One small square of TarraWarra Estate’s 400 hectares – beyond the cellar door, restaurant and art gallery – is devoted to its vegetable garden.
Past the compost heap at the gate are rows of potatoes, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi and Tuscan kale, tended by a gardener twice a week.
Newly appointed head chef Mark Ebbels stands by the garden and points into the distance, toward the town he grew up in.
“Behind those trees there’s a little mountain with a tower on top of it,” he says. “That’s Toolangi.”
Ebbels was raised on a vegetable farm where his parents, who also grew up in Toolangi, propagate strawberries. He says he and his brother (an electrician) were the first generation to shun farming.
In 2010 Ebbels moved to the UK to work in the development kitchen at The Fat Duck, then to Singapore where he worked for six years as chef de cuisine at Bacchanalia, which was when the restaurant won its first Michelin star.
After a decade of fine-dining cooking, late last year Ebbels moved back to Toolangi to start a family before taking on the head-chef role at Tarrawarra.
“It’s an ideal job. You’ve got your own kitchen garden and the scope to make it larger. I put whatever I want on the menu,” he says.
Ebbels’s food is unpredictable and invigorating. A cryptic entree marries black beans, mandarin, black olives, cardamom and broccoli. It’s an apt introduction to what’s to come.
“The bitterness and astringency from the mandarin [helps] clean out the black bean,” Ebbels says. “And the saltiness from the olive … seasons the broccoli.”
No wonder Heston hired him.
Six of the 12 savoury dishes feature meat, but the chef eats a plant-based diet, bending only to taste dishes in the kitchen. The rest of the menu is vegan.
The butteriest sauces are butter-free; mayonnaise and chocolate mousse are made with whipped chickpea-cooking liquid in place of egg whites; a dessert of Jerusalem artichoke ice-cream and ale custard is devoid of cream and eggs.
A cauliflower dish is a veganised version of one Ebbels made at Bacchanalia. It’s a melted-snowman-looking blob in a bowl topped with shaved truffles; the smell grabs you instantly. Inside is a golden, Panko-crumbed nugget of cauliflower with a tarragon, parsley and lemon gremolata.
Ebbels poaches the florets in almond milk with bay leaves, thyme and nutmeg before they’re breaded and deep-fried. The reserved milk is then blended with truffle-paste confit potatoes to make the foam that covers the dish. It’s almost unbelievable there’s no dairy in it.
“When there’s juxtaposition or a point of difference that will bring you into the moment a bit more, then you start to be little more connected to what it is you’re eating and the place that you’re in,” Ebbels says.
The beef dish is spectacular. Instead of steak, the chef uses Blackmore’s 7+ score Wagyu short-rib off the bone. It’s sliced so the fat marbling is visible and served with a red wine jus made from cellar door leftovers. The pillow-soft meat is cut with a dinner knife – not a steak knife.
The short-rib is cooked for 48 hours using a hybrid confit-sous vide method. The meat is submerged in grapeseed oil in a tray that is lowered into water. The sous vide circulators sit in the water, swirling it at a steady 64 degrees to cook the meat evenly. This is done to eliminate the plastic bag from the sous vide process.
“The plastic bag is only there to create a really efficient heat transfer. There are other ways to do that once you calculate the temperature and the heat loss.”
There’s no cling film in the kitchen either; food is stored under silicon lids in the cool room. Ebbels is reducing plastics in the kitchen wherever possible, with a vision for a single-use-plastic-free restaurant – once he can find bulk dry goods and produce that don’t come wrapped in plastic.
He acknowledges that it’s a learning curve.
“When I took over, there were 1500 takeaway containers in the dry store,” Ebbels says. “It’ll take a while to go through those.”
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