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.
THE CULINARY WHIZ CHATS TO CERI DAVID ABOUT HIS LOVE OF THE GREAT OUTDOORS, HIS RURAL ROOTS AND HOW HE REALLY FEELS ABOUT FORAGING.
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.” >
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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.