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Phil Wood's new restaurant opens in less than three weeks, but he is still not allowed to use the kitchen. It sits stainless steel-shiny and huge – bigger than his former kitchen at Rockpool/Eleven Bridge in Sydney – with electrifying views over Western Port Bay, ready to go. But he is waiting for a gas inspector to come and issue a certificate to say the stoves are safe to use.
In the meantime he and a small battalion of staff are working from a 1980s beach house nearby, the former holiday residence of property magnate John Gandel, who owns the whole 134-hectare site at Point Leo, on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula, an hour's drive south of Melbourne. The cubby where Gandel's now-grown kids used to romp sits near the front door but for the past few months it has shared its prime position with a mobile coolroom.
In the beach house's cramped kitchen, with a plastic trestle table as a mise en place station and a four-burner electric stove, Wood has spent two months developing recipes for the restaurant.
The culinary centrepiece of the development will be a wood-fired oven and charcoal grill but he has not been able to trial them yet.
Instead he used a Weber bought down with him from Sydney to replicate the desired smoky flavour in dishes he cooked for the Gandels in a menu test run.
This is Gandel's $50 million passion project and is of a scale and dramatic vision befitting the seventh richest man in Australia, who made his fortune from shopping centres (he owns half of Chadstone Shopping Centre, the biggest in the southern hemisphere). It is the most ambitious restaurant development in the country right now and it thrusts the Mornington Peninsula, which this year has also seen the opening of the sensationally glamorous Jackalope Hotel and its one-hatted Doot Doot Doot restaurant, into beams of long-awaited limelight.
No one is surprised that Gandel singled out Wood to be the "culinary director" of his project, but some in the restaurant industry are curious Wood, who could have finally created his own business, agreed.
The 35-year-old New Zealand-born chef has carved a stellar career for himself as Neil Perry's right-hand man, including eight years behind the stoves at Perry's flagship, Rockpool. He is a large part of the reason Perry sat at the peak of the dining landscape for so many years before it closed four months ago, reopening as the Chinese-inspired Jade Temple.
"It was time to get out of Neil's shadow," says Wood. "I worked for him for a long time and it was fantastic but the Rockpool Group is operating in a different realm now," he says of Rockpool's sale to the Urban Purveyor Group last year.
"It is good to get out of the city. Sydney is a city of bubbles – beautiful bubbles – but I wanted the chance to go somewhere completely different, work with different produce and do different things."
When he left Perry HQ on August 8, Wood was a man in demand.
"It was pretty stressful, actually. There were several options I got close to signing contracts on, then I got a call from a recruiter wanting to talk about some place I had never heard of in Victoria."
Many in the industry expected the chef to stride solo down a well-trodden path: open a small place outside the CBD where rents are cheaper and become master of his own budding empire.
"I thought about it, of course, but I just could not make the maths of having my own place stack up.
"The per square metre cost of space in Sydney is prohibitive – 10 per cent of what would have been my restaurant's turnover. I could not see how it was viable."
Then Gandel came along and started talking to him about the 100-seat restaurant taking shape on a sweep of grass above Point Leo, with oak walls and enormous black steel candelabra designed to make the room look like a haute couture wine barrel. And the sculpture park that surrounds it: 50 works the Gandels have been collecting for 60 years, including one that graced Chadstone when it opened in 1960. Oh, and a 20-hectare vineyard planted in 2006, the grapes from which are used to make wine that until now has not been available to the public but will be sold at the restaurant.
"The scope and the money behind this project is outrageous, but in a good way. What we have been able to spend money on is fantastic," Wood says, showing me the beautiful Mud Australia plates and resin-handled cutlery being imported from Portugal.
Left to right: Andrew Murch, Ainslie Lubbock and Joel Alderson. Photo: Amy Whitfield
He has been able to persuade a dream team to pack up their lives and move to the peninsula with him. Ainslie Lubbock, who earned her stripes at credentialled Victorian venues the Royal Mail Hotel, Cutler & Co, Attica and most recently Pei Modern, will manage the restaurant, sommelier Andrew Murch has come from Stokehouse, and Lubbock's partner, chef Joel Alderson, was recently executive chef at the Hotel Windsor in Melbourne.
The flow of cooking talent from Australian cities to country areas has been one of the most pronounced dining trends of recent years. The soon-to-be-released Good Food Guide 2018 will feature more hatted restaurants in regional areas than ever before. There has been a noticeable uplift in the number of country openings, and the food emerging from the kitchens is more innovative and downright delicious than in many city restaurants.
All this rural activity and excitement comes down to one key factor, according to Wood – the produce.
"At a restaurant in the country you can have food ripped out of the ground in the morning on the plate in the evening. It is much harder to do this in the city. Chefs fall in love with this because you can authentically be farm-to-table but in the city, you have to make compromises."
The first thing that Wood did when he arrived in the depths of winter was doggedly drive around in a rented car, Smooth FM on the radio, visiting every local producer he could find.
"I have been amazed by how good the produce in this area is. I had no idea. I am surrounded by farmers who are passionate about what they do. It is not just here though. There are more farmers than ever before in Australia passionate about what they do. We have become a produce-driven nation and farmers are responding to that."
Damien Noxon at the Main Ridge Dairy cheesery. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
Many of the producers Wood has visited in the past eight weeks are hardly known or available outside this patch.
Among them is Main Ridge Dairy, where Bess and Damien Noxon raise 200 adorable goats. Bess used to name each of the kids, but since a billy goat jumped a fence into a paddock of young females and the herd subsequently expanded more rapidly than they intended, she has had to stop.
Wood loves the insistently affectionate "time-wasters" almost as much as Bess does, and he cuddles some young goats when we visit. But he loves the cheese Damien makes even more. As fast as the milk pours into his cheesery, Damien hand-makes 12 different types, which Wood appreciates so much he has created dishes to showcase them, such as a beetroot pancake with Cashmere goats' curd finished with Yarra Valley salmon roe.
Beetroot pancake with Cashmere goat's curd and salmon roe. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
"I got the idea for the beetroot pancake from a Tasmanian cookbook published in about 1880 which Lis [his partner] gave to me when we decided to move down. I am trying to explore what Australian cuisine is now, drawing on what it has been in the past, then just let the produce dominate."
We visit another farm, Benton Rise, which grows aquaponic lettuce and amazing pink, yellow and pearl oyster mushrooms in huge coolrooms, along with shiitake and lion's mane mushrooms, which owner Ryan Sharpley gives Wood to try.
As soon as we get back to his makeshift test kitchen, Wood poaches the peculiar mushroom in dashi stock under a wax-paper cloak, searching for a way to incorporate it into his menu.
He has let the produce lead him from the start, when he was clear on just one thing – that the food at Point Leo would be very different from the Chinese-inspired haute cuisine he was known for at Rockpool.
Ricotta and polenta cakes with goat's cheese and pickled fennel. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
The main 100-seat restaurant is best described as a bistro. "It will be unfussy, flavour-forward food, not outrageous food you have to save up to eat," says Wood. "It will be bold but simply executed. There will be no fluff. This is a place locals can come to regularly."
His fine dining skills will have an outlet though: in a 40-seat fine diner that will open next to the main restaurant. Any ambitions he harbours to stand alongside our finest regional restaurants, such as Fleet in Brunswick Heads, Igni in Geelong, Agrarian Kitchen Eatery & Store, outside Hobart, and Brae in Birregurra, one of only two Australian restaurants on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list this year, will hit the plate here.
For now, his biggest challenge is just to be able to light the burners in his new kitchen. "It's going to be a massive push towards opening, I am pretty nervous but also excited."
The view from the restaurant at Point Leo Estate. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
Point Leo Estate will open on October 20 at 3649 Frankston-Flinders Road, Merricks, Victoria.