"If someone says, 'I'm allergic to fish', then I listen. If someone says, 'I don't like fish', I don't listen."
Japanese-born, Margaret River-based chef Mikihito "Miki" Nagai laughs when he says the latter. Often booked out a fortnight in advance (no mean feat in this sparsely populated corner of Western Australia), Nagai has the confidence of one who knows his restaurant is his space to claim.
In a remote coastal town known for its award-winning wineries with their picturesque bush vistas, Miki's Open Kitchen is a physical anomaly. Set back between a car park and a daytime cafe on the town's main street, its covered black windows and dull brick exterior are a test; the reward for those who hold their judgment, a dining experience the region's best winemakers rave about.
The ponytailed, surfing Japanese chef is part of an evolved vanguard – a group of hospos arcing across the spectrum from cafe owners to fine-dining chefs who use the isolation as space to expand their own principals.
In an era where "cooking in context" shows itself to be a sustained and sustainable approach, Margaret River is at an ideal axis – a place of extreme geographic beauty and isolation with just enough growth in tourism and permanent residency to ensure chefs with a yen for the unique can make it work.
"If something's in abundance, I want to use it." Aaron Carr is taking a break from gardening at Snake + Herring winery the day we talk. It's been a few months since he gave up his gig as head chef at Vasse Felix, Margaret River's first winery (and one if its most lauded). Carr spent 21 years ensuring the winery, famously owned by the Holmes a Courts, operated at a continual level of excellence. Aged 46, the 27-year local is now keen to offer his culinary take on what this region is all about, with the opening of his new Dunsborough restaurant, Yarri, scheduled for January.
People who come to Margaret River don't want to eat Tasmanian salmon.
"For me it's about working with the Aboriginal six seasons," Carr explains, noting a restaurant like Vasse Felix doesn't necessarily allow for fast-paced menu changes or unplanned fluidity. "At the moment there are figs [in abundance]. Wild garlic is everywhere. Wild leeks."
Working this way gives Carr impetus to keep a fresh menu that can be edited to accommodate for unexpected gifts – like the "pounds of quinces" he received last year from local producers. The relationships he has built up with growers in the area means he has access to the "small parcels of ingredients" that will make his menu representative of what's happening out there – in the bush and the ocean and the fields that gives the region its vibrancy and its character.
"People who come to Margaret River don't want to eat Tasmanian salmon," Carr smiles.
That the eighty-or-so covers will have a view of bush and creek from within a rammed-earth building furnished by timber milled on site, is just another element of homecoming for a chef driven to draw diners into his world.
South on Caves Road from Yarri, encounter another chef in a different setting putting his food and his ideals up for consumption. Lauded in the region for years, chef Blair Allen and wife Renee have made Amelia Park restaurant one of the tables at which to dine since the venue's June 2017 opening.
Following work at Voyager and Yallingup's Studio Bistro, Allen and his wife opened their own casual bistro, Piari & Co., in a medical complex in Dunsborough, to multiple awards and rave local reviews. Amelia Park co-owner's Jeremy and Daniela Gordon became committed regulars and the rest, as they say …
"We got invited to Amelia Park's cellar door opening in 2015 and we told them, if they ever build a restaurant, then give us a call," Blair Allen smiles. "And then [Amelia Park co-owner] Peter Walsh offered to build this for us."
"This" is an architecturally striking box of dark wood and black panelling and striking vineyard views with a kitchen designed to suit Allen's no-waste, French-influenced locavore tendencies: from the meat cabinet where he ages beef bought from local farmers as whole carcasses, to the vegie patch visible from the pastry chef's station, Allen's commitment is to generosity, sustainability and flavour. With a little bit of humour, thrown in.
"Check this out," he grins, drawing my attention to what I believe to be his pride in that cabinet display of purpling chunks of aged beef, only to flick a switch that lights up the meat in a disco flash of coloured lights. "Thought it could be a good addition for weddings."
Wry humour aside, Allen admits there are some who prefer not to look at the drying flesh as they're eating it. A situation he's fine with: "We're not here to tell people how and what to eat. We're here to give people what they want."
Which brings us back to the Bussell Highway, that down-at-heel brick building, fish recalcitrants and Miki's Trust; a six-course degustation that allows Nagai the opportunity to bring his taste of Japan to diners at his tempura-style restaurant.
"In the beginning I didn't want to write it down, but Australia is such a dietary requirement country," Nagai says, waving his hand toward his chalkboard menu from his seat at the elegant U-shaped bar encircling the completely open kitchen. "I wanted to introduce more fancy deep-fry cooking because it's a form of cooking that isn't easy to do – completely different from fish and chips."
Indeed to even breathe the comparison is culinary heresy. Though deeply rooted in the technical culinary traditions of Japan, Nagai gets a kick out of subverting expectation. Mango is given the tempura treatment as part of a trio of elegant starters, while miso blue cheese and jalapeno plays with beef oboro.
"Japan is too formal," Nagai explains of the reasons behind his fusion approach. "Here in Margaret River, there is more freedom. I love cooking, I like wine and surfing, and I love Australian people. Life is matching with me. Living here as a chef now … we are so lucky."
What's hot in Margaret River? Chefs who've embraced the space and the pace in order to find out who they are on a plate and prove there's a lot going on between the beaches and the trees.
When it comes to cafe veteran Rob Mayberry, Perth's loss was Margaret River's gain. Lured south by the sale of a converted cottage in the one-street town of Witchcliffe, 10-minutes drive south of Margaret River, Mayberry has wowed all comers with his faultless Pound coffee and a city sentiment that manifests as seven-day-a-week trading (not a given, in these parts) alongside robust breakfasts and a first-class approach to customer service.
10143 Bussell Highway, Witchcliffe
The Hairy Marron
Bikes and beans go hand in hand at The Hairy Marron cafe, the two-year-old favoured child of proprietor and mountain-biking crazed local Paul Isles. Coffee here is almost good enough to distract from the view: a timber deck shaded by mature gums has river frontage. It's the spot locals know and tourists miss. Hire a bike, grab a handily pre-packed, made-in-house lunch and get to know a different side to the region via its endless forest trails.
The exit of Aaron Carr has not at all proved a hiccup for the Vasse Felix reputation, courtesy of the arrival of Brendan Pratt. The Perth-born chef has picked up Carr's reigns without a stumble. As a self-confessed "incrementalist", Pratt and the winery are a natural match: "Everyone is behind the kitchen 100 per cent but it does take a bit of effort," Pratt explains of creating new flavours in a restaurant so led by its wines. Currently on experimentation? Eucalyptus leaves. "We're using them for the milk, we then infuse the milk with wattle seeds, set it with agar agar and agitate it again. It's a great match with a cab sav."
South Korean, Margaret River-based chef Julie Jang prefers to let her food do the talking. And, boy, is it a thrilling conversationalist. From a tumble of gelatinous slow-cooked local pork sticky with a South Korean-inspired chilli teriyaki sauce, to a light and umami-laced bowl of delicate miso, Jang's mastery of subtlety is matched only by her ability to pack a spicy punch right before the diner is lulled into complacency. Fishbone also boasts an award-winning SSB that's light and sweet enough to match any flavours Jang can throw at it.