Chef Julian Hills looks out of the window of the dining room at Paringa Estate Winery. He shares the same view through the kitchen pass of the winery restaurant, perched on the eastern slopes of the Mornington Peninsula 60 kilometres south of Melbourne.
It has been a warm, dry autumn. The rains are yet to come. Julian is keen to get out into the native stringybark and plantation pine forests of the central peninsula for that is where the fungi are. Julian is a keen forager but not one to wear it on his sleeve like a coterie of well-known city chefs who market their roadside scrumping as the foundation of their cuisine.
Instead Julian is a cool-climate chef. He has that innate understanding, a sense of place. He grew up in not dissimilar country in the Strzelecki Ranges in Gippsland to the east of Melbourne, where his parents had a small farm raising a few sheep on the grass that thrives in the dark, chocolaty soil. ‘As a kid I fished for native blackfish in the creek,’ says the softly spoken chef. ‘I shot rabbits and brought them home for the family pot and in autumn, spent hours carefully treading the paddocks and forests for mushrooms.’
Back then, the life of a hunter and collector was more about love of the land than an obsession with fine dining. Cooking was not his first choice as a career. A degree in fine art saw him spend hours in front of the potter’s wheel before the call of the kitchen became too much. He learned his skills at Melbourne institutions such as The European, Middle Brighton Baths and expanded his knowledge with overseas travel before returning to work in 2009 as head chef at the then well established The Courthouse in North Melbourne.
‘I travelled for two years,’ he says. ‘I learned so much from that experience, the way the Peruvians prepare their food … or not,’ he says, referring to the no-cook, lime juice fish dish called ceviche. ‘I also spent a lot of time in the USA. My parents are American. There is so much about American culture, especially their food culture that we don’t get to see here in Australia.’ He explains that though the US has food regions with a rich history of cooking, styles change from one valley or bay to another. ‘To me every day became a learning day.’
While travelling down to the Mornington Peninsula he fell in love with the green rolling hills, the forest-clad uplands and the secluded coves of Western Port Bay. ‘My wife and I wanted to move here,’ he says. Two days later he saw a job ad in the paper for a head chef at Paringa Estate. ’We had been in the cellar door only a few days before!’ he says.
That was 2011. Julian is now a local and knows the back lanes and old bullock dray tracks of the region like the back of his hand. He has established relationships with local landholders to secure his supply of autumn mushrooms and has spent time learning from the local Bunurong Aboriginal people about local ingredients. ‘We have a lot of local native plants down here,’ he says. He mentions saltbush, native celery, oyster leaf and several different sorts of kelp. When asked where he forages he grins. ‘If I told you…’
The McCall family has been making cool-climate wines at Paringa Estate since the 1980s, winning awards for their Burgundian styles of chardonnay and pinot noir. These wines form the backbone of the restaurant wine list and it is these wines that Julian’s food must complement, counterpoint and marry. Julian’s philosophy is to use the best produce available – local and seasonal is a given – so the menu changes like the weather as he makes produce ‘the highlight, not the meal’.
The week before he received a shipment of fresh Bass Strait bugs from Lakes Entrance, a tasty crustacean yielding very little tail meat. Instead of predictably adding the meat to a pasta sauce, he roasted the bugs in salt, removed the tail meat, and crushed the shells to make a bisque so reduced he refers to it as ‘seafood Vegemite’, a little of which was served with the bug meat.
What Julian leaves unspoken is his masterful understanding of taste and what the Japanese refer to as umami. Housemade bread with and anchovy butter to start combine yeast and fermented fish flavours to create a background savoury hum for the first sip of chardonnay, which is all about fresh fruit, subtle acid structure and a background of French oak. A disk of cooked grains forms a bed for fine slices of snapper, smoked over paper bark, and slivers of golden beetroot to create a dish that is elemental – earth, smoke and sea. There are deep purple octopus tentacles, furled like young ferns, chargrilled and served with a base note potato and chorizo puree, wedges of Cape gooseberry and a seascape of foraged samphire and sea celery.
It’s the mix of the pure flavours of the ingredients themselves and a lifetime of learned technique that comes together on the plate in cohesive understatement. It is accomplished and intelligent cooking acknowledged year after year by the food judges and a faithful regular clientele. Still, Julian doesn’t seem content. He’s looking out to the horizon for the weather to change. With clouds comes rain and with rain come the mushrooms.
Cellar Door 11am-5pm daily,
Restaurant open for lunch Wed to Sun, for dinner Fri & Sat
44 Paringa Road, Red Hill South, Victoria
Tel 03 5989 2669