• The Anchovy at Sutton Grange Winery lunches will run from 31 October to 22 November. (Mark Roper)Source: Mark Roper
Thi Le's restaurant Anchovy is headed for Bendigo's Sutton Grange Winery, Australia’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
Lee Tran Lam

30 Oct 2020 - 11:09 AM  UPDATED 2 Nov 2020 - 10:29 PM

"I had no idea where Bendigo was a year ago!" exclaims Thi Le.

The chef behind Melbourne's Anchovy is moving her restaurant to the Bendigo wine region. Throughout November, she'll be running weekend lunches at Sutton Grange Winery.

It's a big move – especially as Le has yet to visit the area. But she has been familiar with its winemaker, Melanie Chester, for a long time.

"We've always been a fan of Mel Chester's wine. It's always been on the menu at Anchovy."

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The Anchovy at Sutton Grange Winery residency will be a win-win situation for both businesses.

The winery's functions centre has been empty for months, because of the pandemic. "They've had everything cancelled since March," says Le. Fifteen wedding bookings fell through, along with other corporate events.

For Le, it offers a much-needed contrast to months of takeaway-only mode: she transformed her restaurant into Anchovy To Go during lockdown, because she couldn't serve dine-in customers until recently.

"I miss putting things on plates," says Le, who's been assembling hundreds of banh mi orders each week.

The inspiration for the Bendigo residency began back in June, when Melbourne restaurants were briefly allowed to accept a few diners if they complied with physical-distancing restrictions.

The easing of restrictions should have been a relief – especially as Melbourne restaurants have spent most of this year in lockdown.

But Anchovy's business actually dropped when dine-in trade was allowed in June: banh mi orders halved and when she opened the restaurant for dinner, "no one wanted to eat late anymore".

Melbourne felt like a ghost town, because people had left. "Everyone went camping," Le says. The chef suspected the same thing would happen once restrictions lifted again in late October.

"We thought if everyone's going regional, why don't we go to regional?"

So Le and her partner Jia-Yen Lee (who also runs Anchovy) connected with Chester and set up the residency at the Sutton Grange estate in Bendigo.

"We thought if everyone's going regional, why don't we go to regional?"

"There's this massive wrap-around balcony that looks over the dam and vineyard. We're taking over the verandah," says Le.

The chef will incorporate her surroundings into her food, by using leftover grapevines in her cooking.

Take her hot and sour skate dish with rhubarb, bean curd and lemongrass: she'll marinate the fish in a natto paste, then finish it by barbecuing the skate over trimmings from the winery. "We cook it on the grapevines and cook it slowly and get the smoke through," she says.

It's one way she's interpreting a much-loved Anchovy dish on the winery grounds. But she's open to more experimenting.

"We're going to do things that we know work. As the weeks go by, we'll develop more things down the track," she says.

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For Jia-Yen Lee, having a chance to expand Anchovy's wine offering is another upside of this Sutton Grange residency. "The list at Anchovy is tiny and often it is a struggle deciding which of Sutton Grange's wines go on the menu because I want them all!" she says. Now, she won't have to limit the number of the vineyard's bottles she can pour.

"When you go to a lot of wine regions around Australia, a lot of the cuisine is dominated by Europeans," says Le. "But you don't really see Southeast Asian [cuisine] in wine regions." It's another reason that this Anchovy at Sutton Grange residency will stand out.

The chef's Vietnamese heritage will inspire the menu in other ways. Typically, the estate offers cured meats with its wine tastings. This might get an Anchovy twist, as Le is currently experimenting with charcuterie that reflects her roots.

"We're making nem chua [fermented sausage]," she says. "Then the pig's head terrine, giò thủ: [it'll be] stir-fried in five-spice and mixed in with wood ear mushrooms and pressed."

She'll also unbottle the many jars of pine mushrooms that she pickled in autumn with coconut vinegar, coriander seed, honey and sesame.

The chef is also keen to take advantage of her time in Bendigo, which was named a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO last year. It's an international honour that it shares with places such as Chengdu (home to China's first professional chef, Peng Zu, and world-famous for its Sichuan cuisine) and Alba (the Italian city known as the globe's "white truffle capital"). It's also the first Australian city to be recognised this way.

Bendigo is home to Laucke, which is Australia’s longest-running family-owned flour miller, the beloved Holy Goat farm (which is close to Sutton Grange – so its cheese may make a cameo on the menu) and Aunty Julie McHale, a Dja Dja Wurrung elder who bakes bread with kangaroo seed the way Indigenous people did more than 50,000 years ago.

"She's actually coming to our first day to have lunch, so hopefully I can connect with her", says Le. It's one of many ways that the region might influence Anchovy during its month-long stay.

"This whole COVID thing has made us look at our own lives and at the business. If this thing goes really successful, if it's booked out and there's demand, we might relocate," she says. "But if it's something that's fun for everyone and...for giving Bendigo something different, then the next four weeks will be great," says Le.

The Anchovy at Sutton Grange Winery lunches will run from 31 October to 22 November. For more info, visit the Anchovy site.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

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