Joel Bickford is the executive chef of the Gantry Restaurant & Bar, part of the Pier One Sydney Harbour precinct. Immediately prior, he was head chef at Bowral's acclaimed Biota Dining. His 24-year career includes cooking at Astral, Bel Mondo and at Park Hyatt Sydney as well as Bowral's Milton Park and Eschalot in the Southern Highlands. See thegantry.com.au
Breakfast at Biota. The "morning after " breakfast at Biota is the best – a small well-appointed menu with dishes that are as well thought out as any of their restaurant dishes. Eggs from their own hens, spinach from their gardens, freshly smoked items, and homemade pastries. See biotadining.com
LOCAL FOOD DISCOVERY
Bistro Officina in Bowral. Run by chef Nicola Coccia and his wife, who both have CVs that include some of the best restaurants in the world, turn their hand to Nico's heritage – rustic Italian food from his native Naples. Think big bold flavours, premium meats and seafood cooked over coals or smoked on site in his handmade smoker. Small share plates are also available at the bar. The "Bistro Officina Experience" is not to be missed. See bistroofficina.com.au
BEST-KEPT FOOD SECRET
Bernie's Diner in Moss Vale. This is awesome. It's like Happy Days meets LP's. Awesome dogs, homemade corned beef and pastrami, and hospitality for days. Themed like an American diner, with an emphasis on quality and personalised service – this place is no joke. Great place to spend a Sunday afternoon with one of the amazing burgers ("The Whole Kit and Caboodle" – my go-to).
Not so much a dish, but just as good – the bread, made twice daily, at Bistro Officina is brilliant. In a short time they have already gained a strong following in the notoriously tough local market down there. They even sell bread to other restaurants in the area as well.
Pecora Dairy cheese. This amazing small sheep farm in Robertson continues to produce the best sheeps cheese in the country. Run by a local couple, breeding friesian sheep on their property, they have become a force to be reckoned with. Top restaurants all over the country are clamouring to get their hands on this amazing product. When I can't get to the farm to see Cressida and Michael personally, I pick up my supply from the Robertson Cheese Factory, which is full of local artisan products. See pecoradairy.com.au; robertsoncheesefactory.com
A BIG NIGHT OUT
Has to be Biota. I spent two years as the head chef here and I still love it. There is a reason why this is one of the most revered restaurants in the country. The attention to detail is second to none. They've got cutting-edge food, set on an amazing property. At Biota they walk the talk, doing everything from scratch and delivering one of the most memorable dining experiences you could ask for.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Winter. The Southern Highlands is a great place to stay and enjoy the cooler months and the local ingredients that many of the restaurants gather during this time. You'll find slippery jacks and pine mushrooms from the nearby Belanglo Forest, brown river trout, and fallow deer – also amazing in winter.