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Watershed Premium Wines’ Dan Gedge trained under one of the best – Rick Stein – and at this year’s Gourmet Escape the much-loved chef from Cornwall will cook side by side with his former trainee.
It really is no surprise that the Margaret River region has been rated by the Brits as Australia’s answer to Cornwall.
With epic windswept shorelines, some of the best surf in the country and incredible produce – both from sea and land – the similarities are striking. What sets our part of the world apart from Cornwall are the wineries of the region and their restaurants. Sitting pretty among the vines are some of the nation’s best regional dining experiences. It’s practically heaven on earth for any chef; where else can you fit in a quick day’s surf, a day’s work and still be home for the family dinner? Not to mention the temperatures are significantly warmer than old Blighty and the scenery is simply breathtaking.
While not born and bred on the rocky shores of Cornwall, it is that stunning pocket of the UK that’s responsible for Dan Gedge donning the chef’s jacket – and he hasn’t taken it off since.
Chatting with Dan in the sun-drenched spacious dining space of Watershed’s restaurant it’s clear that after six years in the south west, Margaret River has become a place he calls home.
“I’ve become hooked on the lifestyle here,” says Dan. “The produce, the beaches, the surf, and the fact that we are just drinking great wine every day. I can’t believe that I have become a wine snob almost immediately! We are very, very lucky.” he says with a laugh.
It was entirely by accident that he fell into the cooking game, moving to Cornwall after his first few career choices didn’t quite develop as planned.
“I trained as an electrician though I very quickly found out that I was in fact colour-blind so that didn’t really work out,” he says.
After a brief foray into business it was during a break in Cornwall where he was washing dishes that his life took a new turn and a new passion for cooking took centre stage.
“I’ve always loved food and have really fond memories of peeling carrots and potatoes with my mum. I ended up washing dishes at the restaurant and it kind of just fell into my lap by pure luck,” he says.
“There were a few guys who called in sick one day and they gradually got me doing more in the kitchen, giving me more responsibility and I ended up with an apprenticeship.”
The restaurant in question wasn’t exactly a country pub either. His training began under the watchful eye of one of the most respected chefs in the country, Rick Stein, continuing until he ended up as second-in-command at Stein’s flagship restaurant in Padstow.
It’s clear that the famed chef imparted more than just culinary style and technique.
“I’ve always had a great working relationship with Rick and his son, Jack,” says Dan. “We called him The Old Man, and everybody respected him. His philosophy is to take four or five ingredients and create one of the best dishes, you don’t need to over-complicate things.
“When I worked for him at the time I started to think at one point maybe what I was doing was a bit simple, but it’s only now that I look back on it with clarity. He’s stuck by his guns and does classic cooking and a lot more.
“It all comes down to the best quality of ingredients you can get. The best Amalfi lemons, the best pasta, the freshest crab. And that works. It just works.”
Seasonal produce, supporting local producers and letting those ingredients shine is very important part of Dan’s philosophy.
“I buy a lot from the farmer’s market. I’m normally there in the morning to pick up cheese and other bits and pieces. Vegetables are harvested on the day or the day before – you really can’t get fresher.
“I know in the UK, farmer’s markets are sometimes an excuse to charge $20 for four carrots because they are organic and so on. Here we grow beautiful veg in abundance and it’s accessible to everyone. I generally leave the local farmer’s market loaded with produce for work, as well as a list for home.”
Dan is keen to change up the menu format at Watershed to make the most of the produce opportunities that come in.
“A lot of places here run seasonal menus, usually every three months. For me it’s not something I’ve ever done before, I’ve tried to move away from that. Ideally what we are going to try and do is get to something we can change daily. It’s just a great way of showcasing ingredients when they come in.”
And the change in menu doesn’t just highlight the produce. “I also think it keeps the guys in the kitchen motivated,” he says. “When you do the same thing over and over again it becomes monotonous. So now, if someone has an ida we might change just one or two dishes.”
“Looking around the room, at both the faces of the customers in for lunch and at the innovative and flavour-driven dishes in front of them, I think it is safe to say Dan and his team are hitting the brief – no easy feat when serving up to 250 people a day in the busy restaurant and adjoining café.
“There are a lot of things that keep me going,” he says. “I’ve always loves Asian food and I think with Australian cuisine, you always find a lot of Thai, Vietnamese, or Japanese creeping into the dishes. I’ve also travelled a lot and worked in India, Sri Lanka for a very short period of time. I draw from everything really, with inspiration for a dish I always think of the flavours and try and see what works with the ingredients to hand.”
After working alongside Rick for eight years, this year’s Gourmet Escape will be the first to see Dan and his mentor cooking side by side with alternate dishes in a shared menu for guests at Watershed.
“I’ve always cooked for him in previous years at The Gourmet Escape but this is the first that we are doing my own food alongside his. It will be a sort of sorcerer and apprentice-type event. It was way back in 1999 with Rick when I learnt to cook and now we get to do a dinner where I do a course, he does a course, I do a course … it’s going to be amazing.
“It’s all about paying homage to the ingredients which is as, you know, the foundation of cooking. Produce and treating it with respect.