Executive Chef, Mark McNamara’s role at St Hugo in the heart of the Barossa Valley encompasses so much more than leading the kitchen brigade and sourcing the cream of local produce for the winery’s acclaimed restaurant.
He takes food and wine pairing to the next level through running regular sessions at which his chefs, and others at St Hugo including the winemaking team, explore around 48 raw ingredients from all flavour profiles and food groups to determine exactly which of them should be included in the specific dishes matched with specific St Hugo wines. The proof of the food pairing program’s success lies in the delicious and sometimes surprising flavour combinations that arrive on your plate.
Did you grow up in the Barossa, surrounded by all this great produce?
Unfortunately not, the Barossa is my adopted home. I moved to Australia from the UK with my parents as a teenager and spent a couple of years at high school in Adelaide before commencing my apprenticeship in the late ’70s.
The Barossa was a place I visited regularly as a young chef and certainly I knew it very well when my wife Jo-Ann and I moved here to open our own restaurant in 1992 (Pear Tree Cottage). Our decision to move here and set up shop was due to my knowledge and first-hand experience of the food culture unique to this valley.
Working as a young chef in SA, the Adelaide Central Market was somewhere I always gravitated to and it helped shape me to become the chef I am today.
When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
My mum, grandmother and great aunts were all good cooks and compared to other friends and family we seemed to eat out quite regularly. Also, weekly shopping trips with my father to the Adelaide Central Market meant I was exposed to food more than most kids I knew.
In addition, both my parents worked so I often prepared family meals, and school holidays meant essentially being home and left to my own devices which invariably meant cooking. Mum had a great collection of cookbooks and one in particular became my go-to bible. This was the original 1965 edition of The Robert Carrier Cookbook. A massive volume, it was not only full of classic recipes and glossy images but lots of stories and anecdotes about chefs and restaurants. I guess this lit a spark.
The final catalyst for becoming a chef came around the age of fourteen, I decided I had no interest in pursuing tech studies but rather wanted to do something that could lead me towards a career as a chef. This confounded the school, but they relented, and I was given a corner in the home economics kitchen and a Women’s Weekly cookbook to work my way through. At the first opportunity I jumped at the offer of an apprenticeship at an international hotel, leaving school at fifteen.
How would you describe your style of cuisine/food?
Wine-centric, but not pigeonholed into a particular style. For me food is all about conviviality, that sense of joyfulness that occurs when dining with friends and like-minded souls. In the Barossa, like all of the great wine regions, that means wine takes centrestage.
And like all the great wine regions there are things with an inherently regional Barossa flavour that just work with wine because they have been honed together over the years.
Finally, one of the most important elements to my cooking is the multicultural nature of Australia. It’s impossible to grow up and learn to cook here without being exposed to the united nations of foods, not in a forced fusion but through the osmosis of friendship and exchange.
All your dishes on the menu at St Hugo are matched to a specific wine. This must take quite a bit of work, and quite a bit of wine tasting.
It’s a process of continual evolution, especially when seasonality of food comes into play. We like to say that the protein is the flavour carrier and that it’s the primary flavours that we are matching to our wines. Of course, as the seasons change so too does the palette of flavours available. Also, the wines change as they develop, so what went with the 2016 GSM in the autumn of 2017 will be very different to, say, spring 2019.
What is the current must-try dish on the menu?
I think the current eggplant dish with our 2016 St Hugo GSM is one of the best food and wine matches I have tried. As a dish there is nowhere to hide, with the savoury earthiness bringing out the bright and elegant fruity notes of this classic GSM.
Is all the produce you use locally sourced?
We like to ensure we support local growers and if they’re not from the Valley then at least 90% of the ingredients we use come from around South Australia. In the Barossa my favourite producers include (in no particular order) Stevens Quality Raspberries, Hutton Vale Farm, Barossa Valley Cheese Company, Birdwood Venison, Riverside Dairy, Tanunda Bakery, Gully Gardens and Jersey Fresh, to name just a few.
For our eight course degustation menu we start with ‘3 tastes from the kitchen garden’. This sets the tone for our fresh food focus and shines a light on the season we are in for visitors. It also highlights just how important and versatile vegetables are.
As far as cooking and produce is concerned, which is the season you love most?
It’s a toss-up between spring and autumn, but autumn probably wins. Spring brings asparagus, artichokes, broad beans and fresh delicate green herbs – bright flavours to accompany the new vintage releases.
By contrast, autumn brings the last of the vegetable fruits when tomatoes are at their sweetest and eggplant most plentiful. Then there’s wild mushrooms in the hills if the rains arrive early.
You have quite a number of international high-flyers visiting the restaurant. What do you think intrigues them most about the Barossa and its wine and food?
It was recently put very succinctly by a visiting food celebrity when he said that the Barossa is “rare and distinguished”. Rare to have so many amazing producers of both food and wine in such a small area, and distinguished because of the quality and authenticity on offer.
From my experience, many visitors have little idea of the level of sophistication we enjoy. Our food heritage and history come as a complete surprise, especially that there is a fully formed Eastern European/Germanic tradition at its core.
In terms of wine, I have seen many visitors discover and delight in crisp dry riesling for the first time after being hesitant to try an Eden Valley expression because they only know of European wines with a higher residual sugar level.
And then there’s the lightbulb moment when they taste our rich dry red wines and realise the Aussie critter wines that dominate shelf space in liquor stores and supermarkets at home have little in common with the great wines of Barossa.
Where do you head for good food and coffee on a rare day off?
For coffee and breakfast, probably Darlings in Tanunda. For light bites or a glass of wine it would be one of a couple of new venues opened recently. One of those is Vino Lokal in Tanunda, the new home for Artisans of Barossa, and another is Ember Pizza in Nuriootpa, a fantastic producer of tasty, wood-fired, sourdough pizzas, accompanied by a great selection from some of the smallest and most exciting young winemakers in the Valley.
Mushroom and quinoa porridge with confit kohlrabi and garlic and sage glaze
This is a lovely wintery entree and while it looks like a lot of work it is surprisingly easy. Importantly, many steps can easily be done ahead of time as noted throughout the recipe. Pair this dish with the 2016 St Hugo GSM.
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 1 hour
1 head kohlrabi
Mushroom and Quinoa Porridge
2 small shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
100g butter, cold and diced into 1cm cubes
750g open cooking mushrooms, finely chopped/minced
125ml chicken stock
salt and black pepper
Garlic and sage glaze
500ml chicken stock
8 sage leaves
1 garlic clove, sliced
50g salted butter, cold and diced into 1cm cubes
TO SERVE: fried sage leaves, sautéed oyster mushrooms
1 Peel and trim kohlrabi and cut into 4x1cm thick discs, season lightly with sea salt, place in a zip lock bag and steam for about 20 minutes.
2 Place steamed kohlrabi in a small pan with butter and cook slowly on very low heat until tender (steps 1 and 2 can be done ahead of time).
3 Seal in a hot frying pan to lightly caramelise on both sides.
4 Rinse quinoa well in several changes of fresh water and then boil in salted water until tender, drain well, rinse with cold water and leave to drain until required (quinoa can be cooked ahead of time).
5 Sweat shallots, garlic and thyme in half of butter, add brandy and cook until liquid has evaporated.
6 Add mushrooms a handful at a time cooking thoroughly between each addition to intensify flavour, repeat until all mushrooms have been used and any liquid has mostly evaporated. Add cream and stir well (steps 5 and 6 can be done ahead of time).
7 To finish, add cooked quinoa and chicken stock, simmer until rich and mixture is holding its own shape. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.
8 Remove pan from heat and stir in remaining butter until fully incorporated.
9 For glaze, combine verjuice and chicken stock, bring to a simmer and reduce to about 250ml.
10 Add sage and garlic and continue to reduce to about 150ml (steps 9 and 10 can be done ahead of time).
11 Bring sauce back to boil, reduce heat and add cubes of cold butter, whisking constantly until glossy.
12 To plate, top kohlrabi disk with a quenelle of porridge. Spoon glaze over and around porridge. Garnish with fried sage leaves and sautéed oyster mushrooms.