A DAY IN THE KITCHEN – Magill Estate Restaurant

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If you’ve ever been to Magill Estate Restaurant located at the home of Penfolds, you’ll know that it’s a pretty special experience. It’s one of only a handful of true fine dining establishments in South Australia. I’ve been lucky enough to dine here a few times, and it’s always been quality, but it was the most recent visit that was the real stand-out dining experience! So, I was very excited to spend a day there and find out how this kitchen operates under Executive Chef Scott Huggins and Head Chef Rodrigo Santos.

Scott was born in Victoria. A self-confessed ‘country bogan’, he remembers writing a letter to his babysitter when he was only six years old, saying that he wanted to be a chef, and always chose to spend time cooking with his mother over learning how to build, mend and fix things with his father. School was never his thing so he opted for a TAFE course elective which offered the opportunity to spend some time in kitchens. This resulted in him leaving school for an apprenticeship in year nine. Being qualified at 19 he went to Ayers Rock and worked at a 5-star resort for twelve months before heading to Europe for a stint. He’s also worked in Singapore and Japan, and back in Australia he’s worked at both Ezard and the Royal Mail Hotel. His dad was a huge Penfolds wine fan so on arriving in Adelaide he went to Magill Estate Restaurant, started as Executive Chef and it’s now been over eight years.

Rodrigo is from South Brazil. His mother is a chef in a hotel and between the ages of 16 to 21, Rodrigo enjoyed helping her out, cooking mostly Brazilian food. At the same time he commenced a degree in environmental engineering but hated it – he longed to be a chef. After over two years of study, he quit and moved to Australia to cook. Starting in Brisbane, he went from café (BillyKart with celebrity chef Ben O’Donoghue) to fine dining (Thomson’s Reserve with Executive Chef Anthony Hales). Whilst he enjoyed fine dining, and he learned the foundations of modern Australian cooking, after two years he went back to hotel work because of the excessive hours he’d been doing. For Visa reasons he ended up in Adelaide and applied at Magill Estate Restaurant. Even though there was no position available, he started straight away, just helping out on a regular basis before a part-time position came up. In four years he became Head Chef.

On a typical day at the restaurant, the kitchen team gets in around 9:30am. Each morning there’s a team briefing at 10am to go through the run of service including the order of the dishes and any dietaries. Today, there’s 26 diners and quite a few dietaries – two pescatarians, two vegetarians, one vegetarian with a fructose intolerance, one no seafood and someone who’s pregnant. But, as Rodrigo tells me, they haven’t met a dietary yet that they can’t cater for. The kitchen team this day is made up of Chefs de Partie Graham, Jake and Mark, Commis Chef Angie, and Le Cordon Bleu student Jay. On a Sunday there’s usually a team of five to six, and on a busy day, up to ten. Also today, Anh is on dish duty. The front of house team today consists of manager Neal, Ria, Jade, Zach and Crispin.

The kitchen is divided into larder/snacks, fish/seafood, grill, and pastry. Chefs initially spend around three months rotating through each section but after that, they pretty much stay in one section with a Chef de Partie in charge. Occasionally the Chefs de Partie have a refresher in another section in case they need to step in. Today it’s Graham on fish, Jake on grill and Mark on larder. Angie’s on pastry and Jay is sharing himself around. On my walk around I’m impressed with how organised everything is – neat, ordered and labelled, and there’s a cool room dedicated to proteins. Today there are some very attractive spatchcocks being dry-aged.

I take note of what the team members are up to – Angie’s filling small donuts with a tomato base. Jake is frying some shallots with salt and sugar at 14 degrees for an eggplant dish. Graham is hulling out beetroot, part of a no-waste dish where the insides are blitzed, made into a filling and put back into the shell. Mark is making crumpets – placing the pan of mixture over the flame to add colour before they’re baked. Jay is making sushi rice, mixing it while manually using a hand-held fan to cool it down. And one thing I notice is, there’s no music, so people can focus on the task at hand.

Rodrigo takes me to see the garden. What? A garden? I never realised that there was one on site – I hadn’t been around to the back parking area before but the garden is quite impressive – a number of planter boxes growing capsicums, tomatoes, eggplant, coriander, oregano, dill, parsley, spring onion chillies, corn, raspberries, ice plant, saltbush, cumquat, Tahitian lime and plenty of edible flowers used for garnish. Rodrigo spends a lot of time tending to the garden, learning mostly on the job, and encourages the whole kitchen team to get involved.

And for those of you who have ever wondered, yes, there are very separate kitchens for Magill Estate Restaurant and Magill Estate Kitchen. The ‘Kitchen’ kitchen is a much larger set-up as they feed up to 160 people per service, as well as cater for weddings and other large functions (as opposed to the ‘Restaurant’ that feeds up to 36 people a sitting).

The Restaurant kitchen is run is markedly different to any other kitchen I’ve spent time in. Here, it’s all about precision and perfection. There’s a camera in the dining room and TV screens in the kitchen so it’s easy to see when all of the diners on a table have arrived.  If someone gets up from the table, the kitchen can hold off serving the next dish until that person is back and seated. There are no dockets here – here it’s whiteboards. The whiteboard shows the tables and where they’re up to in the menu. A large digital clock under the TV screen enables front of house staff write down the exact time the table has been cleared and is ready for their next course and the kitchen can tell exactly how long a table has been waiting. Neal also shows me a hard copy front of house ‘cheat-sheet’ outlining cutlery, water, wines and other necessities to ensure a good diner experience.

As you might imagine, the kitchen is prep-heavy to ensure a smooth service. It’s all about attention to detail and taking the time to get it right. Dry-aged spatchcocks are done confit at 62 degrees to reach an internal temperature of 55 degrees before being finished off on the grill. Tuna has been blast-frozen before being thinly sliced daily with a meat slicer. Broths, including a pipi broth and a garlic nori broth, are in test tubes, being kept at 65 degrees so they’re ready to go. Yolks have been done confit at 63 degrees for 25 minutes. The stuffed chicken wings are steamed for 2 minutes then fried for 6 minutes. The lamb wellington gets blast-chilled before going in the oven for 20 minutes, then chilled again. Everything is timed to perfection, and it’s almost eerily calm.

As service starts, it’s fascinating just to stand back and watch everything happen. Rodrigo is on the pass finalising plating and coordinating everything with the kitchen team and front of house. Plated dishes are then placed on trays to be taken out to the dining room, with any dietaries clearly marked.

In terms of minimising waste, there’s a compost bin used for the garden, things are preserved and pickled, and leftover bits and pieces are used for making stocks and staff meals. Each day a different section is responsible for staff meals.

When it comes to new dishes, Scott tends to primarily drive the process. He and Rodrigo will talk through a concept and then Rodrigo will work on it until they’re happy. Scott loves to take something nostalgic and change/improve it. Take, for example, their most excellent lamb rack wellington, inspired by the classic beef variety.

It generally takes around four weeks from an idea to the time it’s on the menu. Once they’re happy with a new dish, they’ll do a staff tasting and briefing with both front of house and the kitchen team, and talk about the best wine match. (Neal tells me that about 60 percent of diners opt for one of the wine pairing options). It’s an ever-evolving menu – they’re always trying to change what they feel is the weakest dish. Weakest dish? I’m certainly racking my brain to remember a dish that was even close to ‘weak’ from my last dining experience.

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