“I was getting sick of going in to work every day and just flicking on the switch,” says James Viles, head chef and owner at Biota Dining & Rooms in Bowral, in the Southern Highlands. He’s explaining the motivation behind his upcoming Primitive Dinner for the NSW Food and Wine Festival. It’s a dinner using no energy other than what nature can provide and is the first of its kind in an Australian restaurant. But there’s a bit more to it than just wanting to rethink the use of electricity.
“We’re very lucky, we’ve got an amazing kitchen, one of the best in the country, but we’re also lucky enough that we can dig a hole [for a fire pit] outside our kitchen and burn on site as we want. Some kitchens just can’t do that, so I thought, let’s take advantage of what we do have, but also stop taking advantage at the same time.”
What grew out of this thinking was a dinner prepared by what Viles calls primitive means. There will be no electricity or gas used, and that affects everything from the preparation of the mise en place to the printing of menus and lighting in the dining room.
“The biggest thing for me is enlivening the senses. If you’re in a room with 40 other people and there’s no music piped through the dining room speakers and no noise coming out of the kitchen because we’re outside with the fire, then your senses are hightened and more pronounced, so the dining experience will be different,” says the chef.
“Aside from reducing energy consumption, we’re excited to see what happens when your senses are focused purely on dining. What do we actually need and what can we do without?”
The menu for the primitive evening is something that Viles has built around raw ingredients and fire-pit cooking. Coming from a kitchen that uses induction heat sources, it’s a great chance for the chef to get back to using flames.
“I do miss working with flame, and you have to use flame in some elements of your menu because that flavour profile is important. We use flame, but usually we do it in a little metal trough and have a separate kitchen for smoking etc. But for this dinner we’re building a big fire pit with a tractor.”
There’s also a certain romance to stepping off the grid for an evening of primitive dining. Lighting in the restaurant and car park will be limited to candles and fire drums, music will be live, acoustic and intimate. Menus will be hand-written on corkboard and of course ingredients will be as local as they come (reflecting the moniker of the restaurant, ‘Biota’ meaning the animals and plant life of a particular region) and prepared by curing, smoking, air aging, charring, and flame cooking.
“It was great fun to come up with the menu,” says Viles. “I’d love to do it like this all the time. It’s a bit like a midlife crisis, or like a new year’s resolution, it’s this thing I’ve been thinking about and I just have to do.”
Even more than that, it’s an opportunity for Viles to bring diners back to nature and show respect for everything the environment provides us with.
“It’s a chance to switch off. Chefs use Mother Nature everyday to inspire them, even if they don’t know it. Why not go another step and use everything she provides? She gives us great produce, so then let’s use her energy sources as well, instead of our own.”
While the big test for Viles is to see what he can do without (“do I really need that fancy printer for my menus?”), he’s also keen to find out if life is really so bad without all the technology we take for granted. “That’s the ultimate question,” says Viles, “was life so bad without it?”
With dishes such as air-dried pork sheets, oysters smoked in apple wood and fire-pit lamb, what Viles can create without the help of technology sounds pretty good to us.
Biota’s Primitive Dinner will take place on Sunday April 13, at Biota Dining & Rooms, 18 Kangaloon Road, Bowral
For more details and ticket price, see biotadining.com or call (02) 4862 2005.