Down and dirty with young star

Immersed in earth: With help from his mum, James Viles grows much of his kitchen's produce on site at Biota Dining.
Immersed in earth: With help from his mum, James Viles grows much of his kitchen's produce on site at Biota Dining. Photo: Steve Evans

If the modern Latin word biota is defined as ''animals and plant life of a particular region'', then humble stove warrior James Viles must be part of Bowral's biota.

Chef and director of Biota Dining, Viles says his approach to food is still very much evolving. The 33-year-old says while he is always dreaming of how to refine and reimagine new dishes, he also wants to maintain his commitment to reconnecting diners with where their food comes from.

"With Biota, I want to create my own little food empire in one place that tells a definite story. I want it to still be here when I'm gone and I want it to remain pure in its philosophy," says Viles, who, with the help of his horticulturalist mum, Cathy, grows much of the kitchen's produce on site.

"I don't come from a Michelin background. I haven't worked in the best restaurants in the world. I'm a country boy. I grew up in Scone and as well as my love of cooking, I enjoy being outside, getting dirty and riding motorbikes," he says.

As well as winning Regional Restaurant of the Year, Biota received two hats in The Sydney Morning Herald's Good Food Guide 2014 and got a gong for best regional wine list, which honours the restaurant's genuine support of local winemakers.

Viles, whose career began at a young age as chef at The Schoolhouse, in the Southern Highlands, was, at the age of 23, one of the youngest chefs ever to be awarded a chef's hat.

After working at a few local restaurants, Viles moved overseas to further his career, where he was involved with the openings of several acclaimed restaurants and hotels throughout the Middle East and Europe.

Viles says it was this experience "of living in an executive chef's bubble" that provoked in him a passion for provenance cooking.

"I had 110 chefs and five restaurants in six years and although it was a good business exercise, it pains me to think that throughout that entire tenure I did not get to plate a single dish," says Viles.


"As executive chef, I never saw my produce. I used to order it online through a central purchasing system. I had zero connection with the food. Biota is the antithesis of that experience," he says.

To feed his insatiable appetite for knowledge, Viles recently attended Rene Redzepi's third annual MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark, where a community of inspiring chefs, cooks and farmers gathered to talk about how to do their best to affect positive change around the world.

This year's Symposium, which took place on August 25-26, was dedicated to ''guts''. It was a theme that resonated with Viles, who became emotional when trying to articulate its myriad meanings to him, both professionally and personally.

"My dad always said, 'The strong heart survives the weak mind. If you do something, do it with your heart and gut'. The Symposium is a very humbling experience. [Momofoku's David Chang was there,

[three-star Michelin chef] Alain Ducasse was there and these are guys who have built empires and who help me stay true to my heart," says Viles.

Viles says one of the most inspiring speakers at the collaborative forum was Josh Whiteland, of WA, an indigenous Australian chef who shared Wardandi Aboriginal knowledge with the 500 assembled there.

"Josh is an advocate for sustainability. He got up on stage and said, 'You guys are all talking about eating locally … my ancestors were doing that 40,000 years ago'," says Viles.

"Meeting Josh was a definite highlight at MAD and I'd like to collaborate with him in Australia. I want to help create a uniquely Australian food culture and one that is sustainable," he says.

Viles, who works about 100 hours during a four-day week and lives in Avoca Beach with wife Polly and daughter Harriet, 2, says as well as being focused on foods' point of origin, he loves to invent pairings that, while beautifully composed, are also accessible renditions of ''habitat on a plate''.

James Viles is part of several Good Food Month events, including the SMH Growers' Market 15th Birthday on October 5 and the Great Australian Dinner with Rene Redzepi at The Star on October 27. He is part of a Regional Table event at Chiswick in Woollahra (October 30) and Sunday Family Lunch at Biota Dining each Sunday during October.