Nikki Wallman signs up for a cooking workshop with soul at Biota, the regional NSW restaurant bringing simplicity and restraint back to fine dining.
So often, a ‘special’ restaurant meal resembles a torrid love affair. You dress up; neck some very good wine, and embark on an adventure that’s over all too soon, leaving you strangely… empty.
But Biota, two-hatted star of NSW’s Southern Highlands, offers guests a longer-lasting relationship, based on respect and understanding. Famous for chef James Viles’s reverence for the beautiful produce of the region, Biota now runs cooking workshops – including dinner and on-site accommodation – allowing guests an insight into the restaurant’s ethos and (quite literally) down-to-earth approach.
“I hope people take away the fact that simplicity and restraint is actually achievable,” explains Viles. “We love Mother Nature, and to allow people to think about her more in the cooking process may help them create dishes that inspire not only them, but others as well.”
Arriving around 7pm, I check in before heading to Biota’s warmly lit, Nordic-chic dining room. Tonight’s tasting menu consists of ‘snacks’ (creamy smoked Dory roe with crisp charcoal shards is a highlight), seven courses, salted caramel popcorn and velvety ‘eucalypt gums’ to finish.
Technique is king here, teasing out astonishing flavour from simple ingredients. Fermented peas provide earthy contrast to almond crème and fleshy artichokes; a ‘porridge’ of grains cooked in duck juices is moreish, and the sinfully sticky lamb rib with malt and black vinegar has us gnawing the bones.
A semi-sweet soft-serve of ‘parsnip softie’ in a blueberry and saltbush pastry base leaves pings of salt bouncing off the ice-cream in my mouth. Every dish is at once familiar and revelatory; I can’t wait to pick these guys’ brains tomorrow.
I toddle a few metres to my Scandinavian-style room for the night. It’s cosy, cool and compact: all you need for a stay that’s primarily about the experience just outside the door.
The next morning, I wander back to the restaurant’s casual bar and dining area to enjoy granola with generous chunks of fig followed by perfectly pink cured trout, draped over creamy scrambled eggs with pops of pickled cucumber. Caffeinated and sated, I’m ready to learn.
Today’s group is small; just me and a Sydney couple, Emma and David (the class is Emma’s birthday present), under the guidance of sous-chef Geordie. He’s passionate about what he does here, and happy to share why.
We start with a tour of the grounds: situated within Bowral yet hidden by tall, dense hedges, Biota is a little world unto itself. The chefs from last night trudge around with a sunny sense of purpose, readying new garden beds for spring.
“The chefs spend just as much time out of the kitchen as they do in it,” says Viles. “It’s important for them to feel free, it enables us to be curious and creative in our approach.” Geordie explains the winter “slowdown” in terms of what can be grown – no barrier to creativity, of course.
“When your box becomes smaller, you start to think outside it,” he smiles.
We learn how seedlings are propagated in the poly-tunnel; how the on-site bees produce Biota’s honey; visit the plump, proud chooks who provide eggs; and how the deliciously named ‘worm juice’ flows from the compost bins, flooding the soil with nutrient-rich goodness.
“We try to re-use everything; try to rely on nature,” explains Geordie.
Back in the kitchen, as a young cook painstakingly prepares blueberry and saltbush pastry, Geordie introduces the dish we’ll be cooking in today’s ‘single-origin grains’ workshop: duck broth with soba noodles made from buckwheat and spelt flour sourced from Gunnedah.
It’s all totally informal, Geordie making the dish himself as he explains the process (think interactive ‘show and tell’ experience, rather than standing at benches, Masterchef-style).
We pepper him with questions as he shows us the hand-mill used to grind the grains; kneads noodle dough and slices it into perfectly cut strips; and demystifies the effort required to make a delicious bone broth. These are classic, simple ingredients and flavours – it’s what he does with them that makes them special.
We taste mushrooms charred in a searing hot pan to enhance their umami flavour; watch as Geordie adds ginger, garlic and spring onions, before choosing to fry the noodles, rather than boiling them. They’re delicious: crunchy, nutty-tasting. We spoon the broth and vegies over them before eating our meal together and heading home with the recipe – inspired, invigorated, and very full.
The Details: Biota, Bowral
Getting there: Bowral is about 90 minutes’ drive south-west from Sydney, in NSW’s Southern Highlands.
Playing there: Biota workshops (including dinner, accommodation, brunch and class) cost $350 per person, twin-share. Classes include butchery, bread-making, and cooking with vegetables.