It is early autumn and the Ovens River slides quietly over the rocks below the gardens of Ginger Baker. It is one of the long warm days that make up a perfect Indian summer. A rustic post-and-rail fence mark out the sprawling courtyard garden, shaded by a towering elm. Widely spaced tables and dry bars gives the outdoor space a resort style feel. The head chef at this popular riverside wine bar and café, Ganesh Luitel, arrives for work after a morning bike ride on the quiet country roads. ‘I so much love living here,’ the Nepalese-born chef says. ‘The mountains and the rivers remind me of where I come from. It is so beautiful. Here there is such a sense of beauty and tranquillity.’
Sitting at a table under the shade of an old elm he tells of the culinary journey he has undertaken since he came to Australia to study commercial cookery in 2009. ‘After leaving college I went to work at the Atlantic in Docklands,’ he says. Working for this large and critically acclaimed restaurant and catering group he developed a diverse range of skills focusing around seafood, for which Atlantic has established a very solid reputation. Ganesh’s platter of mussels is a great example of this. Plump, fresh blue mussels are cooked in a broth redolent of dry sherry and the deep flavour of bay leaf then dressed with a chiffonade of green herbs. With a side of fresh bread to sop up the briny juices it is a lovely little dish. Served with a chilled glass of Stanton and Killeen chardonnay it makes a very pleasant light meal.
Ganesh was also a fixture at Ilona Stella in the funky dining strip of Carlisle Street in Melbourne’s East St Kilda. This writer remembers him well, peering keenly from behind the pass of the open kitchen into the packed dining room, making sure the diners were enjoying themselves. We loved his Deep Fried Calamari, a dish he has brought to Ginger Baker. Succulent pieces of perfectly seasoned calamari, dusted in semolina that forms a golden crust, nestle alongside a salad of crisp lettuce, bitey jalapeño peppers, spring onion, spicy chilli jam and a soothing, creamy aioli.
The preparation of food was an important part of Ganesh’s upbringing. His grandfather Nilkanth was a dairyman with herds of goats and buffalo from whose milk he would make dahi (the Nepalese yoghurt). He references this with a healthy serve of fresh vanilla-infused yoghurt served alongside house-made granola, served with seasonal berries, shaved coconut and golden slices of caramelised banana. One of his most popular dishes is a pile of Ricotta Hotcakes christened with a generous pour of maple syrup, a hearty dollop of mascarpone, crowned with toasted pistachios, fresh berries, almond flakes and some slow-cooked fig jam.
As the warm start to autumn gives way to shorter days and cooler nights the team at Ginger Baker are preparing for winter mode. The great custom-built steel fireplaces are stoked with hardwood to warm the sheltered atrium and the menu is set to change again. Ganesh is excited about cooking with goat.
‘It is a big part of Nepalese cuisine,’ he says. In cold months Ganesh makes a succulent goat braise, cooked with wine and sweet vegetables that is a perfect dish served on brisk evenings in Bright. A glass of Campbells Maker and Three, a soft and fruity shiraz blended with durif and tempranillo, is a perfect match.
Ganesh excels at this skill of layering flavours and textures. His Creamy Chicken & Mushroom Barley Risotto incorporates several types of parmesan to add flavour and clean sharpness. ‘Seasonal food is so important to cuisine,’ he says thoughtfully. ‘I think that produce in season is so important to the flavour and nutrition of food. That is why I use the best produce I can source. Ultimately the best flavour and nutrition comes from using the best produce.’
127 Great Alpine Road, Bright, Victoria
Tel 03 5755 2300