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Chefs in the City 2016 – Matt Bremerkamp from Restaurant Botanica

Being a Head Chef at a Spicers Retreats restaurant is no mean feat. It is an accomplished fraternity of professionals at the peak of their powers. Chefs in the City can be a daunting forum for our chefs to showcase their culinary prowess at the best of times, let alone doing it for the first time while flying solo in the kitchen.

So it was with some trepidation that I popped my head into the small kitchen at Simla, home to the Balfour Suites, to meet Matt Bremerkamp for the first time and ask how he was doing.

Matt is the head chef at Restaurant Botanica at Spicers Vineyards Estate in the Hunter Valley. He has over twenty years of experience gained working in restaurants and gastro-pubs across the UK, then in Melbourne, before moving to the Hunter Valley. With a myriad of local producers and a comprehensive vegetable garden at hand, not to mention the odd drop the Hunter Valley has to offer, Matt has taken to modern Australian cuisine like the proverbial duck to water.

“Oh yeah, not too bad,” came the relaxed reply. Given the popularity and busyness of Restaurant Botanica it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Botanica has an enviable reputation in the Hunter Valley as a must-do dining experience. If recent rave reviews are any guide, the kitchen has only gone from strength to strength with Matt at the helm.

With a quick rundown of the menu I joined the growing crowd in the front courtyard at Simla for a glass of Veuve and a some tasty canapes. I neglected to ask what was in the sauce that accompanied the popcorn pork but I’d happily put it on just about anything.

We headed inside to be greeted by a beautiful candlelit long table, adorned with vines clipped that very morning from the vineyard that sits on Spicers Vineyards Estate. The fire was on, the lights were dim and the mood was perfect for some great food and wine.

With Spicers Sommelier Peter Marchant away, Spicers Vineyards Estate General Manager (and Matt’s wife) Clare Bremerkamp assumed hosting duties. The evening began with a wine options game. Glasses were poured from a wrapped bottle to avoid giving the name away, and guests stood ready to test themselves as the elimination questions began.

The numbers left standing dwindled the more our wine knowledge was tested. Eventually a victor was crowned, having narrowed down the secret wine to a 2015 Tyrrell’s white blend, revealed as their stellar Part and Parcel. This premium blend of Semillon, Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer and Verdelho has been a labour of love for Chris Tyrrell, crafting an eminently drinkable wine perfect for Australia.

We were seated to finish our glass of Part and Parcel and invited to sample the sourdough baked at Restaurant Botanica that morning. As with so many products from the Hunter Valley, age plays a vital part, with the yeast culture for this batch of bread having been active for over 120 years. Spread with honey and thyme butter and sprinkled with Shiraz salt – again, both from the Hunter – I could happily have eaten it as a course of its own.

Our first course of winter leaves, garden beets, Binnorie Feta, crisp pancetta and vino cotto was the perfect complement to the Part and Parcel blend. The delicate balance of the sweetest beets, the crunchy savour of the pancetta and subtle tang of the feta were the perfect combination. The hum of conversation and clinking cutlery over the first course were typical of Chefs in the City events in the past – food and wine lovers enjoying new flavours and new friends.

There was no guessing required as the next glass was poured – a 2014 Mistletoe Chardonnay – and the second course of ocean trout tartare was served. Having never been much of a Chardonnay drinker I was converted by this sensational number, with a delicious caramel note that made it hard to put down. Our ocean trout was tender and tasty, freshened with the pickled cucumber and lemon, while the puffed wild rice added texture and crunch.

Having had a peek at the menu ahead of time, the next course was the one I had been waiting for – Wagyu beef cheek with red peppers, chorizo, white beans and celeriac. The Wagyu could have been a case study for what happens when you take a cut of meat best suited to being cooked low and slow and do it to perfection. The beef cheek was fall-apart soft, while the house made chorizo added a spice to the delicious white bean, celeriac and red peppers served with jus.

With Tyrrell’s being one of the oldest and best known wineries in the Hunter Valley it was only fitting that they should provide the wine match with a Tyrrell’s Stevens Vineyard Shiraz,  paired beautifully with the Wagyu and accompaniments. A medium bodied red, this wine is from what many are calling the greatest season for Shiraz in the history of Hunter Valley wine – 2014. With perfect conditions and slightly above average yields there is plenty to go around and the 2014 Stevens Vineyard from Tyrrell’s is one to buy.

As plates were being cleared Clare instructed all diners to check under their seat, with one lucky couple winning a two night stay at Spicers Vineyards Estate, plus a $250 Flight Centre voucher to help get them there. As it turns out the winning couple were originally from Pokolbin, as well as regular guests of Spicers, and the opportunity to return topped off what what was already a great evening all the more special.

Dessert arrived in the form of a spectacular set chocolate mousse, with honeycomb, berries and a brown butter cream that was as smooth as it was spectacular. Mistletoe wines again featured, with the dessert match coming in the form of a 2013 Petite Muscat – a delicious white muscat perfectly matched against the dark chocolate and berries.

There was near silence as guests enjoyed their dessert, and barely a trace of it left on anyone’s plate. Chef Matt appeared during dessert service to meet and chat with guests, all of whom were effusive in their praise. To deliver such a delicious and balanced meal singlehandedly was nothing short of amazing, and to do so in a different kitchen so far from home – incredible.

For information on the next Chefs in the City event with Cameron Matthews from The Long Apron at Spicers Clovelly Estate, or any of the other upcoming events, visit chefsinthecity.com.au