Lunch at Oak Valley farm is a paddock-to-plate event, with everything from the beef, lamb and vegies to the honey and berries grown on the property.

So what does it take for a restaurant to earn a highly coveted chef’s hat in record time? It no doubt helps if you combine the skills of a publican with 40 years experience in hospitality, a chef with an impeccable CV and a restaurant manager with extensive experience in butchery and smallgoods. But they all agree that the secret ingredient is the freshest possible produce grown exclusively for them, on their own farm. Or perhaps that should be ingredients. Because Highline restaurant in the Railway Hotel in the inner Melbourne suburb of Windsor has access to an absolutely remarkable range of raw materials, all grown less than two hours drive from the CBD on Oak Valley farm in the Strathbogie Ranges.

It all began when publican Wayne (aka Edward) Sullivan bought Oak Valley about 16 years ago. Having grown up in the Yarra Valley and owned pubs all over Victoria, he felt an affinity for the land and always imagined himself with a country bolthole and a few livestock to keep himself active and involved. So he and his wife Katrina couldn’t have been happier when they bought Oak Valley and established a herd of Angus and Charolais cattle and later a flock of Dorper sheep. A vegie garden was a given, and through the years they’ve also built up an extensive orchard with everything from citrus and quince, to apples, stone fruit and pomegranates. Sharing good food and wine is important to the Sullivans, so it wasn’t too great a leap for Wayne to add running a fine restaurant to his wish list. It finally came together at the end of 2014, when Wayne and his restaurant manager and butcher son-in-law Peter McCormack decided to revamp the dining options at the Windsor Hotel. “We’d always had a pub bistro, but with access to the farm produce we knew we could take it to another level,” Wayne says. “Chef Simon Tarlington came on board in October and within three months we were awarded a chef’s hat in The Australian Good Food & Travel Guide awards.”

Simon has had an appreciation of farmers and local, seasonal produce since his childhood in the central Queensland town of Bundaberg. His grandparents came from Eastern Europe so he grew up thinking it was normal to grow your own vegies, keep chooks for meat and eggs and make your own wine, beer and sausages. Having completed his apprenticeship at Brisbane’s Hilton Hotel he worked his way through the ranks of Brisbane’s fine diners before heading overseas for even greater challenges in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay first at Maze and then under the tutelage of chef patron Clare Smyth at the three Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. However it wasn’t until he returned to Australia and joined the brigade at Peter Gilmore’s celebrated Quay restaurant in Sydney that his grass roots approach to food finally gelled.

“All my previous experience had been with a very traditional approach to food,” Simon explains. “Very fine food, but traditionally prepared and presented. Peter opened my eyes to a whole new approach and everything about the way I cook has changed. Now it’s all about the flavour and staying true to the raw materials to ensure the freshest possible produce makes it onto the plate.”

Simon estimates that about 90 percent of the produce used at Highline comes from Oak Valley. The beef and lamb are from the farm, as is Berkshire pork from the pigs that are grown out there. The chickens provide eggs with yolks of eye-squinting yellow and revelatory depth of flavour. Depending on the time of year, the vegie patch will provide everything from tomatoes, leeks and garlic, to spinach, zucchinis, pumpkin, rhubarb and olives. With his vast experience of smallgoods manufacture Peter McCormack oversees the production of ham, bacon, sausages and salumi and when combined with the fruit of the many trees in the orchard, it means that a meal at Highline is indeed a home-grown affair.

Find out more about the successes and sustainable ethos of Oak Valley farm  in our May issue, available for order and online now!

Words: Kirsty McKenzie

Photography: Kim Selby 

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