This year, Cullen Wines celebrates its 50-year anniversary providing exactly the right excuse to visit its recently created Biodynamic Wine Room. Here sommelier Nicolas Cleradin and dining manager Federico Carrera take pride in sharing the wines created, through biodynamic practices, by acclaimed winemaker Vanya Cullen, while chef Antoine Deunff translates Cullen’s ideology into dishes to go with the wines.
Having initially studied a management degree, what inspired your decision to work in hospitality and what do you love about your work?
I started working in hospitality about 10 years ago, when I first arrived in Australia on a working holiday visa. My initial goal was to learn English, in order to complete further studies in international management back home. My first job was as a kitchenhand in a busy little bistro called Sentinel Bar and Grill in Perth. It was here that I met my mentor, Julian Mann, who ignited my passion for food. From the first days of working, I knew I would do all I could to become a chef. I love how dynamic the cooking experience is. Produce varies each season, and the quality and quantity available keeps me thinking about different ways of using it. There is always a window in which to try something new, and be creative.
How has your cooking style evolved from your childhood in France? What have been some key influences on how you cook today?
Growing up in France, I enjoyed all the traditional dishes, which can be quite rich. While I still do love this food, I am trying to create a menu that showcases the organic and biodynamic vegetables grown here on the property, and locally sourced produce. My cooking is simple, clean and healthy, using almost no butter or cream in the savoury dishes. The food is not complicated or difficult, just cooked and seasoned well. A key influence for me is producing food to work in harmony with the wines. It is very important to respect the people, art and passion behind each meal and each wine. Understanding the process of making a very good dish or an exceptional wine is crucial for that perfect pairing. Last year I made a kangaroo and mulberry dish, which was a great pairing to the 2018 Diana Madeline.
What’s one of your recipes that epitomises your cooking philosophy.
Last summer, I created a vegetarian dish around the concept of ratatouille. Ratatouille is a very simple and rustic meal, yet delicious. I wanted to pay tribute to it, using our zucchinis, eggplants, capsicum, garlic and tomatoes. To give it a modern twist, I stuffed the zucchini with the other vegetables: simple and representative of the garden. If it is in the garden, then it should be on the menu.
Cullen Wines is a proud biodynamic winery and the produce in your kitchen shares the same standards. How does this commitment translate to quality produce and are there unexpected realities of biodynamic farming?
Having an on-site biodynamic farm means the kitchen has direct access to exceptional quality vegetables. It also means that the produce available to use each week is dictated by the weather and the seasons. In Wilyabrup, Margaret River region, autumn is a transition season when we are harvesting the last of the summer vegetables and starting to get the winter produce kicking in – particularly green and root vegetables. It is a great time to benefit from our fruit trees, which provide figs, lemon guava, quince and pomegranate.
Working seasonally also means produce with zero miles, grown, harvested, cooked and eaten on the property. Seasonal harvests can be very large, so we are always challenged to find new uses for these, such as pickling, fermenting or preserving.
The Cullen estate provides more than 90% of the fruit and vegetables used by your kitchen. Is your team closely involved with the garden? Have you been able to experiment with any unique produce or species?
The kitchen team works very closely with Simon Dermody, our gardener who used to be a chef. We talk daily about what produce is being harvested that day, next week, or next month, and we plan what to grow in the coming seasons. Together we pore over seed catalogues to find new and interesting produce to experiment with; we learn from season to season what grows well in our climate and what does not.
I been have able to experiment with stinging nettle, Geraldton wax, calamondin and mulberries, while this past summer we grew eight new varieties of tomatoes.
The Cullen winery was a commercial pioneer in the region and the first to offer local produce to tasting parties. How does the restaurant extend this celebration of the Margaret River?
The Cullen restaurant is dedicated to being an expression of the local Wilyabrup region, and the unique soils and microclimate that make this such an amazing place for wines. We acknowledge the Wadandi people, the traditional custodians of the land where the wine and food is grown. Our food is an extension of this celebration of place, and is here to complement and highlight what makes this region so special.
What does an afternoon of wine tasting and dining at Cullen Wines look like for guests?
I like to see Cullen as a ‘human-sized’ winery, meaning that guests feel welcomed without pretention. Vanya Cullen describes “quality, not quantity” as part of our ethos; the wines are gorgeous and shine by themselves. Guests can come for a tasting at the bar, or have a seated tasting for a more extensive choice of wines. You can have lunch inside the winery or enjoy the terrace overlooking the vineyard; afterwards you can take a stroll through our spiral garden to learn about the Cullen philosophy.
Where else in the Margaret River region would you recommend for great food and wine?
There are plenty of wineries with restaurants or cafes to choose from, mostly along Caves Road. It’s hard to name a favourite, as they all have their specialties from very casual to fine dining atmosphere. I do personally enjoy driving without any plan and stopping at a new location to try it out.
Stuffed zucchini, ratatouille style
olive oil, to sauté
1 onion, cut to 1cm dice
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
few sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
1 eggplant, cut to 1cm dice
1 red capsicum, cut to 1cm dice
1 green capsicum, cut to 1cm dice
3 tomatoes, cut to 1cm dice
4 Ronde de Nice zucchini, approx. 10cm diameter (substitute with 2 regular zucchini)
1 Preheat oven to 200°C.
2 Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Sweat onion without browning until transparent, then add garlic, thyme and bay leaves and cook until fragrant. Season with salt and pepper.
3 Add eggplant and sauté until softened. Repeat with the capsicums, then tomatoes. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Seasoning to taste and allow to cool.
4 Cut the zucchini in half and remove seeds. Stuff with ratatouille mixture and place skin-side down on a lined baking tray. Roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until zucchini are tender but still holding their shape.