As restaurateurs and chefs around Victoria count down nervously to the food world's night of nights, The Age Good Food Guide 2017 Awards, it's time to reveal the contenders for one of the year's major gongs.
So cue drum roll as we announce the five finalists for Citi Chef of the Year, an award that acknowledges those with the craft and ability to make a real difference to the way we dine now and in the future.
The winner will be announced on Monday, September 12 at The Age Good Food Guide 2017 Awards, presented by Citi and Vittoria. You can follow all the night's action via Good Food's Instagram and Twitter accounts.
Good luck to all the finalists.
Fen chef Ryan Sessions. Photo: Eddie Jim
Ryan Sessions, Fen, Port Fairy
While the jury deliberates endlessly on exactly what constitutes an Australian cuisine, you'll find Ryan Sessions getting on with plating it up at his Port Fairy restaurant Fen. Using abalone from pristine waters near Portland, kangaroo, desert lime and bunya nuts from further afield, and foraged coastal herbs such as samphire, pigface and sea lettuce, he is crafting thoughtful dishes that are being well received by locals and international visitors alike – spot the Chinese diners taking photos of themselves holding their hands like Skippy's paws while eating roo. Sessions isn't making a conscious statement about "modern Australian" food. Rather, he's trying to evoke a sense of place. Sessions first came to public attention at the Merrijig Inn in 2010, which won Regional Restaurant of the Year and received two chef's hats in The Age Good Food Guide.
Dan Hunter, owner-chef at Brae in Birregurra. Photo: Eddie Jim
Dan Hunter, Brae, Birregurra
The Bairnsdale-raised chef didn't start his apprenticeship until his mid-20s but he has made up for lost time since then, becoming one of the country's most respected chefs. After stints overseas, including head chef at Spain's legendary Mugaritz, Hunter returned to Victoria, putting a remote town firmly on the food map during six years at Dunkeld's Royal Mail Hotel. Now based at Birregurra, he takes the paddock-to-plate cooking philosophy literally, drawing on the property's extensive kitchen gardens for ingredients such as purple sprouting broccoli, Florence fennel and red elk mustard for intricate dishes that make the food taste of itself, only better.
Syracuse chef Philippa Sibley. Photo: Supplied
Philippa Sibley, Syracuse, Melbourne
The straight-talking queen of tarts, master of Mediterranean flavours and multiple cookbook author, has found her groove again at Syracuse. From a tiny kitchen she is conjuring big flavours and classic European dishes, including chicken liver parfait, and rhubarb and burnt butter tart with rose ice-cream, reminiscent of an old favourite from her days at Circa, Snow White and Rose Red. The ever-restless Sibley has nearly 30 years' service at lauded kitchens in London, France and Melbourne (est est est, Luxe, Ondine, Circa). But she feels she'll be at Syracuse for the long haul, serving food influenced by Italy, France, Spain and Greece. "There's no bullshit foams and molecular stuff. That's easy – you just add a few powders. But something like a meyer lemon tart takes 20 years to perfect and has to be eaten the same day. I reckon old-school is the new new-school."
Igni owner-chef Aaron Turner. Photo: Josh Robenstone
Aaron Turner, Igni, Geelong
He dragged critics down the Princes Highway to visit his produce-driven Drysdale restaurant, Loam, named Regional Restaurant of the Year award in The Age Good Food Guide 2012. And after a year's sabbatical in Nashville, Aaron Turner again has food lovers hitting the road to visit Igni, which opened in the backstreets of Geelong in January. There he is taking foraged and grown-to-order ingredients, giving them some love on the ironbark-fuelled grill, and presenting them in simple yet mind-blowing tasting menus that vary from day to day and even table to table. Turner has spent time in the kitchens of Noma in Denmark and El Celler de Can Roca in Spain. But relying on a wood fire has changed his approach to cooking. "The food is a lot more simple. I have to have the confidence to let the produce I'm using speak for itself. There's nothing to hide behind."
Dave Verheul, from the Town Mouse and Embla. Photo: Jesse Marlow
Dave Verheul, Embla, Melbourne, and the Town Mouse, Carlton
New Zealand-born Dave Verheul has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants with Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay in London, plus a stage at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, and at Sydney's hatted The Bentley Restaurant and Bar. Now he's juggling kitchen duties at both Carlton hotspot The Town Mouse and zeitgeisty Melbourne wine bar Embla, where his back-to-the-soil ethos elevates vegetables to hero status. "I like vegetables. I think we should eat more vegies than meat." Brassicas such as broccoli and cabbage are particular favourites, evidenced by his Town Mouse dish of slow-roasted red cabbage with prunes, parmesan and red apple, now a cult classic. During his first summer in Melbourne in 2013, he was amazed to see people seated outside the Town Mouse on 40-degree days eating red cabbage. He hasn't been able to shift it from the menu since.
The Age Good Food Guide 2017 awards night, presented by Citi and Vittoria, is on Monday, September 12. Follow all the action via @goodfoodau and #goodfoodguide on Twitter and Instagram. The Guide will be on sale in newsagents and bookstores from Tuesday, September 13, with all book purchases receiving free access to the new Good Food app.