Zirky's offers bistro, cafe and fine-dining options on Mount Hotham.
The refrigerated van Andrew Blake hired for the first delivery to his new restaurant on Mount Hotham in 2005 was a disastrous six hours late. It had no hydraulic tailgate to ease unloading and the 1.5 tonnes of produce and equipment it contained had to be lugged by hand through the snow.
Blake, who also runs Blakes Feast Catering, based in Glen Iris, admits he and his winter team learnt some tough lessons when they took over the Zirky’s bistro, café and fine-dining restaurant complex on the mountain. “We knew things wouldn’t be easy as soon as we saw how small the kitchen was. It had 10 gas jets operating on bottled gas, which we knew would struggle with as soon as we put a stockpot on,” Blake said.
Five years later, he says: “We’ve got it all down pat now, with our menus and suppliers. We use as much regional produce as possible, including wines, and have a fruit-and-vegetable supplier down the mountain. But we make all our soups, sauces, braises and things like shanks in our kitchens in Melbourne. We vacuum-pack them and bring them to the mountain in our own refrigerated van. The vacuum packing works well. It not only extends the shelf life of the food but it streamlines our operations and allows us to control quality. Last year we offered a crayfish laksa. Staff in the kitchen (on the mountain) just had to cut the bag open and gently warm the crayfish.”
Fine dining in the snow is a glamorous part of the après-skiing activities for the hordes who enjoy Victoria’s ski fields each season, but the challenges for the chefs and managers catering for fluctuating crowd volumes in the unpredictable and erratic short snow season go unnoticed by diners who demand, and pay for, city-quality meals.
In early May this year, Victoria’s first snowfalls were reported at Mount Buller, Mount Baw Baw, Mount Hotham and Falls Creek. As the cold weather arrived early, hopes were high for a bumper season. But by late July things were looking grim as resorts across the state awaited a cold snap. Patchy natural ski runs and reduced occupancy rates were obvious and modern snowmaking equipment worked overtime.
The mood and food at Summit Ridge.
When snow fell again in the first week of August, the relief was palpable and the ski resort’s websites rang with the news. “Some seasons are more difficult than others. In a good snow season there are plenty of pre-season bookings, but when there’s no snow, occupancy rates drop,” Blake says. He and fellow restaurateurs “pray for blizzards” – then occupancy rates are high and people are forced indoors. A $1.7-million investment in snowmaking equipment at Mount Hotham this season has been a huge help for businesses on the mountain, says Blake.
Being at the mercy of the weather, juggling a transient workforce and even huge gas bills are other challenges faced by restaurant owners on the snowfields. Seasonal incomes have to be balanced out by business operations at other times of the year, too. Then there’s the difficult decision for the chefs to use local produce or not, and even the balance of getting the mood and atmosphere right for such a diverse, demanding audience.
At Falls Creek, Simon Rawlings, who has owned Summit Ridge Restaurant for 10 years, has striven to create an informal atmosphere. Summit Ridge won the 2010 Restaurant and Catering Excellence Awards’ regional informal dining category and lists a swag of other food and wine awards on its website. Rawlings eschews the term “fine dining”. “Our food does have lots of components and it’s quite ‘worked’,” he says, “And, yes, we are about great service, great wine and great food, but we want it to be a casual, relaxed experience, too.
“We took off the white tablecloths a few years ago, but we still use quality stemware and expensive linen napkins. We recognise that we are in the snow and people are on holidays. We want them to come in dressed as they are and be comfortable.”
Rawlings has solved the seasonal income and staff transience problem by also running a restaurant operation in Japan. This means he is able to employ his kitchen team full time. He is a strong advocate for using local produce, both in Japan and at Falls Creek. The Summit Ridge menu features a full-page dedication to its local suppliers – the poultry is free range from Milawa, chestnuts are sourced from Wandiligong, Buffalo River and Stanley, and the Morrison Street Continental Butchery in Wodonga provides beef, lamb and pork sourced from the alpine valleys.
“We know most of our growers and know our beef from paddock to plate; we use local oil and butter. We source very little of our ingredients from Melbourne but, having said that, we will look elsewhere when the local quality is not up to scratch,” says Rawlings.
It’s a different story for Jack Frost’s chef Kurt Adam (ex-Home Dining Room and Auction Rooms), at Mount Hotham. As a former Melbourne chef, he staunchly prefers to source his produce from trusted Melbourne suppliers for the popular gastronomic pub.
“The biggest challenge for me is not being able to get hold of something I could source in Melbourne. Up here, I order twice a week. In Melbourne, I would go to the market myself and see what was in season and what looked good. Here, it just turns up on my doorstep and I have no control over the quality.”
In his second season as head chef at Mount Buller’s Snow Pony, Anthony D’Augello (ex-Grossi Florentino, Mirka at Tolarno and Mecca) uses local produce where possible, but factors freight costs into the equation. Mount Buller is closer to Melbourne and his Italian-focused restaurant is able to import products and transport them to the mountain.
But the difficulty at a resort closer to the city is that when the snow does fall, restaurant bookings “go crazy”. “We can only seat 50 people at a time in two sittings a night,” D’Augello says. “So when the snow falls, people want to come up, and we have to set up waiting lists for diners.”
In another nice seasonal balance, the Snow Pony team will run the newly renovated Sandbar Beach Café and restaurant in St Kilda during the summer.