"Honey we're home!" I say to Mr NQN as I fit the key through the door of our homestead. Our home for the next two nights is my what I truly wish was my home away from home, at Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa in Sydney's Blue Mountains.
This is my third visit to the exquisite property nestled against the mountains that rise up from the valley. We are attending Qantas epiQure's event at Wolgan Valley bringing acclaimed chef Brett Graham from The Ledbury of London. He is the only Australian chef to hold three Michelin stars. With him is Neil Perry of the Rockpool empire. epiQure is a frequent flyer program designed to match Qantas's business and first class passengers with wine and food related experiences and they hold approximately fifty exclusive events a year.
It is Mr NQN's first time here and I'm eager to show him the property. The welcome starts from the beginning where we park our car. Details like addressing people by their name and welcoming people back are replete here and serve to make you feel as though you are family. The general manager Joost Heymeijer has been here since the beginning of construction eight years ago and his easygoing, comfortable manner belies his eye for precision and detail.
At Wolgan Valley, there are 36 Federation-style heritage suites, each 83 square metres in size, constructed out of wood and stone. The emblem for the Wollemi pine is echoed throughout the soft furnishings. As temperatures are a few degrees colder in the Blue Mountains, the double sided fireplace provides comfort and warmth. The main lounge area is luxurious yet comfortable and faces the suite's private lap pool with towels at the ready for a pre-dinner dip.
The bedroom's main focus is the four poster bed with canopy sides. It's supremely comfortable and sells well. There's a working desk and a second television here. An enormous walk in closet joins the bedroom. Every time I pass the bed, I pat the decorative wooden wombat's smooth bottom for good luck...
The bathroom is light and spacious given an extra burst of warmth and sunshine from the skylight. There are double basins, two shower heads, a roomy tub meant for two and the toilet and bidet are in a separate room. It is stocked with Sodashi and Ikou amenities.
Jan Rundle Head of Qantas epiQure and Joost Heymeijer GM Wolgan Valley Resort
But after dropping our bags we head to the first event on the program: a tour of the 1832 heritage homestead with Brett and Neil. There are glasses of wines and olives to welcome guests and they explain that the 1832 homestead was designed with Ian Kiernan to resemble the way that it looked when Charles Darwin visited in 1836.
The gardens which seem to expand every time that I visit are tended to by the team of gardeners, growing produce for the kitchen garden.
Dinner that evening has Neil in the kitchen and Brett as a guest while his assistant chefs Lawrence McCathy and Anthony Schifilliti prepare some dishes from The Ledbury. It's a restaurant that has won many accolades including two Michelin stars and currently stands at number 13 in the 50 Best Restaurants of the World list. It is also the restaurant that drew world attention during the London riots when footage was released of the chef's defending themselves against thugs by using fry baskets and rolling pins.
Born in Newcastle, Australia, Brett's roots are important to him although he lives in London and his accent had a British hint to it. Ten years ago he started a scholarship for young chefs. The prize is a trip to Europe and the idea is to inspire them through travel and to bring their experience back to Newcastle. His return to Australia this month was for a Starlight foundation dinner organised by Neil Perry that saw Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Grant Achatz, Ben Shewry and Phil Wood cooking and raising over $800,000AUD for charity.
He grew up in Williamtown away from shops and a typical meal was usually steak and vegetables eaten late. "There was no salt, butter or margarine on the table. My mum actually, I love her dearly, but she didn't teach me how to cook.If there was a sauce it wasn't extravagant, it was simple. I had no inkling that there was the next level of cooking." He recalls being amazed and inquisitive about food as a result of his upbringing.
At the age of 16 while working at Schratchley's his boss gave him a cookbook and told him that he had to go to the cookbook author's restaurant in Sydney. "He said that if you try very hard this could be your story." The book was Neil Perry's Rockpool. After arriving in Sydney he did work experience at Restaurant 41 "I saw them doing things that I had never seen before like peeling asparagus and passing mashed potato through the sieve twice. I was taken by the quality of what they were serving." He then went to Banc to work under Liam Tomlin.
"Liam was a tough man. After six months everyone had left and a new brigade began. It was a tough place to work. We were working 100 hours a week. I got a wake up call to how focused you should be when cooking. I think we lost thirty five staff in the first six months."
Winning the Jospehine Pignolet award took him to London which was his first trip overseas as an adult. He arrived in a trucker's singlet and boardshorts, prepared by reading a book on London on the plane. "I thought one year, I'd go Spain for a girl that looked like Penelope Cruz maybe. You have some pretty crazy ideas when you are twenty one." The Square went well and they are now his business partners and The Ledbury opened in April 2005. He is a business partner at The Harwood Arms but his focus is 100% on The Ledbury where he is there at least five days a week.
Interestingly the global financial crisis led to a positive turning point for the business. "I thought I was going to go bankrupt, I didn't know what was going to happen". Talk of "Black Wednesday" and dire predictions prompted him to reassess things. He assembled the staff. "I went back to my roots of what I thought looking after customers was about. In Europe you get snooty French waiters, that's not me. But part of our service was like that because I wasn't in control of it."
I told them "Stop all those big, flowery explanations, spend time on reading customers, if there are business guys talking put the food down and go don't be ahem excuse me and then tell them about the glass of wine that was grown on the hill on the south of France and the guy's dog's name is..."
He recalls "I went to a restaurant once and saw a husband and wife there holding hands and it was their anniversary. They looked like they had been holding hands for 20 years. There was a coffee cup there. All waiters have it in their head to clear the table, once the coffee is done, clear the table, bill, taxi because that's generally how customers want it. Then the waiter came in and leaned over the top and picked up the coffee cup and they naturally let go of their hands and that was it, (romantic moment) gone."
"It taught me a lesson that shapes the way we do service. We've never had PR, we've never advertised. I told the waiters 'This is the money I could be paying for PR but what I want you to do is give this money to the customers we already have and hope they come back.' Say it's someone's birthday-give them a glass of champagne. If someone can't decide a dish give them both."
"It's not all about trying to add pomp and ceremony. I don't think my food is any different to any other restaurant in the country that has two stars but what's the most important is to set the tone once the customer arrives. It took about a year but we have a full lunch and dinner."
London riot video footage at The Ledbury
Did the London riot coverage impact the business? "We were already full by that stage so I think it was a good story but it didn't bring in any new customers." It was Brett's visiting father's 60th birthday on the night of the riot incident and they were home at the time. It was a few missed calls that alerted him that something had happened. "I knew straight away that something had gone on...I was outside and ran in the shed to get tools. I said 'Dad, quick get in the car!' and we drove in."
"They'd knocked all the tables over, taken everyone's rings and watches, phones and done thousands of pounds of damage. One of the chefs realised what was going on and he put all the knives in the dishwasher and pulled the top down just in case. We got a shipping pallet and my dad drilled it into the front door to secure it and we went home and then the next day we opened for lunch with no front door."
"I never got to Spain but I did marry an English girl and Penelope Cruz did come into the restaurant with her husband Javier Bardem who made all the women go weak at the knees. She gave me a kiss on the cheek a week before I got married. I thought that was good enough."
Yellowfin tuna tartare with Moroccan eggplant salad, harissa and cumin mayonnaise served with Grosset Springvale Riseling 2011
The dinner that evening features courses from both Neil and Brett and is served in the Wolgan Dining Room. This was a dish from Neil and he tell us that it reflects his love for Moroccan cuisine. The soft, creamy tuna tartare is sliced into small cubes and is served with an aromatic Moroccan eggplant salad, a sweet spicy harissa and a heady cumin mayonnaise. The sweet, spiciness of the harissa went well with the creamy eggplant and tuna while the cumin in sparing amounts added aroma.
Rich and noble spanner crab, sweet corn congee, anise peanuts and chili oil served with Yabby Lake Chardonnay 2010
This is one of Neil's signature dishes and the congee is a rice porridge that he describes as "Chinese risotto." It's an exercise in textures with the soft rice, plump corn kernels, anise scented peanuts, large pockets of spanner crab, crunchy crumbs all brought together with spicy, earthy chilli oil with a lingering bite at the end.
Fillet of aged Speckle Park beef with celeriac baked in juniper and smoked bone marrow seared with SC Pannell Shiraz 2006, Cullen Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
The last savoury course was a beef course by Brett. He usually uses a grass fed Belted Galloway beef which he describes as intensely aromatic and aged, almost like a salami flavour and slightly gamey. As the beef isn't available here they sourced a Speckle Park beef which is served with a juniper branch ash coated celeriac and an emulsion made out of soft boiled eggs, juniper, truffle juice and sherry vinegar, garlic and spinach puree and sorrel leaves, with a disc of juicy, rich smoked bone marrow on top. The sauce is made up of the beef trimmings roasted off, pickled walnuts and fermented garlic similar to sauerkraut.
Burnt meringue with passionfruit curd, lemon verbena and frozen mandarin juice served with De Bortoli Noble On Botrytis Semillon 2008
The pre dessert was another of Brett's dishes. It featured a dollop of torched meringue with a ball of frozen lemon verbena tea ice cream, passionfruit curd (Brett's nod to being in Australia) and frozen mandarin juice.
Black Forest Trifle inspired by The Fat Duck served with Seppeltsfield Rare Tawny NV (exclusive to Qantas Epiqure)
The trifle is a dense, moist chocolate cake soaked in kirsch with kirsch soaked cherries. A layer of kirsch chocolate mousse sits on top with a mascarpone sabayon as well as shavings of chocolate and whipped cream. Neil and Brett take the microphone and explain their dishes and their inspiration. The wine is a special exclusive to Qantas epiQure and contains 90 vintages in the mix, some from as far back as 1908.
One final stop is the cheese room where eight cheeses are laid out for diners to choose from. There is Saint Agur, Rouzaire Fromage de Meaux, Pave d'Affinois (French double cream, soft cheese), Heidi Farm Gruyere, Warrnambool waxed matured cheddar, Hunter Belle Blue Moon, Gorgonzola Dolce, Le Jack, Jannei goat cheese and Queso Manchego.
At 11am after a scrumptious breakfast, there's a Q&A session with Neil Perry in the Country Kitchen downstairs. He explains in great detail about how he grew up and how his "butcher, fisherman and gardener" father shaped his cooking philosophy. He recalls eating items like "smashed up crumbed brains on toast", kidneys and salami sandwiches not knowing that they were considered unusual at the time.
"My father was good at collecting people" and he describes how he would befriend Chinese waiters at Chinese restaurants and at home, they would eat home-style Chinese food as well as Indian food. In fact the history of how his cooking philosophy was shaped takes 30 minutes where he scarcely takes a breath!
When asked how the name Rockpool came about, Neil explains that he chose the name Rockpool not for the location in The Rocks but because he grew up in the Georges River area pulling crabs and other sea creatures out of the rockpools. "Sandstone and rockpools are very Sydney" he says.
Nowadays he runs a company with 600 hand picked staff and he says that the key is to "surround myself with people much better than me...never let ego get in the way." He works actively with charities like Starlight and the week before, he had 10 centimetres chopped off his signature ponytail procuring $50,000 for charity. The biggest prize was a dinner cooked by Heston, Thomas and Neil that went for $250,000, the funds going straight to Starlight.
Dinner on the second night features dishes from Wolgan's very own chef Damian Brabender. The wines for the dinner at by Broeknwood Wines and we are sharing a table with Brokenwood's Geoff and Julie Krieger. The vineyards were established in 1970 by three solicitors: Tony Albert, John Beeston and James Halliday. Their semillon and shiraz are the stars of the lineup while their Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz remains their flagship wine.
Sydney Rock Oysters served with Brokenwood Maxwell Vineyard Semillon 2007, Brokenwood Semillon 2013
The oysters were done three ways: a natural oyster, a sweet, spicy and sour oyster "Nahm Jim" and an intriguing oyster rolled in fine powdered nori. The seaweed powder took the moisture out of the oyster but gave an intense seaweed flavour to it.
Kingfish ceviche served with Brokenwood Pinot Gris 2013, Brokenwood Indigo Vineyard Chardonnay 2013
The ceviche was beautifully presented with a lemon and lime cooked kingfish in thin, draped pieces with one coated in sesame seeds. There was also a thin crisp wafer filled with creamy avocado and a brush of rich, black squid ink. The papaya and ceviche balances the richness of the avocado and squid ink with freshness. It is served with two wines from Beechworth in Victoria.
"Windsor" squab served with Brokenwood Hunter Valley Shiraz 2011, Brokenwood Indigo Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010
The squab or pigeon was one of my favourite courses. It's a roasted breast paired with licorice, beetroot and chocolate soil the elements combining together to make a fantastic dish.
Cucumber lemon myrtle sorbet
To refresh our palate is a sorbet made with cucumber and lemon myrtle with tiny pieces of diced cucumber and an almost savoury foam on top.
"Dutton Park Duck" served with Brokenwood Wade Black 2 Vineyard Shiraz 2009, Brokenwood Quail Shiraz 2010
The main is a delectable duck dish which is all smokey goodness. The Dutton Park duck from the Hawkesbury is marinated for 24 hours and then tea smoked and then roasted and served with a diced confit of orange,
Mafra Clothbound Cheddar served with Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz 2011
I can never resist a good cheese and the Mafra Clothbound Cheddar is served with two types of crackers as well as a glass of Brokenwood's Graveyard Shiraz.
Mascarpone Ice cream served with Brokenwood Sticky Wicket Semillon 2008
The dessert is refreshing and full of textures from the creamy mascarpone ice cream to the broken bits of chocolate crumbs, chocolate quills and flower petals. It's light enough so as not to weigh you down and refreshing enough so that you can while away the evening sipping wines.
And then a sleep in doesn't hurt either especially when you wake to this sort of view.
So tell me Dear Reader, what do you think of Brett Graham's philosophy on service? Do you prefer it when you aren't interrupted by waitstaff when you are talking? Or does it depend on who you are dining with?
Best of luck to the fire fighters that are courageously protecting the Blue Mountains area (Wolgan Valley is fortunately safe).
NQN visited Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa as a guest of Qantas epiQure.
Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa
2600, Wolgan Road, Wolgan Valley, NSW
Tel: +61 (02) 6350 1800