CUISINE OF THE SUN
QUALIA’s executive chef Stephane Rio describes his food as Australian with a French twist. The expatriate Frenchman grew up on a farm in Brittany and says he learned ‘‘ respect for fresh produce’’ from about the age of four when he started helping his parents pick beans and fruit, and make jam and preserves. He will ‘‘ never take food for granted’’.
Rio’s new job places him square centre ‘‘ in a Frenchman’s paradise’’. As we chat, spread out on cushioned sofas in the resort’s lofty Long Pavilion, he gestures towards the seemingly limitless blue of the sea. ‘‘ We are surrounded by water,’’ he says, ‘‘ and once guests have settled in and got over the dramatic view, they start thinking about what seafood might be on the menu.’’
The seas around Bowen, an hour north of the island, are a rich source of coral trout, sweetlip and snapper; Rio brings in bugs from Moreton Bay, sweet scallops from nearby Hervey Bay, black marrons from Western Australia and, from southeast Tasmania, his favourite variety of oysters, Pipe Clay Lagoon. He plans his menus about a week in advance but admits that the vagaries of island life and its dependence on freight can mean lastminute changes.
Rio is no stranger to island living. He has cooked at La Fontaine, the signature dining room on nearby Hayman Island, and the restaurant at Hamilton Island’s Beach Club, the main resort’s top-tier accommodation. He’s also worked in the Northern Territory, where he tells me he particularly enjoyed learning about indigenous herbs and healing plants.
Aside from his a la carte and sevencourse degustation menus at Qualia’s Long Pavilion, Rio offers a mixed grill on Thursday nights (expect kangaroo loin with native peppers amid the standard mix) at the waterside Pebble Beach dining pav- ilion and a seafood barbecue on Sundays.
Rio believes in one main flavour for every dish but likes to experiment, especially with herbs. Peppery Asian mint, pineapple sage and lemon myrtle are current favourites; lemon verbena even appears in a dessert soup.
And he clearly loves to spring the unexpected, such as fresh lychees sprinkled through salads. Palate cleansers between courses are of the ilk of Vietnamese mint sorbet with blood orange essence. Coral trout appears with crispy skin, crayfish cannelloni and shiitake mushroom broth; one of the most popular lunchtime dishes at Pebble Beach is a chermoula-spiced tiger prawn salad. It’s cuisine of the sun: light, bright and fresh. Tresdelicieuse . Susan Kurosawa
Exotic mix: Executive chef Stephane Rio