It’s an uneventful Wednesday afternoon in South Melbourne. Famed for its cafe culture, breakfast is the suburb’s busiest time, but at 2pm, The Kettle Black cafe is still a hive of activity. As diners continue to arrive, waiters flit from table to table and a barista expertly juggles the sudden influx of afternoon coffees.
Inside the kitchen it’s a similar scene. Chefs work like a well-oiled machine, plating up dish after dish under the watchful eye of head chef Jesse McTavish. His menu is an inspired tribute to Australia’s biodiversity, with native flora, fauna and seafood making appearances in refreshing and unexpected ways.
For McTavish, staying spontaneous is key to his culinary innovation. “I just jump in the car and go. I go down to the peninsula three or four times a week,” he says. “That’s where I find my inspiration – I don’t find it in the city, or going to other restaurants, I find it in nature.”
“The peninsula” is Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, an easy 86 kilometres from Melbourne’s CBD. With everything under control at The Kettle Black, McTavish hops in the BMW 2 Series Convertible, and we hit the road.
The son of surfboard pioneer Bob McTavish, innovation is in McTavish’s genes and the coast is a natural muse. “It’s my mental and creative escape,” he says. “I’ll leave work at 4pm and head down, then come back at 7pm.” When pressed for exactly where we’re headed, McTavish beams with excitement.
“I’ve got a couple of cracking spots. One where I find my wild mushrooms; pine mushrooms and slippery jacks, and a couple of places that I don’t tell anyone about.”
“That whole peninsula is amazing,” he continues. “It’s a real larder. There’s fennel growing on the side of the road, and I collect the seeds and dry them out. At The Kettle Black we’ll use them in our pulled pork, and in the cure for our ocean trout.”
Our first stop is a nondescript road in Red Hill. It’s not on the itinerary, but a small orange flower catches McTavish’s eye as we drive past. “There’s some sneaky nasturtiums up here,” he says, explaining as we pull over that both the flowers and the leaves are edible.
He gets out of the car and dashes through the thick grass. “Mind the thorns!” he says over his shoulder. Staying open to such spontaneous finds is what inspires McTavish. “Once I stopped to collect some nasturtium leaves on my way for a surf. Later in the day I saw a wallaby hopping through the sand dunes, and the experience prompted me to create a wallaby burger with nasturtium leaves and manchego cheese.”
As we head back to the car, McTavish plays down his innate ability to notice what others don’t. “Once you see stuff like this, you start to see it everywhere.”
We drop the roof and drive away. There’s a faint onion smell in the air. “There are plenty of onion flowers around here, too,” he says. “They always make me think of fish and cockles.”
Continuing to the ocean, McTavish guides the BMW 2 Series towards Shoreham, one of his favourite surf spots, and a great low-tide location for collecting seaweed.
No sooner have we arrived than McTavish is scooting across the rock pools barefoot, lifting up rocks. “I reckon there’s an octopus under that one,” he says. It can’t be moved, but under another we find prawns. Then crabs. As expected, there’s all kinds of seaweed, “This one’s got a real chilli heat to it – incredible!” says McTavish.
Our next discovery is a sea urchin; one that’s just too good to leave alone. McTavish picks it up with his bare hands and cracks it open, insisting we try the roe. “It’s just the most amazing thing,” he says.
We split a piece and it lives up to the hype. The texture is velvety soft and the flavour is unlike anything else. Putting McTavish on the spot, we ask what he’d do with it.“Oh that’s easy. I’d toss it through some fresh pasta, like butter. It’s such a stand-out flavour you want to keep it simple.”
As we make our way back to the car, McTavish darts toward a bunch of prickly pears growing on a cliff face. At The Kettle Black you’ll find the cactus fruit in muesli or yoghurt.
It’s 6pm as we head back to Melbourne, and his phone starts ringing incessantly. McTavish ignores it, prolonging his break from routine a little longer. “There’s this party I’m meant to go to,” he smiles. “But I don’t think I’ll go.” He’d rather stay home with his wife, digesting the day’s adventure and dreaming up new ideas. We pull into The Kettle Black just shy of 7pm and it goes without saying that the cafe’s next menu is almost made.
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