How ya going? I have officially been in Australia for a little over a week, and now that I have a moment of wifi, I have time to write a post! I’ll start from the beginning…
On Saturday morning (Jan 21), I said goodbye to CIA, and my friend Charley drove me to the airport that morning. I boarded my first flight from NY to Dallas, and conveniently had a layover of about 2 hours in the DFW airport. I grabbed some dinner, and then before I knew it I was boarding the plane! It was huge; an Airbus. And I had a blanket, pillow, and headphones waiting for me. There was a refreshing peach and coconut welcome drink on the plane followed by water, and shortly after that was dinner with free wine! I turned on one movie, ate dinner, drank wine, started another movie, and then fell asleep for the next 10+ hours. I woke up, watched a third movie, had breakfast, and then we landed in Sydney.
Unfortunately, some passengers’ luggage didn’t make it on the 17+ hour flight, but I was lucky and both my bags arrived! I was pretty proud of myself and thankful for such easy travel. I made it through customs in seconds, collected my luggage, and made it to the correct terminals on time. The only hiccup a late arrival in Sydney that disrupted my flight to Melbourne. However, the airline conveniently rearranged my ticket for a later flight. No muss, no fuss. I met Kendel, the HR manager at baggage claim in Melbourne and then we were off to Dunkeld!
The weather in the city reminded me of Florida. Hot with a nice breeze and humid. It’s much drier out in the country though. Not too long into our drive, Kendel asked if I was hungry (YES), so we took the next exit and had a gourmet Australian meal…McDonalds. At a gas station. Not what I would’ve chosen for a first meal in a foreign country, but hey, you gotta do what ya gotta do. And then we made it to Dunkeld! It’s a tiny town, with one gas station and ZERO chains or brand names anywhere in sight, but the hotel is lovely and Mt. Sturgeon in the background is beautiful. They couldn’t seem to find the key for the house I was staying in, so they put me up in one of the hotel rooms for the night. I went to the local general store in town, got some wine, cheese, and crackers, went across the street to get a sandwich, before relaxing in my room after 24+hrs of world travel. I passed out by 7:30pm.
Tuesday was my last day before work began. I walked around town early that morning, and stopped at Dunkeld Delights for breakfast.
I had a cheese muffin and a latte. It was delicious! And then I walked more around the area, not realizing that I had stumbled upon the main kitchen garden, the myers property, and an incredible view of Mt. Sturgeon. And I had my first Australian wildlife sighting: two giant emus!! I had just settled back in to my hotel for a midday snooze, when my roommate, Paula from Canada, showed up to take me to “the dollhouse.”
It’s a cute little blue house with a kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom, and laundry room downstairs, and a loft with a bathroom upstairs, which became my domain. I settled in, and put up my Texas flag with pride. We went for lunch at the Parker St. Project, the Royal Mail’s more casual bistro outlet, and I had the classic Aussie treat: the Parma. The rest of the day was spent settling in, and meeting members of the team as they passed by the house. And the next day, my work week began!
Wednesday: I arrived at 11am, met the team, and we immediately grabbed the garden list, packed up, and went to the main garden. At the end of each shift, the cooks write out what they need to get from the garden for their prep the next day, and the following morning, we head out to the garden and pick it all.
Then we head back to the restaurant, unload, change, and wash everything that we gathered. I helped wash and then observed the kitchen as everyone prepared for dinner service. Chef Robin arrived in the kitchen, and he sat down with me to go over my expectations and the job. The fine dining room at the Royal Mail offers 5- and 8-course degustation menus along with an a la carte menu. Each table gets “snacks” when they first sit down, followed shortly by their first amuse bouche. Chef Robin had me up on the pass with him to observe all of the dishes, and after watching a few times, he let me take over the plating of the first amuse bouche: a watercress soup with crispy rice. Service is over after the last guest is served their final dessert, but the team breaks down their stations after they finish their last dish on the docket (ticket). And then we wait to do the floors until the last guest leaves. We finished cleaning around 12:00am, wrote the garden list for the following day, and then walked home to bed.
Thursday: Everyone arrived at 9:00am, we load up, head to the garden, and pick everything we need for the garden. Then we head back to the kitchen, and wash it all. I seem to stick to Dev and Jackie’s side of the kitchen, and help with whatever they need on their stations: Garnish and Hot Entree. We have staff meal everyday at 4:30pm, and everyone must put their prep away before that time. Adrian, the French guy on meats and sauces makes the menu each day, and each station makes one component. We put everything on the pass, and serve buffet style before our 30 minute break. Before each service, all of the benches (prep tables) are scrubbed, squeegeed, and wiped clean, before everyone resets for service. It happens daily at 11:30am for lunch, and 5:00pm for dinner. It’s incredible to see how efficient and precise everything is. Everyone is so focused throughout the day, that although there is a sense of urgency, no one seems rushed. They all know exactly what they need to do, and in what order it needs to be done to finish in time for staff meal. This night during dinner service, Chef Robin had me up on the pass with Stone, and I got to help with plating! We use a lot of purees, gels, foams, and edible flowers. Each dish is polished before we begin plating, and each dish is a perfect piece of art. Simply beautiful.
Friday: In the garden I picked green strawberries, which we pickle, and blackberries for the dessert.
We have picked blackberries and mulberries every single day, and they are very similar in flavor and appearance. the only difference is that blackberries grow on vines and mulberries come from a tree. And the rule is pick one, eat one, and believe me, I DID. After I finished washing the produce, I helped on the stations, but not much prep needed to be done. The whole kitchen went on break for about an hour, and then came back just to have staff meal. For service, I went over to the Parker St Project (PSP) kitchen to work the line and plating because they were pretty busy. It was a nice change of pace, and the level of cuisine is what I’m used to. They still have excellent plating though. They close at 9pm, the kitchen was clean by 9:45pm, and then I went back to the dining room to help clean up.
Saturday: I was in charge of picking some herbs in the garden, some of which I had never even heard of before. Salad burnett? I don’t know, but it tastes good. And nasturtium leaves and flowers. And rocket is what they call Arugula. And in the kitchen, when you walk behind someone you say “backs.” And a ticket is called a “docket.” And Aussies love beetroot because it’s everywhere, even on their burgers. During my time in the kitchen, I managed to calculate how many hours I work per week, and then the amount I’m getting paid…let’s just say it’s comical to see the numbers.
Sunday: This was our last day before our weekend!! Monday and Tuesday, the dining room is closed for lunch and dinner, so the kitchen team gets two days off. After we got back from the garden, Chef Robin asked if I would like to have the night off and come in for dinner, and OF COURSE I SAID YES! So I hustled through the day, helping with prep over here and over there, before running home to start my weekend early at 4:30pm while everyone else went on staff meal. I showered, put on a nice dress, and then showed up at 6:00pm for dinner, party of 1. I was going to experience the 5-course tasting menu with wine pairings. The Royal Mail is known for having one of the best wine cellars in Australia, currently housing a 3,000 bottle collection that specializes in Burgundy and Bordeaux wines that you can’t get anywhere in Australia. And I had the pleasure of partaking in such varietals as I went through my meal.
Upon seating, I was served a sparkling white wine to go with my snacks: A parsley sponge with herring roe, the Royal Mail hot dog with duck parfait and chili gel, a bagel with salmon cream and shaved abalone, a pea and lovage croquette, and a ryvitzah cracker with brunoise scallop and apricot gel.
Next was the amuse bouche: a watercress soup with yuzu gel, watercress leaves, and crispy rice. While I waited for my first course, I was offered a selection of 4 rolls to go with whipped vegemite butter. I chose the beef drippings and rosemary roll…the name itself should make your mouth water.
My first course was the beef tartar with coal oil, basil puree, cucumbers and nasturtium leaves. The beef tastes like it is cooked because of the charred taste from the coal oil, however it is served raw. Very interesting. Very delicious. It was served with an Austrian Grüner.
The second course was mackerel served 3 ways: charred, tartar, and parfait. It also had watercress leaves, flowers, and small dice potatoes. The wine was a white from Best’s Great Western which has a vineyard about 45 minutes past Halls Gap, a neighboring town. It was chosen to play off of the char on the mackerel.
Third course was Blue eye (fish) sprinkled with parsley dust and served with peas, creme fraiche, and squid. It was paired with a Chablis.
The fourth course was my favorite tasting dish. Duck and its dinner: duck breast that has been dry aged for 21 days, fried duck heart, turnip puree, barley cooked in fermented apple sauce, apple gel, treacle espuma, and garlic flowers on top. It was the most fun to plate, and even more fun to eat. It was paired with my first red of the evening, a Gamet.
The beef dish, my 5th course(?) was my favorite dish to see. It’s beautiful. Royal Mail sirloin with ruby chard, plum both gelled and pickled, and stout. The wine paired with it was a Chateau Lacoste grand cru red wine, only $250/bottle…it complemented the earthy flavors of the ruby chard on the plate.
At this point, I was beginning to lose track of where I was in the meal, but soon enough “pre-dessert” was brought to my table. It was a strawberry ice cream with white chocolate. Very refreshing.
My wine for dessert was a late harvest Royal Tojaki from Hungary. It had a delicious citrus flavor to it and was served cold. My first dessert was mulberries with cider custard and anise hyssop ice cream. Small dish, packed with flavor. The brown crispy bits reminded me of Flintstones cocoa pebbles cereal, but the taste was much more sophisticated than that.
Lastly, there was a chocolate ganache on apricot puree, with lanseed (flaxseed) praline. And it was served with a Chenin Blanc.
For the grand finale, they brought me a cup of coffee before knocking over the centerpiece to reveal chocolate soil, yuzu shortbread, and jelly candies hidden underneath fresh watercress that had been picked from the garden.
Not only did I eat every bite on each plate, but I drank every drop of wine I was served. The meal was too incredible not to enjoy it all!! And after tasting bits and pieces throughout my first week, it was nice to see the full picture from the other side. I was able to watch service from a guest’s perspective, and relax on my first evening off after a long week of work. I cannot be grateful enough for this opportunity! Each day I’m learning something new, tasting something unique, plating something different, and although I still feel more like a burden than an asset, I am learning volumes each day.
Now, for my first two days off in Australia. I spent Monday in Hamilton, the next town over, with Paula to get groceries, and finish up some work in a quaint little cafe with free wifi. And then last night we went to the head gardener’s house for a delicious farewell dinner in honor of the senior sous/pastry chef Andre who is leaving to go to Adelaide. It was a wonderful meal spent in great company. and I was able to meet more people that work at the hotel outside of the kitchen!
And then this morning, I did my first hike: The Picanniny. There are 3 big mountains that make up the backdrop of Dunkeld: Mount Sturgeon, Mount Abrupt, and Picanniny. I want to do them all, but we started with the easiest one. It was a beautiful crisp morning in Dunkeld, and this afternoon, I’m going to my first Australian BBQ! I bought some kangaroo meat at the grocery store to take with us.
This town is small. but after only a week, I can tell that it is special. Beautiful scenery. Beautiful people. Beautiful food. I’m very happy here.
Also, My cellphone reception is nonexistent, and the house does not have wifi like I was expecting, so I apologize if it has been difficult to reach me! However, I am using Facebook messaging and WhatsApp to communicate with people when I do have internet access. and I now have my Australia address, so please let me know if you would like that. Thanks for reading about my first few days in Australia! I still can’t quite believe that I’m here.