Typically, a chef’s day starts mid-morning: there are deliveries to accept, menus to write and mise en place to prepare. But for Nicola Palmer, the life of a chef is a little different. She starts each day at dawn, checking out the morning bounty in the fruit and vegetable orchards of Penobscot Farm, an organic and biodynamic operation she runs with her husband Warrick Duthy in Watervale, the original gateway to the Clare Valley.
Tasting fresh produce is the most important meal of the day. At least it won’t be until a few hours later when the fresh ingredients are selected, harvested with the help of the farm crew, and transported just a few miles down the road to the Watervale Hotel, ready for planning and preparing the daily menu.
While Nicola decides how they will design the produce-driven menu each morning, the set-up is left in the very capable hands of Watervale’s kitchen team which includes a growing group of chefs from all corners of the globe. It’s also not your typical hotel cuisine. Visible from the expansive courtyard dining room through floor-to-ceiling glass, it is an absolute centrepiece, the central machine of an operation that has been thoughtfully designed with more than just cooking in mind. It’s a place where training and learning go hand in hand, where chefs of different levels have the chance to contribute more than their assigned stations, where ideas are championed and new techniques are applied to help create a complete epicurean experience.
It’s all part of the mission and philosophy of the Watervale Hotel: fresh food, new ideas, cooking with minimal waste, guided by the products available on the day and drawing on the expertise of the entire team, rather than relying on one person to guide – change of location and menu.
The hotel was the first part of this evolving culinary project for Nicola and Warrick, who bought the local pub in 2017 and have since repaired, refurbished and extended it with sensitivity and attention to detail into a true showcase regional destination, worthy of mention in any wine region around. the country. After my first visit since the renovation of the place, I can tell you one thing: the Clare Valley is very lucky.
We’re here for tonight’s group farm feast: a made-for-sharing tasting that follows a similar look and feel to each course but is designed with the menu at the start of each day.
There are various dining areas in the hotel, including private rooms with original historic fixtures and antique furniture, and a large central dining area. Behind the hotel there is a courtyard, carved into the earth in tiers of terraces which has a large open wood-burning grill and sturdy wood-burning ovens in one corner. It’s in this sleek space that you can see all the action in the kitchen. Knowledgeable staff move from table to table, explaining ingredients and cooking methods with a relaxed, effortless ease that adds to the experience.
First on the chopping block is Kingfish ceviche, prepared in a slightly acidic marinade that compliments the fresh flesh rather than competing with it. A stronger flavor is imparted by a dumpling of sorbet made with Vietnamese mint, this zesty addition a delicious surprise that keeps the tender pieces of tenderloin crisp and fresh. A light hand has been applied adding chili and coriander to the mix and a few flecks of spring onion impart an obvious herbaceous flavor. Next comes a much more robust starter. Almost hidden under generously strewn parmesan shavings and a mixture of fresh herbs are strips of fresh beef carpaccio. This sits in a pool of good olive oil and has a strong yet balanced flavor.
This is followed by a series of sides and salads including farm leaves tossed in an almond-infused vinaigrette, with a mixture of capers and bacon crumbs strewn between the salad. The leaves themselves deserve some attention: they immediately demonstrate the farm-to-table freshness we’ve been told to expect. Then there are broccoli florets that have been cooked over an open fire, cooled and tossed in a yogurt vinaigrette, backed up with a mix of herbs. Lightly toasted pine nuts add texture and an oaky flavor and the dish has a slightly cheesy flavor imparted by the addition of parmesan cheese. The preserved lemon provides a citrus zest that far surpasses any cheesy broccoli dish I’ve tried. And finally, a selection of beets that have each been given a different cooking treatment before coming together in a clever salad with fresh and roasted and marinated textures; a creamy vinaigrette gives a little acidity to this dish with woody flavors.
We are told that the more acidic and fresh and complex flavor of the vegetable and fruit elements of these dishes can be partly attributed to the daytime temperature range in the region, i.e. the difference between the high temperatures and low every day. This is why the Clare Valley is the ideal environment to grow its flagship grape variety, Riesling. Less common, but still benefiting from these conditions, is Fiano and the Hesketh Wines version grown just up the road in Auburn is a solid match with the next dish – a section of roast chicken coated in a herbaceous butter and presented simply on a garlicky bed of roasted then mashed potatoes tossed with smoked onions and topped with crispy carrot chips.
As we move on to the last of our main courses, we are presented with a wine pairing from much further afield – a Côte de Brouilly Gamay that stands alone against a hearty, perfectly cooked and tender strip loin that has been given the royal treatment on charcoal and served with all the trimmings. While it’s obvious The Watervale loves its neighbors, it’s a serious wine place with a wide list of offerings. Warrick is an experienced sommelier and Watervale’s cellar is full of bottles from lesser-known producers, Clare, of course, from the best parts of Australia and the rest of the world.
And as we finish our meal, it’s clear that Nicola and Warrick aren’t your typical publicans and this isn’t your typical regional hotel. They are caring epicureans, dedicated to providing pleasure through food, wine ambiance and service in an ethically right manner. It says so at the end of their menu – and it certainly comes through in every aspect of the Watervale experience.
37 Main North Road, Watervale SA
08 8843 0229
Open 7 days a week, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
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