Why chefs work a snow season
Mark LeBrooy from Three Blue Ducks in Sydney and The Gully and Astra Lodge in Falls Creek hits the backcountry with fellow 'blue duck' Jeff Bennett and Winter Olympian and World Cup medalist Steve Lee.
In a record season it just seems like another #privilegedskierproblem to talk about the food offerings, or lack of them. I could complain, again, about the $58 takeaway pizza and salad for one I ingested at the ski fields recently.
I could talk about the $15 undercooked baguette bread filled with processed chicken and cheese described as ‘gourmet’, the microwaved pre-packaged flavourless muffin that stuck to the lining of my stomach or I could tell you about the food outlets getting it right.
For every embarrassing over nuked schlop you remember there will also be a dish you never forget for a better reason. The chocolate dobostorta from Hayden Ellerton at The Denman at The Terrace in Thredbo - back in the day the restaurant was awarded the first Good Food Guide hat in the alpine regions (no one has yet to be awarded one since); the onion creme brulee with mushroom salad at Jean Michel at the Knickerbocker in Thredbo (actually anything French inspired at this restaurant hits the mark); and the lunchtime American style burger with cheese, pickles, onions, mustard and house made tomato sauce at The Gully at Falls Creek.
Hey chefs, here's a memo for you
Signature dishes work; they are what drive customers to your restaurant again and again. Do something well and people will do some word-of-mouth marketing for you on the chairlift. Just ensure you remain consistent or we’ll also tear you to shreds.
The kitchen crews getting it right don’t take the 'three months of a year to make money so therefore go for convenience' attitude of seasonal tourism as a reason to lower their food standards. Yes, it’s easier to buy everything in from curry mix to pasta, it’s cheaper too, but the resorts are serving up fare to cashed up urbanites who use the Good Food Guide as a restaurant bible back home. In other words, they will notice if you make your food with love or just with money.
As the enigmatic Darren Robertson from Sydney's hatted Three Blue Ducks restaurant says: “If there was serious money to be made at the snow then Neil Perry, Matt Moran and Justin Hemmes would be down here already".
He and his business partners, fellow chefs Mark LaBrooy, Shannon Debreceny, restauranteur Jeff Bennett and Sam Reid, and barista Chris Sorrell opened Three Blue Ducks at Huski apartments in Falls Creek in 2012. It was renamed The Gully Bar and Restaurant in 2013, and is the go to place for foodies who like to ski at Falls Creek.
For this savvy restaurant crew, it's all about lifestyle. They opened Three Blue Ducks together in Bronte so they could balance a life of surfing, time behind the stove and a forty four hour working week ethos to keep chefs fresh. Single chef owner restaurants burn out quickly due to exorbitant hours.
The Gully became their winter home for the same reason; replacing surfing with riding the white snow wave. This year they've extended themselves and have taken on the management contract for Astra Lodge accommodation, a basic and comfortable accommodation offering more of a lodge style than a hotel style stay. Don't expect your room to be serviced daily, but do expect a groovy basement magnesium pool and hot tub to soothe those weary muscles.
They have reworked the lodge bar and restaurant by adding some cool signature wall art of giant woolly mammoths and some quirky punched jalapeno cans as light fit-outs. But time will tell if running two very different outlets in Victoria (The Gully and Astra Lodge) and one in Sydney (Three Blue Ducks) will impact that work life balance they're striving to have.
There is always a danger of chefs spreading themselves too thin when time is already tight at a snow resort. If they don't hit the mark at the beginning of the season, they spend the rest of the winter trying to catch up.
"We've gone with street food, casual LA influenced fare served in baskets with paper," says Darren Robertson who was handed the keys to Astra just three weeks before the season began.
"We're still making everything from scratch. We buy the whole free range pig from Gav our butcher in Mt Beauty and use all the pig for sausages, schnitzel and more."
Astra's tortillas are made with duck fat, chicken is southern fried and hot dogs are of the pork variety, though the menu seems more suited to a sports bar than a sit down restaurant. A stark and deliberate contrast to the rustic mountain dinner fare at The Gully featuring brisket, shank and sticky pork. Astra's menu is ideal apres straight off the slopes, 'refuel me up now' food to accompany a few cleansing ales before big gun dining later.
All baked goods for both outlets are made on site at The Gully and Astra, from the brioche buns of the light and dark hue variety for those morish Gully burgers; the famed breakfast Gully muffins that should seriously be illegal - they look that wicked with meringue toppings garnished with broken brownies; to the caramelised bananas and other equally sinful delights.
Did I mention the jam donuts and the sausage rolls served by the inch? The average inch request is four, according to manager Jeff Bennett.
"We keep it as local as possible," says Mark LaBrooy. "The beef comes from our butcher's farm, the pork comes from Tolmie, the trout down near Bright and we use Holbrook free range chicken.
"I get all the pig bones smoked, two heads at a time so I can make terrine, shoulders get used on the pulled pork for the tortillas at Astra, and we smoke the leg for the sandwiches at the Gully."
The team also fly their own service, bar and management staff down to the snow, rather than recruit seasonal workers. They pay them above award wage and try to give them enough time off to actually enjoy the mountain.
It shows. The floor staff are happy and attentive at The Gully, and 'Bucket' and Andrew (behind the bar at Astra) are like a tag team, comedy duo who happen to make good cocktails.
Of course the haters will say that these guys can afford to make all of this work as there are six of them running the show. But isn't that the point? They have found a way to make it work.
So much so that when I offered LaBrooy the opportunity to go backcountry skiing with Winter Olympian Steve Lee on his half day daily adventure ski tours, LaBrooy not only jumped at the chance, he asked if he could bring Gully and Astra manager Justin 'Gus' Guadagnin to say thanks for his work in getting the place up and running.
This is why you work a snow season, right? So you can get the turns when the powder is on. You can't do that if you are locked up in an office or kitchen.
Rachael Oakes-Ash was hosted by Falls Creek Lift Company who paid for all meals and accommodation and also hosted the Three Blue Ducks on the Steve Lee Backcountry Ski Tour.
Exclusive: Falls Creek Astra Backcountry Adventure package for Snow It All readers.
Two nights at Astra Lodge including breakfast daily at The Gully, a backcountry ski tour with Steve Lee, two day lift pass and dinner at The Gully (main, dessert and glass of wine) for $895 per person, twin share for two people. Valid throughout August, subject to availability and must be booked through Falls Creek Reservation Centre on 1800 4535 25. When booking, quote "Snow It All”.
What do you think of the food at the snow? What are your hits and misses?
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