When news broke that Australian chef Curtis Stone was headlining this year’s Margaret River Gourmet Escape, the internet flooded. The sandy-haired Food Network star and Californian restaurateur has wedged a place in many a heart, namely for his laidback demeanor and passion for Aussie produce.
“Margaret River is a really special place – it’s got this real West Australianess to it – it’s still very rustic and rural,” Stone tells SBS. “When you think of wine regions, you think of old world – even new world ones tend to lean closely into tradition. I find Margaret River breaks a lot of that up.”
Stone, who's currently Eater’s LA Chef of the Year, has made a solid dent in LA’s restaurant scene via his intimate Beverly Hills fine diner Maude and more recently, Gwen Restaurant and Butcher Shop on glam Sunset Boulevard. Both were affectionately named after each of his grandmothers; the chef admits that time away from his original home in Melbourne has made him appreciate the role his family played in his career.
“Maybe I'm more sentimental about that stuff because I live in the States," Stone says, "but family is everything, you know. You get so much from the people in your life that you’re close to. My granny Maude taught me how to play tennis and play cards, and how to cook some delicious things, too. She was from Yorkshire originally – she used to cook a mean roast with Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes.
"My Nan [Gwen] was a great market gardener and a really good cook. She used to make the most divine shortbread you’ve ever tasted.”
At Gwen (recently named LA Weekly’s Best New Restaurant), Stone is championing prime cuts; a European-style butcher shop advocating whole animal butchery opens into a vast cavernous restaurant where fire is king. There’s an Argentinean fire pit, a brasero (wood/charcoal burning box) and a coal burning oven for vegetables and smoking.
“We call it primitive elegance – we’ve been cooking pieces of meat on a stick for centuries and we kind of love how that tastes, the smokiness you get from that. Then we combine that with all of the modern technology that we use in our high-end restaurants.
“I guess it’s fine dining but it’s meat-centric – the butcher shop is the heartbeat of the place.”
It’s a homage to his maternal nan but Gwen is a full-family affair, inside and out; Stone has partnered with his butcher brother Luke on the business, which hopes to supply goats, Wagyu beef and rare poultry to the city’s best restaurants.
“The opportunity to work with Luke was something that we always dreamed of or spoke about doing, then when we got the chance, it was pretty cool. There’s a beautiful thing about family: you don’t have to line your ps and qs as much – you can tell each other exactly what you think because there’s no point having all the politeness you would have with a business relationship.”
At this year’s Margaret River Gourmet Escape supported by Food Network, Stone is looking forward to working with some of his favourite WA produce. “You’ve got so much good stuff – some of the most delicious cheeses that I can remember are over there in WA. I’ve had some unbelievable seafood, marrons that we don’t get over here, and some of the best crab I’ve ever eaten was in Broome.
“You think of WA as a hot place but you still have quite cold oceans that give real beauty and variance in the type of fish you get.
Stone will be kicking off the four-day culinary adventure (an extra day was added this year to celebrate the wine region's 50th anniversary) with a beach BBQ flaunting the region’s best.
He'll be joined by a string of local and international heavyweights including Food Network's Roger Mooking (Man Fire Food), Rick Stein, Andre Chiang (Andre, Singapore), Alex Atala (D.O.M., Brasil), David Thompson (#28 Nahm, Thailand), Andy Allen and Ben Milbourne.
“We’re bringing together maybe 50 of the world’s best chefs and all sorts of fantastic winemakers and wine critics. It [the festival] can be fun and relaxing or it can be quite educational. Whether you’re familiar with Margaret River wines or not, this is a really great way to introduce yourself to an important wine region.”
Margaret River Gourmet Escape supported by Food Network is happening 16-19 November 2017. Tickets are available through Ticketek.
Curtis Stone's Surfing The Menu - season 1 - airs weekdays at 4:30pm on Food Network.