Nestled atop a breathtaking escarpment in the world-heritage listed Blue Mountains National Park stands an Australian icon with a surprising story, health history and culturally diverse food presence.
The 100-plus-year-old Hydro Majestic Hotel, perched on a cliff’s edge in NSW’s Medlow Bath, has always been associated with the opulence and flamboyance attributed to its founder, retailing magnate Mark Foy.
But before the famous tourist destination hosted overnight stays and dinners for the 20th century’s upper class, the Hydro Majestic was actually a health retreat. To-date, it’s believed it was Australia’s first.
Established in 1904 as a hydropathic sanatorium – on the understanding that the land under the hotel contained mineral springs with healing powers – the health retreat offered a range of exotic diets and treatments from all over the world. But hydrotherapy success didn’t last long and the retreat stopped operating two years later. It turned out that the mineral springs had either never existed or dried up. Guests also quickly tired of the strict health regime and rules imposed on them.
Lucky for our national history and the region’s cultural diversity, the establishment was rebranded as a luxury retreat in 1906 and named the ‘Hydro Majestic’.
Bucking the dominant Anglo culture of the day, Foy injected an Eastern flavour throughout the venue that can be seen in the interior design, architecture and kitchen menu of the restored Hydro hotel today.
Adam Holmes, the operations manager of Escarpment Group (which currently owns the Hydro Majestic), tells SBS that Foy was culturally progressive and slightly outrageous for the 1900s.
“In the great Mark Foy era of the Hydro Majestic, Turkish coffee was served by Turkish waiters and Chinese tea by Chinese waiters."
Not only did he regularly host cross-dressing parties for his friends and socialise dressed in his wife’s clothes from time-to-time, but he was passionate about Asian culture, drapery, fashion and food at a time when racism towards immigrants prevailed.
Holmes says Foy employed many Chinese workers who came to the Blue Mountains after failed attempts to source gold in the Bathurst goldfields.
“In the great Mark Foy era of the Hydro Majestic, Turkish coffee was served by Turkish waiters and Chinese tea by Chinese waiters,” Holmes explains.
One of the most famous of Foy’s workers and lifelong friends was a Chinese immigrant called Louie Goh Mong (nicknamed “Charlie) who was the Hydro Majestic’s first head chef and worked for Foy for 35 years.
Majesty and multiculturalism today
The Hydro’s cultural flair continued into the twenty-first century, reopening in 2014 after a period of closure and a $30 million renovation, with new owners Vietnamese refugee-turned successful businesswoman, Huong Nguyen, and George Saad.
Determined to honour the past and deliver a nod to the Blue Mountain’s ethnically diverse present, the Escarpment Group employs people from 30 different nationalities to work in their kitchens, and nine languages are spoken in the Hydro Majestic kitchen alone.
“There are so many flavours cooking techniques and flavour profiles in the kitchen," says former head chef at the Hydro Majestic, Mate Herceg. “We open our doors to people who want to work here [from other countries]. So we are really lucky to have this culture in our kitchen where we can lean on people and their food traditions to see what we can do with our menus. We are so diverse in what we can offer in the hotel and our sister properties.”
Herceg says the group’s menus often feature native ingredients, sourced locally, as well as a range of ethnically diverse flavours. Most of the food and wine served across the group’s dining venues are sourced from within a 100 mile (160km) radius of the kitchen, distinguishable by the flavour of crisp Blue Mountains air and earthy tones of the Central West. A growing proportion of vegetables, fruit and herbs come from the 1000 square metres of edible garden at the Parklands, and all items sold at the Hydro Majestic Pavilion are sourced from areas such as Lithgow, Orange, Bathurst, Mudgee, the Blue Mountains and Western Sydney.
As an ode to the Hydro’s unsung hero – Charlie – the Wintergarden restaurant also hosts an Eastern high tea. “Our Eastern high tea is unique to the Hydro Majestic,” Holmes explains.
The Eastern high tea, offered alongside the more traditional Anglo high tea menu, includes a selection of steamed eastern dumplings, crispy barbecue duck spring roll, prawn and vegetarian rice paper roll, twice cooked pork belly and a selection of eastern and western desserts.
“What could transcend cultures quite like dumplings, Vietnamese rice paper rolls and Chinese twice-cooked pork belly, scones with jam and clotted cream and a tier of petit fours..."
Tea and coffee are, of course, part of the experience, but guests can opt to go one step further ordering authentic Chinese blossom tea – a work of tea art, where a hand-bound flower expands with warm water, theatrically releasing a floral tea flavour and aroma.
“What could transcend cultures quite like dumplings, Vietnamese rice paper rolls and Chinese twice-cooked pork belly, scones with jam and clotted cream and a tier of petit fours served by waiters from around the world, and washed down with a pot of blossom tea?''
The Flying Fox and Cat’s Alley, at the Hydro’s ‘Salon du The’, also offers an Asian-inspired menu and a range of cocktails and wines with views of the Megalong Valley.
Holmes tells SBS that in mid-2018, the Escarpment Group will expand its multicultural food offerings, opening a new dining venue, Miss Lilian Teahouse, on the grounds of Lilianfels Resort & Spa at Echo Point.
The teahouse will serve a range of authentic Asian-style street foods such as meat skewers, spring rolls, rice paper rolls, dumplings and noodles.
The menu will be previewed at the Leura Harvest Festival happening at the hotel’s Asian fusion food stand at Leura Mall on Sunday 6 April. Visitors can also taste some of the Hydro’s high tea treats, which will be available at the festival stall.
This week on Luke Nguyen's Food Trail, Luke meets with his dear friend and one of Hydro Majestic's owners' Huong Nguyen who gives him a grand tour of the premises. Watch the full episode below.