tural col­lege and af­ter work­ing with Burke’s cheese­maker par­ents at Red Hill Cheese on the Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula, buy­ing the farm and pro­duc­ing their own milk for their own cheese seemed a log­i­cal next step… as did the sheep. “It’s not for ev­ery­one,” laughs Bron­wyn, “and of­ten we think we’re crazy do­ing what we do, but we both feel we know and un­der­stand sheep. And they’re not only good for cheese­mak­ing, but they’re good for the coun­try. The pad­docks have im­proved since we started run­ning sheep, rather than cat­tle, here.” The days start early for the cou­ple. In spring, when milk pro­duc­tion is at its peak, they meet 200 or so of their East Friesian-cross ewes at the con­verted dairy any time from 4.30am. While it’s com­mon in dairy­ing to em­ploy staff to do the milk­ing, for Burke and Bron­wyn, th­ese early starts are vi­tal to the suc­cess of both the farm and their cheese. “I do most of the cheese­mak­ing, and Bron the farm work, but it’s im­por­tant for us both to be milk­ing,” says Burke. “I’m not only in touch with the milk, what the sheep are eat­ing and all the other things that af­fect the qual­ity of the cheese, but this mob of sheep is the foun­da­tion of our whole busi­ness. With­out them, noth­ing else hap­pens.” >

cap­tur­ing about “We’re­all com­plex the ful­land you themilk… flavour­sof taste the def­i­nitely can our cheese.” sea­sons in

You can sense the af­fec­tion Burke and Bron­wyn have for their herd — and the feel­ing is mu­tual. “They’re good girls,” smiles Bron­wyn. “A lot of them come for a scratch af­ter milk­ing. We’ve got some very friendly ones.” Burke adds: “We’re still milk­ing some that we’ve had since 2009. When they’ve been in the herd for that long, they’re pretty spe­cial.” Once the milk vat is full, Burke tows it up to his cheese­mak­ing building. Also housed here are ripen­ing ‘caves’ and a cel­lar door where vis­i­tors can sam­ple cheese, along with the farm-reared lamb, Bron’s freshly baked bread, and lo­cal pre­serves and wines. With cheese now made three or four times a week (“We’ll reach our goal of pro­duc­ing 12,500 kilo­grams a year this year,” says Burke), the fact that home is just a stroll away means Burke can eas­ily head back up to the fac­tory at night to salt curds or turn cheeses if needed, “al­though I do of­ten think of hav­ing a bed up here!” The sea­sonal cy­cle of milk­ing sheep is more pro­nounced than with dairy cows; peak pro­duc­tion falls from an av­er­age of 2.5 litres per sheep in spring to about a fifth of that in au­tumn, then ev­ery­one takes a break in win­ter be­fore lamb­ing be­gins in spring. Em­brac­ing th­ese sea­sonal ebbs and flows is some­thing Burke is pas­sion­ate about. “Be­cause our sheep are pas­ture-fed, all our cheeses have a fresh­ness to them. Then, in spring, when there are a lot of sug­ars in the milk, the cheeses are brighter and stronger. In au­tumn, the milk is more con­cen­trated and creamier. We’re all about cap­tur­ing the full and com­plex flavours of the milk… you can def­i­nitely taste the sea­sons in our cheese.” So, where to next for the Bran­dons? “We don’t want to get big­ger; we just want to stream­line. Be­cause ev­ery­thing is hand­made, a lot of what we do is by in­tu­ition and feel, but this means it is also dif­fi­cult to teach.” What about the kids — are they keen to carry on the fam­ily busi­ness? “They do a lot of the feed­ing af­ter school and on week­ends, and are our as­sis­tants in the fac­tory and the shop. They’re a big help but they don’t re­alise they en­joy it… yet!” Burke smiles. “But they’re our big­gest cheese fans.”

FROM LEFT A fam­ily por­trait in Scone of James (left) with dad Iain, mum Cathy, and lit­tle sis­ter Kelly; hol­i­day­ing with Kelly in 1985 at Sala­man­der Bay; all smiles and splashes aged two and a half.

FROM LEFT Puppy love with Roger the Jack Rus­sell; out­door play­time in Scone with sis­ters, Kelly (left),

The Bran­dons fell in love with the stunning land­scape when they first saw the farm five years ago. “We loved the back­drop of the hills,” re­calls Burke.

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