By David Sly
A country hotel can embrace city restaurant ethics without destroying the simple ambience and personality of rural hospitality.
This is the belief of Nicola Palmer and Warrick Duthy, who bought the Watervale Hotel in Clare a year ago, and are implementing positive change through re-defining the pub’s cooking and dining philosophy.
Calling themselves “ethical epicureans”, Warwick and Nicola (her family owns Skillogalee Winery at Clare) aim to prepare elite-quality meals while simultaneously practicing eco-sustainability, recycling and provide unique training for hospitality staff.
To achieve this, the couple has also bought two nearby properties where they intend to grow much of their own food.
A plot opposite the pub is providing herbs and brassica for the hotel kitchen, but the majority of produce will come from Penobscot Farm, a 1.2ha permaculture site being tended by gardener Jared Murray, with about 70 mature fruit and nut trees, and space for more vegetable plots, and animals.
It’s part of a big makeover, as Nicola and Warrick intend to spend $1 million over two years to revitalise the hotel.
An exterior and interior facelift is already in motion, together with refreshed signage and a new website to promote the philosophical change.
Next they will re-open No. 6 Quelltaler Road, the town’s former butcher shop, as Farmgate Cellars – a diverse regional wine shop and providore, selling produce from Penobscot Farm.
The owners want Watervale to win renown as a gastronomic food destination, citing the Royal Mail Hotel (in Dunkeld, western Victoria) and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (American chef Dan Barber’s farm restaurant in New York State) as inspirational models of success.
They’ve started to implement their food ideas through a tasting plate menu at the Watervale Hotel, “inspired by the amazing street food of the world, influenced by the local flavours of The Clare Valley”.
“At the moment, it’s baby steps,” explains Warrick. “It’s a big plan that will keep growing as we get all the resources together and continue to build a team that shares the same ethical approach.”
The challenge now is enticing aspiring young chefs to the region so the philosophy can be implemented to its fullest.
“This is a special opportunity that any chef who wants to learn and perform at the highest level just won’t find in the city. They’ll have a chance to create their own food, from the soil up,” explains Warrick.
“Young hospitality workers are telling me they don’t want to come to a place like Clare because of lifestyle reasons, that it’s too far removed from city attractions, but it’s only here that they can become part of a thriving food community. It’s not an impossible dream.
“Places such as Brae in rural Victoria have been awarded Australia’s best restaurant. We want to make it happen in Clare, too.”
More notable change is happening in the Limestone Coast, with the Royal Oak Hotel in Penola having recently been sold after a long time under the control of the Hayward family.
The pub has been bought by John Rymill (former managing director of Rymill Winery in Coonawarra), with local chef Kirby Shearing taking residence in the kitchen to drive the hotel’s dining output and serve as a base for his Soul Projects catering company.
Again, the first step this country pub is taking towards revitalisation is via its menu. While not wishing to radically transform the food style, Kirby is adopting a clean food philosophy.
“We’ll be keeping food miles down on the produce we use; sourcing locally, making everything on-site, placing regional freshness as a priority,” he says.
“We won’t try to change what people like to eat, but we will be placing an emphasis on high service standards and quality. I think these are great aspects that new ownership can bring to a country pub.”
Introducing change to a beloved country pub is a delicate manoeuvre, as Frank Hannon-Tan (who also runs Amalfi Pizzeria Ristorante in Frome Street, Adelaide) and Pablo Theodoros (ex-East End Cellars) have learned as managers of the Stanley Bridge Tavern at Verdun in the Adelaide Hills.
While the pub is owned by Julie and Ed Peters (who also own the Crafers and Uraidla Hotels in the Adelaide Hills, featured previously here on Brand SA News, Hannon-Tan and Theodoros have been charged with refreshing the pub’s image through modern wines list, simplified bistro-style menu, and modern styling applied to a large rear beer garden, but without damaging the character of a beloved local watering hole.
“It has to be a locals’ pub, first and foremost,” says Theodoros, “so we have to make sure we give loyal locals the best of everything.”
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