Typically, a chef’s day starts mid-morning: there are deliveries to accept, menus to write and mise en place to prepare. But for Nicola Palmer, life as a chef is a little different. She begins each day at dawn, checking the morning’s bounty in the fruit and vegetable patches of Penobscot Farm, an organic and biodynamic operation she runs with her husband Warrick Duthy in Watervale, the original gateway to the Clare Valley.

Tasting fresh produce is the most important meal of the day. At least, it will be just a few hours later as fresh ingredients are selected, harvested with the help of the farm team, and carted just a few kilometres up the road to the Watervale Hotel ready for the day’s menu planning and preparation.

While Nicola decides how they are going to design the produce-driven menu each morning, the mise en place is left in the very capable hands of the Watervale kitchen team that includes a growing group of chefs from all corners of the globe. This is not your typical hotel kitchen, either. Visible from the expansive courtyard dining area through floor to ceiling glass, it’s an absolute showpiece, the central machine to an operation that was thoughtfully designed with more than just cooking in mind. It’s a place where training and learning go hand in hand, where chefs at different levels are given a chance to contribute to more than just their assigned stations, where ideas are championed, and new techniques are applied to help create a complete epicurean experience.

It’s all part of the Watervale Hotel’s mission and philosophy: fresh food, new ideas, minimal waste cooking that is led by the produce available on the day and leverages the expertise of the entire team, rather than just relying on one person to guide the ever-changing venue and menu.

The hotel was the first part of this evolving culinary project for Nicola and Warrick, who purchased the local pub in 2017 and have since sensitively and meticulously repaired, renovated and extended it into a true showcase regional destination, worthy of note in any wine region around the country. After my first visit since the venue was refurbished, I can tell you one thing: the Clare Valley is very lucky.

Inside the Watervale Hotel. Photo: Nadinne Grace Photography

We’re here for tonight’s group farm feast: a degustation made for sharing that follows a similar look and feel each service but is designed with the menu at the beginning of each day.

There are various spaces to eat within the hotel including private rooms with original historic fixtures and antique furnishings, plus a large central dining space. Behind the hotel, there’s a courtyard, hewn out of the earth into terraced levels that features a large open wood-fired grill and some robust wooden ovens in one corner. It’s in this sleek space where you can see all of the action in the kitchen. Well-versed staff zip around from table to table, explaining ingredients and cooking methods with a casual, effortless ease that all adds to the experience.

First off the chopping block is Kingfish ceviche, prepared in a lightly acidic marinade that compliments the fresh flesh rather than competes. A stronger flavour is imparted by a quenelle of sorbet made using Vietnamese mint, this zingy addition a delicious surprise that keeps the tender morsels of fillet cool and fresh. A light hand has been applied with adding chilli and coriander to the mix and a few flecks of spring onion impart obvious herbaceous flavour. Next is a much sturdier starter. Almost hidden beneath generously scatted shaved parmesan and a melange of fresh herbs are slivers of fresh beef carpaccio. This sits in a pool of good olive oil and has a strong but balanced flavour.

Nicola and Warrick at the farm that supplies the Watervale kitchen. Photo: Nadinne Grace Photography

Next are a series of sides and salads that includes farm leaves coated in an almond infused dressing, with a mix of capers and a bacon crumb scattered between the salad. The leaves themselves deserve some attention: these immediately demonstrate the farm-to-table freshness we’ve been told to expect. Then, there are florets of broccoli that have been wood-fired, chilled and blended together in a yoghurty dressing, propped up by a mix of herbs. Lightly roasted pine nuts add texture and a woody flavour and the dish has a slightly cheesy flavour imparted by the addition of parmesan. Preserved lemon supplies a citrusy zing that has this standing well above any broccoli-with-cheese dish I’ve tried. And last is a selection of beets that have each been given a different cooking treatment before coming together as an artful salad with fresh and roasted and pickled textures; an unctuous dressing provides a bit of acid to this woody flavoured dish.

A variety of beets are cooked separately before coming together in a harmonious dish.

We’re told that the higher acid and fresh, complex flavour of vegetable and fruit elements of these dishes can be partly attributed to the diurnal temperature range in the region – that is, the difference between high and low temperature each day. It’s the reason why the Clare Valley is the ideal environment to grow its showcase wine varietal, Riesling. Less common, but still benefiting from these conditions, is Fiano and the Hesketh Wines version grown just up the road in Auburn is a solid match to the next dish – a section roasted chicken coated in a herbaceous butter and presented simply on a garlicky bed of roasted and then mashed potato, mixed with smokey onions and topped with some crunchy carrot chips.

The Watervale’s take on roast chicken, served with farm-to-table fresh greens.

As we move onto the last of our mains, we’re presented with a wine match from much further afield – a Côte de Brouilly Gamay that stands on its own against a hearty, perfectly cooked and tender striploin that has been given the royal treatment over charcoal and served with all the trimmings. While it’s obvious that The Watervale loves their neighbours, this is a serious wine venue with a broad list of offerings. Warrick is an experienced sommelier and the Watervale cellar is stacked with bottles from lesser-known producers, Clare, of course, Australia’s best regions and the rest of the world.

And as we wrap up our meal it’s clear that Nicola and Warrick are not your typical publicans and this is not your typical regional hotel. They are thoughtful epicureans, devoted to providing pleasure through the food, wine ambience and service in a way that is ethically right. It says so at the end of their menu – and it certainly shines through in every aspect of the experience at the Watervale.

WATERVALE HOTEL

37 Main North Road, Watervale SA

08 8843 0229

watervalehotel.com.au

Open seven days, 11am-9pm

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