Restaurant Botanica in full bloom at the verdant heart of the Hunter Valley

Spicers Vineyard Estate, hidden among grapevines and gumtrees outside of Pokolbin, has been refining its style under head chef Chris Rhoney over the past year, broadening the appeal of the five-star retreat’s Restaurant Botanica to casual diners seeking cuisine with impeccable provenance and a superb regional wine list.

Spicers’ signature emphasis on locally sourced produce and naturally sustainable practices is in full flight under Rhoney, who took up the mantle of head chef in June 2020 after a year-long spell as senior sous chef at Mitchelton Wines in Nagambie, Victoria.

Having been awarded One Chef Hat in the Australian Good Food Guide for the past three years and two glasses in the 2020 Australian Wine List of the Year Awards, Restaurant Botanica has set Rhoney and the dedicated kitchen and front of house crew a high standard to maintain.

“This is my first role as a head chef, however there is an amazing amount of support and encouragement from the leadership team and the junior staff members,” says Rhoney. “The team is small, but we have created an amazing bond in the kitchen; we work so well together, bouncing ideas and having a laugh while doing it.”

A beautifully catered country adventure

Spicers Vineyards Estate is the ideal base from which to explore everything the Hunter Valley has to offer, with seasonal dishes effortlessly matched with wines from the Hunter – Australia’s oldest wine region – while the onsite Spa Anise adds to the feeling of rejuvenation and appreciation of life that comes as naturally at Spicers Vineyard Estate as appreciating the latest vintage.

Head chef Rhoney loves the team dynamic, “Everyone at Botanica has a shared purpose to provide the best possible experience for our guests. The atmosphere is really positive and the property itself is extremely beautiful.”

The Estate has just 12 luxury suites plus a separate four-bedroom Vineyard House (with private pool), each with its own fireplace and spa facilities, set among 22 glorious acres scattered with majestic gum trees, vineyards and the Brokenback Range framing the horizon.

The spacious country estate is ideal for intimate events and long, convivial days and nights enjoying some of the region’s finest cuisine and wine with friends, family or colleagues.

Botanica chefs need a green thumb.

Visitors and guests can see Chris, his kitchen team and gardening guru Myriam working in the abundant kitchen garden, but more often the chefs are there selecting the freshest, most flavoursome fruit, vegetables and herbs, which take the vegetarian and vegan a la carte options to a new level, and each dish is paired with a matching wine on the menu.

Rhoney says, “Now we’re well into summer, we have an abundance of the ripest heirloom tomatoes. Also in season are baby carrots, finger limes, a plethora of herbs, salad ingredients, rockmelons, spaghetti squash, water cress and more.”

“I love to cook food that I want to eat,” he explains. “What comes out of Botanica needs to be generous, balanced and approachable. For example, the potato gnocchi with those heirloom tomatoes roasted, with basil and Binnorie feta is beautiful in its own way, but even though it’s not as composed as some of our other dishes, it could easily be eaten as part of a seven-course degustation or as a relaxed supper with a glass of wine.”

“Why? Because it tells a story. Our gnocchi represents simple but top-quality ingredients, with the tomatoes coming from our own garden, full of amazing flavour.”

“The carrots feature in the confit pork belly with rainbow chard and jus gras or are pickled for the spring vegetable tart. Our finger limes add a unique zing to the wild-caught kingfish ceviche with grapefruit and chives, and the rockmelons are still ripening, but look amazing and will be used for breakfast and salads.”

Showcasing the Hunter region is central to the Botanica ethos. What the kitchen can’t grow, they source seasonally from a host of small-scale farmers or from the surrounding country.

Spicers’ commitment to sustainability is from the ground up. Their “plant the seed” initiatives, including recycling and reuse programs and composting, are in full swing at each of their retreats.

Organic waste from the Botanica kitchen is composted then added to the vegetable garden, although some of the choicest vegetable off-cuts are given to Crackles the resident pig. The Estate has recently introduced beehives to the vineyards, just a short distance from the garden, and you can see and hear them buzzing around the property, pollinating anything that flowers and making honey for the hungry humans.

Michelin-starred technique with Australian attitude

Head chef Chris Rhoney hails from Lancashire in the UK, and one of his first chef roles was with Andrew Simmonds as pastry junior sous from 2009 to 2012, at the Michelin-starred Danesfield House Hotel & Spa in the UK.

“I was Adam Simmonds pastry chef when he received his first Michelin star,” Rhoney recalls. “He was a hard guy to work for and it was the toughest two years of my career, but it really helped make my CV stand out. He taught me a lot, and the most important lessons were about consistency and finesse.”

Rhoney’s move to Australia in 2014 began with three amazing years at Alla Wolf-Tasker’s iconic Lakehouse Restaurant in Daylesford, where he started as chef de partie, but was given the opportunity to develop his skills and creativity in the pastry department and gained the position of sous chef and head pastry chef.

“At the Lakehouse, there was an amazing sense of generosity,” said Rhoney. “We didn’t want customers feeling hungry as they left. Alla is one of the hardest working people I know; she was always doing something for the industry and constantly raising the food standard.”

“David Green was my first head chef in Australia and he’s still a good friend. I loved the way he ran his kitchen – it was almost relaxed, lots of joking and laughter while still producing amazing food. That was an eye opener after kitchens like Adam Simmonds’, who was quite the opposite if something went wrong!”

Compared to the culture of UK fine-dining restaurants, Rhoney finds Australian restaurant kitchens far more collegial with less attitude, but with no less hard work or dedication to the cause.

Describing the Restaurant Botanica attitude, Rhoney says, “When developing new dishes and menus, we work as a team – both kitchen and front of house. Our peoples’ ideas and feedback are invaluable, and with collaboration comes ownership and a powerful sense of pride. This is quite strange to me sometimes. In the past, I have experienced quite a lot of friction between the two departments, especially in English kitchens.”

In tune with nature’s bounty

Rhoney says, “At Botanica we aim to produce delicious food that our guests enjoy so much they want to eat it again and again. We want our guests to get goose bumps while eating the food – just like chefs feel when talking about the food we love.”

“Botanica’s style is French bistro-modern Australian, similar to River Cottage, with a touch of country goodness all through the seasonal menus. Being next to a vineyard certainly brings a sense of rustic indulgence and vinous pleasure to the table. Our team have fantastic wine knowledge and we always try to showcase the Hunter Valley wines and ensure dishes can be paired with the region’s iconic shiraz and semillon.”

Rhoney has come to embrace wood-fire cooking, or grilling over dry grape vine canes, loving the flavours it brings to the ingredients.

“The Riverina beef sirloin, served with onion soubise, bone marrow and confit onion, is cooked over fire,” says Rhoney, “as are other veg and even our breakfasts too, which makes our morning dining for guests a little different from other venues.”

All the ingredients of a passionate chef’s life

Head chef Chris Rhoney had a childhood steeped in food and the bounty of the wild environment. Starting a pastry apprentice at 16, Chris was blessed with a family who both encouraged his natural love of cooking and his personal resilience at the same time.

“Mum was an amazing home cook. The family never had a lot of money, but mum learnt how to stretch ingredients and avoid wastage.”

“Like me, my aunt was a pastry chef, and my grandma used to cook in an aged care facility. My grandad was a game keeper looking after deer, and my uncle had his own fish monger/butcher and smokehouse so we always had fish in the house.”

“Grandad sometimes took us ‘treading’, where you walk barefooted up stream and stand on flat fish, reach down and grab them and throw them to shore. We’d cook them at home and eat them with lemon and bread and butter.”

“I love that food brings people and family together, and I’ve never wanted to do anything else for work but cook. Working chef hours limits social engagement with family and friends however my wonderful patient and understanding wife Grace and I still manage to find windows to cook, share experiences, laugh and indulge a little.”

Chris has vivid memories two very different environments where he felt totally at home: fishing for lobster near Kinsale, a fishing town in Cork, Ireland, and dining at the Maze by Gordon Ramsay, which was more relaxed than previous starred restaurants he’d visited, and the food was incredible. This is a combination of experiences that perfectly matches Spicers’ emphasis on the freshest ingredients from clean, sustainable environments, artfully presented with the utmost skill and finesse in the kitchen.

Tasting the menu

“Even though I’m a trained pastry chef, I don’t eat very many desserts,” says Chris. “My preference is not for heavy or sickly-sweet deserts to finish a meal, and my favourite dessert at the moment is the poached nectarine with vanilla mascarpone, raspberry and almond. It’s so simple but so beautiful and colourful. The nectarine is super light and the flavours just work so well together.”

“I also love the beef tartare with cured egg yolk, tomato, and salt and vinegar chips. It’s a little unusual to prepare because we taste all the components to ensure the seasoning is correct, and with the tartare, you need to try the complete dish rather than each of the raw ingredients.”

“Both my sous chef and I dined in Botanica on separate occasions and we were just blown away with the tartare. If I do say so myself, the food, service and atmosphere in the restaurant just lifted the dish to a new level.”

“It’s not currently on the menu, but one of my favourite veg dishes at Botanica is the wild mushroom tortellini with braised lentils and English spinach. I love working with pasta and once we perfected the tortellini, it was such a joy to make. When it was on the menu, it outsold all of the proteins, and we can all look forward to its reappearance when the wild mushrooms are back in season.”

A place to celebrate and savour.

Spicers Vineyard Estate is the perfect romantic base to experience life and explore the delights of Hunter Valley with a hot air balloon flight, or swoop over wine country on your own helicopter tour or pick up one of our gourmet picnic hamper and find your sweet spot in the shade.

Restaurant Botanica and the Estate are a two-hour drive from Sydney or one hour from Newcastle; Sydney Airport is 190km away, Newcastle Airport is 80km. Transfers are available upon request.