A DAY IN THE KITCHEN – Maxwell Wines

Welcome to the first in a series of ‘A Day in the Kitchen’ where I’ll be spending time in some of my favourite restaurant kitchens checking out what happens behind the scenes leading up to the time your dish is plated up.

First up – Maxwell Wines, where I’ve eaten on numerous occasions! With a beautiful dining room, it’s McLaren Vale’s venue for a fine dining experience, with a menu that showcases seasonal produce sourced from local suppliers.

I suggested to Head Chef Fabian Lehman that it might be best that I come in on a prep day (no service), given it was my first time in a restaurant kitchen, and I didn’t want to get in the way of a busy service. Fabian has worked in Michelin Star restaurants in Europe, including working in his ideal kitchen in Norway where the owners had invested around $2.5 million and installed every piece of state-of-the-art equipment.

On a prep day, Fabian and the team usually arrive at around 7:30-8:00am and leave by about 5:00pm. It’s a relatively small kitchen and hence a small team, usually no more than five people. On this day it’s Fabian, Zac, Ross, Connor and intern Emma. Fabian tells me he likes to work in a kitchen this size, the key being to find your sync as a team, work well with each other and help each other out. And there’s no screaming or throwing pots across in this kitchen – Fabian is the easy-going type.

There are currently four sections – hot, cold (snacks and entrees), pastry and canapes (for the current wine experience). Then there’s the pass, where Fabian oversees everything that’s going on in the kitchen and dining room, making sure everything flows smoothly and in a timely manner.

There’s an outdoor fire pit they started using last year and on this day, there were foil- wrapped beetroots cooking in the cellar door fireplace. Zac took me on a bit of a tour. There are herbs growing in the garden, beehives from which the Maxwell mead is made (with some pretty ferocious bees – Zac literally had a hair-raising experience when a bee got stuck in his hair) and I finally got to see the amazing lime cave that’s not only used for private functions but also for growing mushrooms!

In terms of multi-skilling and cooperation, generally Connor the pastry chef sticks to the pastry section but everyone’s familiar with every recipe across the sections so they can jump in if the need arises.

When I arrive, Zac is preparing venison backstraps, Connor is busy showing Emma the ropes on pastry and chocolates and Ross is tending to mandarins. As chefs, they like creating dishes and using cooking techniques that challenge them and keep things interesting not just for diners but also for themselves.

Dish elements are pre-prepared as much as possible to ensure smooth and efficient service. I asked about ordering produce – how do they know how much to order? Fabian said he mostly knows what to expect so there’s very little waste – and this has been made easier by offering a set tasting menu, and the fact they’ve been fully booked for the previous 11 weekends. Proteins are cryovaced, and dehydrating and brining are techniques used to prolong use-by dates and minimise waste.

After aproning-up, Fabian gives me my first job to make microwave sponges in paper cups – an ingenious invention – must try this at home! A beautiful green colour which is from parsley oil and pistachio paste. These will be broken into pieces and used on the savoury dish of Venison with Jerusalem artichokes and shaved macadamia. My next job was measuring out 10g portions of cheese croquettes and rolling them into balls. Then Fabian and I worked together as I floured them, and he egg-washed and crumbed them, to be deep fried and used for the wine flights at cellar door.

When I asked about what kind of things might go wrong, I was told nothing too disastrous has happened yet – the main things being equipment breaking down but there are always Plan B solutions. In fact, while I was there one of the ovens stopped working so Fabian was on the phone to organise repairs.

I’m happy to say I survived my first day in a restaurant kitchen! All up, it was a pretty chilled, fun and educational day with great people who obviously love what they do. Big thanks to the team for having me. And of course, I couldn’t leave without having a cheeky glass of the Four Roads Grenache.



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