Once, they came for surf and soul-searching. Now, Byron Bay's famous barefoot charms are just a warm-up act for a different main event: food.
The hippies and healers have always coexisted here with gastronomy's raw materials: rich soil, temperate subtropical climate, nutrient-rich ocean and bountiful produce. But recent years have added investment and talent to Byron's blueprint. Sea-changing chefs and artisans, whose paddock-to-plate ambitions have outgrown their city vegie patches and rooftop beehives, are flocking in, while a new luxury market brings diners willing to put their money where their mouths are.
Food professionals don't come here to drop out. Instead, Byron's abundance seems to inspire heightened creativity, more ambitious projects. Case in point: the six-strong Three Blue Ducks crew, who two years ago unleashed all the sustainability potential of their small Bronte joint across a sprawling 32-hectare idyll of pigs, chickens, cattle, sheep and orchards at The Farm.
One of the latest adventurers is chef Evan White, whose taqueria, Chupacabra, opened in July, bringing Yucatan cuisine to little Suffolk Park, 10 minutes' drive from Byron Bay centre. Mexican makes sense for White, who plied his trade in that country before sharing the knowledge in Brisbane at Coyotito and Chingon, and Byron enables him finally to recreate the smoke, spice and citrus of Yucatan cuisine.
"The ecosystems, the produce in the two places, are so similar," he says. "There are some really cool little citrus farms here, with the range you'd find in Mexico. Over there, there's 70 different types of limes, all these orange varieties." At last, he says, he's locally sourced an orange with the ideal flavour profile for the earthy, tangy cochinita, Yucatan's signature slow-roasted, citrus-marinated pork dish.
Central to Chupacabra's soul is nearby Picone Exotics, where more than 200 varieties of rare tropical fruits and vegetables flourish in an Eden-like setting. Says White: "They have all these unusual, amazing Mexican ingredients: jewel corns, Mexican cream guava, sapotes – even mamey, a fruit that tastes a little bit like a sweet potato."
Australia's East Coast Current mirrors the conditions of the Mexican Gulf Stream, says White, with nutrient-rich waters harbouring tuna, sailfish, prawns and numerous goodies he can access direct from the fisheries for the pristine freshness Yucatan cooking demands. Naturally, ceviche is a big star at Chupacabra.
He's baking fresh tortillas daily, and they double up as chilaquiles – chopped up, fried until crisp, tossed into a red or green salsa and served with frijoles, a fried egg and house-made queso Oaxaca (Mexican cheese).
White uses cheeses and creams sparingly, gluten hardly at all, and there's no deep-fat fryer. This is light, bright food. And it's only achievable with Byron's depth of produce.
"I've had to settle for second best all these years, but here I can get the right fresh chilli, the right orange. It's really cathartic to go to the Byron and Mullumbimby markets and talk to the growers, to touch and feel and smell," he says.
Just along Broken Head Road, Matt Kemp is basking in his own corner of produce paradise. After 25 years in Sydney, accumulating hats at Banc and Balzac, the Michelin-trained Englishman is almost a year into his role as executive chef at five-star resort The Byron at Byron. His is an enviable workspace, amid 91 sumptuous suites, day spa and sybaritic pool – but his chief pleasure is the soil beneath it. Surrounded by farms and smallholdings and on 16 hectares of subtropical rainforest, Kemp's restaurant occupies its own massive larder.
"The produce almost literally walks through the door," Kemp says. "A lady turns up every fortnight with flowers and leaves from her garden. A guy brings in figs he's growing, another, oyster mushrooms."
Entire dishes, says Kemp, arise from chance encounters. "The lady next door mentioned: 'Oh, I do a bit of honey,' and next day she brings in a massive slab and it's just out of this world, from bees that most likely pollinate our rainforest." The honeycomb stars in seductive mouthful-sized pieces in an entree with Serrano ham, pickled cherries and bitter leaves.
The cucumbers accompanying his sashimi of daily market fish are pickled in Brookie's Byron Dry Gin and tonic, from neighbouring Cape Byron Distillery. Riberries from The Byron's rainforest flavour a granita served with oysters. Kemp has joined forces with Jack Sprat's butchery – co-owned by his pal and former Sydney Vic's Meats ops manager, Paul Newson. He, too, left the big smoke behind.
Byron's smoke is better. At Chupacabra, Evan White plans to cook with fire outdoors on a real Mexican comal (griddle) if the council says yes. And last December, Argentinian-born Francisco Smoje sparked up his wood-fired oven and grill at the new Barrio, drawing crowds to its outdoor communal tables like moths to a flame. No surprise, when that flame delivers succulent chook and beef rib and teases out eggplant's smoky hidden depths.
Name a cuisine, and Byron's produce translates. At Safya, Caroline Soliman evokes Egypt's Western Desert with local harvest including Cooper's Shoot tomatoes, Tyagarah Apiaries Honey, Bread Social loaves. At Foxy Luu's, local herbs sing in Asian soups, ramen and soba, while the intoxicating house-made sambal at Taste of Melaka draws Malay flavours from 25 local ingredients.
Three years in, Noma graduate Ben Devlin's formidable talents have long outlasted the honeymoon period at Cabarita's Paper Daisy. He lets the ocean do the talking, with local prawns, octopus, squid, oysters and daily fish.
Then there's The Farm's bucolic spectacle, where those Three Blue Ducks emigrants grow, rear, butcher, cook and cater amid their pastoral tableau. Down the road at Harvest Newrybar, chef Alistair Waddell and wild food researcher Peter Hardwick have a swathe of accolades – including a Good Food Guide chef's hat – for their foraging, fermenting and deft touch with native Australian curiosities.
The farming life here has also drawn French-born chef Bruno Loubet, who will open his Willow Vale cooking school later this year in the village of that name, on 3.4 hectares of lush Queensland Gold Coast hinterland growing country. Loubet heard the call of the wild from far away in London, where last year he closed his award-winning, vegetable-led 200-seater Grain Store, announcing he was seeking a gentler pace after 40 years of Michelin-star-studded but relentless work in the likes of Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and his own Bistrot Bruno Loubet.
He and his and wife Catherine are busy preparing their 125-year-old Queenslander and its surrounds, planting fruit trees, installing garden beds and tending chickens, horses and pigs. The fertile soil will enable their vision to continue the Grain Store's veg-forward story, with visitors picking, cooking and eating whatever's best on the day.
"If we have amazing eggplant, we'll base the class on that," Catherine says. "It's not going to be flashy, but very honest, practical, natural."
The couple have encouraged that feeling from the start, with working bees where local friends gather to help on the land, rewarded by a homegrown, Loubet-cooked meal at the end. "All the people here are extremely genuine and wonderful and kind," Catherine says. "We are part of the community already and if you need help, people are ready at the drop of a hat. You don't often see that any more, do you?"
Unpretentious but perfect fine dining has ensured that tiny, two-hatted Fleet in Brunswick Heads has wowed way beyond Byron in its first two years and in November co-owners Josh Lewis (chef) and Astrid McCormack (manager) will launch La Casita, which roughly translates to "small warm house" in the former Gringo's Fresh Mex, another petite space just along the road. Meanwhile, Fleet continues to distil into its 14-stool nook all that is beautiful and brilliant about Byron: the produce, the passion and an overwhelming sense that everyone involved in making your meal is in their happy place.
Of course they are, say Evan White and Matt Kemp. "There's such a good hospitality community here," White says. "People got sick of running with the bulls and moved here for a bit of respite."
Says Kemp: "A lot of people bang on about work-life balance, but we really do it here. At Balzac, although we were getting two or three hats, we were knackered, miserable, doing 70-hour weeks. It doesn't do you any good and it doesn't do cooking any good. But here, this is knockout. This is the life."
The Byron at Byron, thebyronatbyron.com.au
Foxy Luu's, facebook.com/FoxyLuus/
Taste of Melaka, facebook.com/tasteofmelakabyronbay/
Paper Daisy Halcyon House, halcyonhouse.com.au/paper-daisy-restaurant/
The Farm, thefarmbyronbay.com.au
Harvest Newrybar, harvestnewrybar.com.au
Fleet Restaurant, fleet-restaurant.com.au