After eight celebrated years leading the kitchen at Sydney’s Rockpool Est. 1989, Phil Wood flew south in 2017 to join Pt. Leo Estate as Culinary Director. Listing mentors the likes of Tetsuya Wakuda, Thomas Keller and Neil Perry, his cooking reflects the elegance of his fine dining experience, coupled with a passion for innovatively celebrating authentic local flavours.
The exceptional produce of the Mornington Peninsula, which stars at the two restaurants now under Wood’s command, Pt. Leo Restaurant and Laura, embodies the combined commitment of both chef and estate to excellence – from the heart of the estate’s vineyards and sweeping sculpture park overlooking Western Port Bay.
What did you learn on your journey to Pt. Leo, and what is it that you continue to love about your work?
Cooking wasn’t a huge part of my life growing up, but when I started to travel, moving from New Zealand to the Gold Coast, I applied for a job in a bar and ended up in the kitchen. I can distinctly remember the moment I first walked into a professional kitchen – the energy, intensity and passion were intoxicating.
After four years I moved to Sydney, and started at Tetsuya’s. I was there for over four years with what was a magnificently talented team. Tetsuya’s parting words to me were, ‘Don’t become a gypsy’ – you learn most from spending longer in fewer places.
Winning the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef Award took me to French Laundry under Thomas Keller; another group of amazingly talented staff, and unique in that the menu was rewritten every day. The chef de partie of each station writes their own menu item, and there could never be an ingredient repeated across the menu, so you were frequently writing four or five items to avoid that! They also had a strong focus on local community; as a restaurant, we are part of the community as much as you are.
In 2009 I emailed Neil Perry for advice on my next step, and after two weeks of working at Rockpool Bar & Grill he pulled me aside and asked me to be Executive Chef of Rockpool. Together we took the restaurant through four iterations and a location change over eight years, and he passed on the menu-writing philosophy I still maintain – if it’s not better than the previous dish, it won’t replace it. I love the profession – we get to play a supporting role in life’s celebrations. We are very lucky to get to do what we do.
Pt. Leo Estate takes pride in producing single vineyard wines, which resonate with a sense of location. How important is this philosophy in defining your menus?
As a regional restaurant at a winery, we can’t help but be led by seasonality and the producers around us. The Mornington Peninsula has a rich history of European-style agriculture, and it therefore makes sense to take a European cooking approach to celebrate the produce. In terms of suppliers, Pt. Leo Restaurant requires a broader approach because of the volume, whereas Laura focuses more on distilling the essence of the region.
It is a pleasure to work with the producers who are taking the sector forward. Cape Schanck Olive Estate is pretty great; they do single varietal olive oils that are never blended. This process creates oils with an expression of the season and location, applying the principles of winemaking to oil which creates this authentic product varying year on year. Hawkes Farm has been producing potatoes for seven generations. It’s pretty unique for a multi-generational farm to produce a single product, but that investment shows.
I just like to spend time with the producers; the more time you invest in them, the more likely they are to offer the best produce. It’s all about building those relationships.
What comes first in planning a dish, your vision of the completed product or the produce?
Produce is everything, it dictates everything. The better the produce, the easier our job.
Recently, we’ve started using these amazing Japanese variety white strawberries, which a producer grows in Gippsland, and we serve them simply with a dollop of cream. He’s the first grower of this variety in Australia, and the same strawberry would cost you about $20 in Japan, so we are very lucky to be working with him.
I do miss being able to walk down to Sydney’s Chinatown to see all these weird ingredients, then going home to read about how to cook with them. But now suppliers will arrive with a very special piece of produce, and we will create a dish entirely around what they provide, which is always very exciting.
What role do paired wines play in your menus? Do you have a favourite food and wine combination from the restaurants?
I love the way wine interacts with food. Food without wine is breakfast, isn’t it? We work on a basis of always showcasing Pt. Leo on the tasting, but ultimately create the best match. The wine list at Pt. Leo Restaurant is predominantly Victorian, whereas Laura has a few more boutique international varieties – again, to best celebrate the produce.
At Laura we are serving a beautiful Hawkes Farm potato duchess with local shiitakes and salmon roe, which our sommelier Andrew Murch has paired with a choice of New World, from the estate, or Old World chardonnay. It’s the perfect chardonnay dish; rich and fluffy, buttery and salty, with an intense flavour that needs that type of wine to balance it. It’s a delicious combination that I would happily have every day.
What do you most want your diners to take away from your meals?
Modern Australian food is really produce driven, and reflects what Australia is – an incredibly multicultural country with amazing produce, drawing on all our ethnic influences to celebrate the quality of the ingredients. The Pt. Leo Restaurant is probably best described as a Modern Australian bistro, without any reduction in the quality of food.
The service is always of a really high standard yet still relaxed, while the food is interesting and unique but always approachable, whereas Laura is more technique driven and focused. We change the menus frequently enough that our regular diners will always find something different on the menu, and regulars will interchange between the two restaurants for different occasions. Ultimately, I want our diners to be happy and to have had a great time enjoyed with friends, family and loved ones.
The Mornington Peninsula has experienced a surge in tourism over the past few years, both locally and from abroad. What do you think people have discovered they love about the region?
Moving down here, the hardest thing to come to terms with was the weather; every stereotype you’ve ever heard about Melbourne weather is true, and sometimes not true enough! But the more defined seasons make you look forward to the dishes you plan for the produce. Asparagus is a favourite, it has such a short season, and the local corn is only around for six weeks but is so delicious when available.
But otherwise, what’s not to love; it’s a truly stunning region with great wine, top-notch produce and fantastic people. Of course we get a lot of visitors from Melbourne; we are only an hour south of downtown, so a lot of people come for weekend getaways. But we do get a share of international and interstate traffic, and locals will predominantly visit in winter when it’s a bit quieter.
In terms of when to visit, spring is pretty remarkable; very temperate but still sunny, and the days are much longer. This is also one of the best times for produce.
When you get a moment away from the restaurants, where do you like to spend a night out on the Peninsula?
Foxeys Hangout is spectactular; a gorgeous view, simple food (the seared salmon and mushroom sausage rolls are a must), good wine and owners from a hospitality background who create such a great environment. Any time of year is remarkable to visit there.
Jackalope is a pretty outstanding location, like a city venue in the middle of the country. It has two fantastic restaurants and a great cocktail bar, which comes in handy when I feel like a good martini.
Merricks General Wine Store does a great coffee, and they run seasonal traders’ stalls where local artisanal products are sold direct to the public.
For Italian, Del Posto in Rye always has delicious food, with great deals on most of the time as well.
Pan-fried caciocavallo cheese with broccoli, kale & braised lentils
Phil Wood took some time out of his busy day to share one of the specialities of Pt. Leo Restaurant. This vibrant vegetarian dish is best enjoyed with a glass of 2015 Pt. Leo Estate Chardonnay.
Preparation Time: 1 hour
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
1 head broccoli, chopped in pieces the size of a hazelnut
1 bunch kale, washed and stems removed
10g pine nuts
1 cup green lentils
6 cups water
1 small sprig rosemary
1 tsp dried oregano
30ml olive oil
1 pinch fennel seeds
1 pinch coriander seeds
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 large pinch salt
Pan fried Caciocavallo
120g caciocavallo cheese, thickly sliced
1 tbsp honey
1 pinch dried oregano
TO SERVE: herb salad (dill mandatory)
1 Pan fry broccoli in vegetable oil in a saucepan over high heat until lightly browned (around 4 minutes). Add water to just cover and boil until all the water has evaporated (around 6 minutes).
2 In a frying pan over high heat, sauté kale until wilted.
3 Add both broccoli and kale to a blender and puree until smooth, add a little olive oil and season with salt. Mix through currants and pine nuts.
4 To make braised lentils, drain lentils before mixing ingredients together in a medium-sized saucepan and leave to marinate for 30 minutes. Place over a low heat and braise without boiling until tender (around 30 minutes).
5 Pan fry the caciocavallo slices over high heat, turning until nicely browned.
6 Add honey and oregano to pan and gently cook until honey caramelises.
7 Squeeze fresh lemon juice over top.
8 To serve, stir lentils through broccoli and kale puree, then gently heat to warm through. Spoon into bottom of a bowl and top with cheese. Top with a herb salad of your choice – as long as there is dill!