A DAY IN THE KITCHEN – The Lane Vineyard

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It’s a cold, rainy day when I pull up to The Lane Vineyard for my day in the kitchen and yet the view is still spectacular! I swear this place has one of the best outlooks in SA. Until relatively recently, I hadn’t eaten at The Lane for a good couple of years. I’d always had a great meal there but I hadn’t really heard anything about it for a while, and certainly nothing since chef James Brinklow left. And then I checked out the website, really liked the look of the menus, booked in and enjoyed a superb lunch experience. It was that day that I met Head Chef Thomas Robinson and Senior Sous Cameron Ahl, and a day in the kitchen was agreed upon.

The aim at The Lane is to create a menu which showcases how food and wine can truly shine and elevate each other – to provide a calm and relaxed space for guests to enjoy interesting and thoughtful food and wine pairing. It’s also about fostering a passionate, safe and supportive kitchen to help develop the next generation of chefs in the region.

Thomas left university at 20, having little interest in his science degree, and particularly statistics (I hear ya!). It was his father who encouraged him to pursue his passion for food and a career in cooking and he ended up loving his time at TAFE. For his first job he was picked to do a six-month exchange in Japan and ended up staying for 2.5 years working in pubs, clubs and ramen shops. On his return, he was offered a job at Auge where after working his way up through the kitchen became Head Chef. It was at Auge he found love for restaurants and found himself surrounded by a good community of like-minded chefs. He also spent time at Celsius and d’Artagnan before heading to Newcastle to work at Bacchus and also opened up Rascal burger shops with long-time friend and Adelaide chef Timothy Montgomery. A stint at Sydney’s Four in Hand and working with Colin Fassnidge was a real highlight and where he really developed his style. On returning to Adelaide, James Brinklow, who he worked for at Auge, offered him some casual work at The Lane. Now Head Chef, Thomas runs the kitchen with friend and Senior Sous Cameron Ahl and it’s obvious they love working together – it’s a bit of a bromance.

Cameron started cooking as a youngster, his grandparents were chefs and he spent time cooking with his grandmother. He got a school-based apprenticeship, worked during years ten to twelve, and was a second-year apprentice straight out of school. He’s worked at The Rezz, The Lion Hotel, then Penfolds where he became sous chef. More recently he worked at The Cube and Leigh Street Wine Room. Also in the kitchen today are chefs Ben Richards and Clara Lehmann.

The typical day starts around 9:00am and ends by around 5:00 – 5:30 Weekends are usually busier and the hours can be longer. Most days start with a team meeting where they talk through the day’s service. Today, they’re expecting 27 people in for lunch, including two at the Chef’s Table which is situated close to the kitchen pass, and consists of the seven-course menu, plus some extras, all served by the chefs, and accompanied with matched wines. They discuss dietary requirements, then it’s a run through the prep list to see what needs to be done. Do they have enough of everything? What deliveries are they expecting? They also mention some mini projects that Ben and Clara are working on. For Ben, it’s Kombucha scoby, and making yellow bean soy sauce. Clara is perfecting the method for tempering chocolate in The Lane kitchen.

There’s talk about a new dish idea – pork with apple butter and nori-wrapped roasted cabbage. Sounds good to me! They’re going to give it a go in the kitchen today. When developing new dishes, it’s a bit of a brainstorm. I was impressed when Thomas pulled out his sketch book. When he’s inspired, and they have the time, he gets the team to test out new dish elements.

Most of the new ideas come from Thomas and Cameron who have fortnightly conversations to discuss new concepts. They both agree they get benefit from working together on this, saying one plus one, in their case, equals three.

Once the meeting is over, it’s back to work. The kitchen’s divided into three sections – Snacks, Mains and Pastry. Today Ben’s on snacks. Ben’s originally from Newcastle and has been cheffing for seven years, starting out in fast food and cafes. Since doing his apprenticeship he’s done stints at Melbourne’s La Luna Bistro, Ezard and French Saloon. At The Lane he loves honing his technical skills, the fact that they grow their own livestock, and the general camaraderie. As I’m talking to him he’s constructing the snack of pastrami toasts – frying the toast in butter with herbs, sesame and fennel salt. The pastrami is brined, smoked in- house and sliced only as required.

Clara is on pastry. She’s spent time at Glass Brasserie at the Hilton in Sydney, Bar Lourinha in Melbourne, Bannisters and Fawk Foods and has been at The Lane for nine months, three days a week. She also has her own business ‘Clara Cakes’. Clara says being a young female in the industry has sometimes been difficult but at The Lane she feels appreciated, can offer ideas and suggestions, and feels supported to be able to concurrently pursue her own business. As I’m speaking with her, she’s making caramelised white chocolate for the parfait.

Thomas and Cameron are on Mains which allows them to oversee the food and manage service. This is where they tend to spend most of their time, although there can be a bit of rotation at times, but Clara is always on pastry.

Music plays an important part of the kitchen vibe. Thomas tells me – it’s a hard job and music helps bring joy and motivation. Thomas tastes some pickles that he’s just been handed and he isn’t happy, telling me that they need to be careful because pickles can mess with the taste of the wines. Here, it’s very much about showcasing the wines.

They’re making the various elements of their test pork dish. The thought of roasted nori- wrapped cabbage really excites me. I love cabbage, I love nori. I’ve never seen it done before – dampening the nori so it can be wrapped around cabbage wedges. I was very pleasantly surprised when they presented me with the full dish to try for my lunch! It definitely got the big thumbs up from me. Menu-worthy for sure! Thomas sticks to a healthy lunch – he’s brought his own healthy orichiette salad with tahini and fermented chili. Cameron disturbingly tells me he gets through the day without eating anything until dinner time!

Service starts and it’s so calm in the kitchen. Thomas and Cameron continue to answer my bombardment of questions without any fluster at all, and I watch with excitement, the plating- up and the action on The Pass.

When it comes to produce and suppliers, Thomas tells me they’re committed to using as much local/sustainable produce as they can and championing the suppliers – there are around eight main ones that they’ve forged relationships with. But there can be sometimes be consistency issues using smaller producers, and they’ll have to source elsewhere. And I discovered that The Lane has their own olive trees, and there’s a dam where they can source yabbies, rainbow trout and brown trout. They even have their own lambs – around 50, and because they’re grown on the estate they like to champion it – it’s become somewhat of a signature dish. And there’s a longer-term plan to pull out some of the vines to create a kitchen garden where they’ll have picking beds, chickens and ducks.

With regard to waste, Thomas tells me that everyone in the industry has a responsibility. The team is conscious of waste minimisation – the green waste is fed to the sheep and they reuse their plastics wherever possible. He does confess, however, there’s room for improvement and they’re putting focus on it.

Once service is over, Thomas takes me for a drive around the estate – I never knew it was so large! And there’s a range of food and wine experiences you can book in for including gourmet picnics and golf! We pull up at the dam and he disappears into the boatshed and reappears with two fishing rods. We give it a crack but unfortunately nothing bites.

Spending the day with these guys was so much fun, and I’m grateful for the experience. There’s a real sense of teamwork, both within the kitchen and between the kitchen and front of house. They certainly didn’t work me too hard – I was assigned easy prep tasks including slicing Jerusalem artichokes and separating shimejis.

If you haven’t dined at The Lane for a while, make sure you do! It really is a special experience. I’m already booked in to go again soon!

Thomas also asked me to include this note:

“It’s wonderful to share stories and to share our experiences with passionate people. Having people like Jacqui champion our industry and give restaurants and their people a platform and spotlight is truly brilliant. It’s good for our souls and our industry’s soul. Three Cheers Jacqui and there will always be a spare apron and a dish to be shared in our kitchen xx”

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