Let's be honest. Food on the ski hills of Australia has never been known for taste and value. Reheating pre packaged frozen food in a microwave and charging $30 for the 'privilege' does not a Michelin star make.
Snow It All has been known to be harsh about the food at the snow (read what we've said, here) but someone must have been listening as The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide has finally awarded a chef's hat to a restaurant at the snow. Not just any chef's hat either, the first chef's hat for an alpine resort in Australia.
Of course some will say I am biased, I do have a personal relationship with the man at the helm in the kitchen, Hayden Ellerton, whose attention to detail and passion for perfection (as honed by his mentor three hat chef Peter Doyle whom he trained under) has got The Denman Hotel's Terrace Restaurant open year round in Thredbo into the history books.
Don't just take the Good Food Guide word for it, even Peter Evans called Ellerton's Pork and Jereusalem artichoke dish, 'dish of the year'. I can, however, assure you I met and respected Hayden's food long before I met, or respected, him. Disclosure done. Back to the food task at hand.
Dining on mountain in Australia has long been more about carb loading after burning calories on the slopes than tantalising gourmand tastebuds. Egg and bacon rolls with barbeque sauce, deep fried donuts in week-old oil and nachos with pre-bought guacamole in a tub have been ingested by many a starving skier or snowboarder simply because it's there.
Food at the snow has also been about making a buck in an industry that only has three months to make it. For many that's about mass purchasing of production line products and bumping up the prices well above the nearest town's economy. Since when is a bottle of water worth $4?
Of course there's always an exception. Kareela Hutte at Thredbo, when under the guidance of Sonja Schatzle, was all about good, heartfelt food until she left and took over Merritts Mountain House, metamorphasising the mid-mountain restaurant into a gourmet dining den with a visually enticing epicurean feast complete with cast iron pots serving osso bucco and healthy options not seen before at the snow. Sonja has sadly, for Merritts, now taken her talent elsewhere.
In Victoria, the Kransky at Koflers Hutte at Mt Buller is an institution for those wanting to indulge their Frauline within and it sure feeds the soul when the thighs are burning (it even has it's own Facebook page).
Thankfully I have, of late, noticed a change in some on-mountain food institutions. The Mid Perisher Centre makes everything on site, except for the chips. A dedicated pastry chef bakes bread, makes gourmet pies and sausage rolls and it shows. The Guthega Pub, also at Perisher, plays to its strengths and keeps things simple with fish and chips, pasta and some Austrian fare in a stylish fit-out with a valley view.
The Terrace, like many of the better dining options at Aussie ski fields (think White Room and at Hotham, Tsubo and Cilantro in Dinner Plain and Summit Ridge at Falls Creek) is not on-mountain, it's in-village. Alpine resorts face a number of challenges, finding career staff in an industry that attracts seasonal workers looking for a lift-pass and a job that's there just to fund it. Consistency of food and service is the biggest killer for any good restaurant.
I tore my hair out while at Sun Valley in Idaho this year where the resort town of Ketchum is a foodies paradise. Why can't Australian resorts serve up the same? The answer is simple. Most American resorts are year-round operations where summer, not winter, is often considered peak season.
In Europe it's possible to ski into Michelin-star restaurants in the alpine regions with chefs Pierre Gagnaire in Courchevel, Jean Suplice in Val Thorens - who is the youngest chef ever to recieve a star - and Pierre Maillet in Chamonix.
Victorian resorts are luckier, they sit close to the King Valley and the multi-Chef's-Hat-winning town of Beechworth, where Two-Hat chef Michael Ryan resides at his Provenance Restaurant, which was named Best New Country Restaurant in it's first year and received two hats for the past two years. Ryan is teaming up with local Falls Creek hotelier, Simon Rawlings from Summit Ridge, and soon heading to Japan to oversee the menu at The Phoenix Hotel's Mimi Restaurant in the ski resort town of Hakuba this coming northern winter.
As consulting executive chef he will be designing the menu, hiring staff and mentoring head chef, Hamish Nugent from Tsubo in Dinner Plain who will spend the season manning the stove. The restaurant will use all that Nagano Prefecture has to offer in terms of local produce with both Ryan and Nugent spending next week sourcing what's on offer on the ground in Japan before Ryan returns to Provenance.
Unlike many a 'dining establishment' at the Aussie snowfields, you won't find a microwave in Mimi's kitchen. But then this is Japan, where there are more Michelin stars than Paris, so the competition will be tough. But if anyone can do it, Ryan can.
Skiing and snowboarding is not a cheap sport which means the average mountain-goer is wealthier than most other Aussies and with that corporate credit card comes some big city lunches. The ski and snowboard fraternity know good food when they eat it and just because they are a captive market doesn't mean they are happy about handing over the cash for sub-par produce.
Let's hope the likes of Ellerton and Ryan and their friends inspire an alpine resort food movement that can benefit all.
What do you think of the food quality at the ski fields? Who would you give a thumbs up to? Any restaurants that you would like to praise? Who needs to lift their game? Post a comment on our blog and share your food experiences at the snow this winter.
FINALLY, A SEASON PASS WITH SERIOUS DISCOUNTS
Golf clap to Perisher this week. The New South Wales ski field announced their Freedom Pass offering serious discounts for season passes for 2012. Perisher's 2012 Freedom Pass is $699 and if purchased then the 2013 season pass is also $699. Plus there's a free day's skiing this season and various other benefits. Conditions do apply.
The launch of the Freedom Pass has got other ski fields thinking about offering value to their customers. Thredbo hit back this week with their own Ultimate Season Pass offer. A 2012 season pass for $699 plus you get to ski the rest of this season too.
Come on Victoria, what are you going to offer?
SoO WATKIN's UP?
Watkin McLennan and his crew at Mt Buller have been out and about with cameras in hand filming some rocking Aussie skiers and boarders from NSW and VIC in a 'battle of the best'. Footage, film and photos from SoO Airtime launch at the Mt Buller Short Film Festival this Saturday. Vote for your favourites online.
Congratulations to Bert from Hopetown for winning the Liquid Image Snow Goggles.