NEWCASTLE has so much interesting and thriving stuff going on at the moment, particularly in the foodie world.
Take for example last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend a pop-up restaurant at a secret location in town.
Pop-up makes it sound easy-peasy but we’re talking a four-course French country banquet for 80 people in an old church in the Newcastle CBD cooked out of the back of a truck by renowned international chef, Nic Poelaert.
To be fair, the El Poco Loco food truck is a dedicated off-site commercial kitchen, but it’s still a truck, parked down an alleyway beside Watt Street Gallery.
And 80 mouths is a fair number to feed at the best of times considering most of us struggle to make miracles happen in our own kitchens catering for four, or fewer.
This was ambitious, grand and stylish, featuring local food, wine, cheese, light and music, thrown together seemingly without a hitch. But of course behind the scenes you know there’s some seriously able bodies on the go with a passion for doing great things.
Take Nic Poelaert, for instance, known affectionately in some circles as the ‘‘Vegetable Whisperer’’ for his penchant for foraging fresh, inspiring ingredients.
From a small village in France called Cappellebrouck, Nic honed his culinary skills over 18 years working with world-renowned 3 Michelin star chefs such as Michel and Sebastian Bras (Laguiole, France), Gordon Ramsay (Chelsea, England) and Shannon Bennett (Melbourne, Australia).
There are two things I know about Michelin. One, is that it is a brand of tyre; and two, is that its stars give you serious traction if you’re a chef.
Nic certainly found some when he moved to Melbourne in 2009, garnering a swathe of hats and awards for his work at Embrasse Restaurant. The guy is a big deal, and suddenly he was cooking in Newcastle.
Turns out he’s married to a Novocastrian, Tara, and after visiting for the last 15 years, has decided to move here to raise his kids and continue the food safari.
Newcastle reminds him of his old town in the North of France – similar industrial history and small town approach. Not sure if they have just sacked the coach of their local league team, but you never know.
Cue the pop-up restaurant idea and a quick look at the kind of talent, energy and creative connections that are fusing to get things done around here.
Aaron van de Stadt runs the El Poco Loco food truck business with his sister Allie as part of mum, Tracey Priestley’s Casa de Loco restaurant at the top of town.
Aaron, in that classic Novocastrian way, used to play rugby with Kyle Linstron, AKA the Cheese Mongrel.
Kyle worked for Nic at Embrasse in Melbourne before moving back, and when Kyle heard Nic was moving up, he helped with introductions around town.
Kyle did a cheese night at local artisan bakery, The Baked Uprising, a couple of months ago, where Nic met Aaron.
They got talking about the local industry and Nic was impressed with Aaron’s ambitious foodie plans and his respect for the customers.
Nic got in touch a couple of weeks later and offered to help Aaron with a new venture Aaron is opening on Hunter Street in the next couple of months.
In return, Aaron, who’s had some experience with pop-ups, suggested they do one to announce Nic’s arrival in town.
Cue Jessica and Emma from The Wedding Designer, who have worked a bit with Aaron on custom off-site events on properties, sheds and warehouses in the valley. The girls figured they could make it look good if the guys could make it taste good.
Watt Street Gallery was settled on as a site and with assistance from The Underground Epicurean, utilising its niche foodie emailing list, the first night was sold out and a second added.
It has to be said, Watt Street Gallery is a magnificent building in its own right and the floristry and decorations The Wedding Designers prepared nailed the organic and natural brief Nic outlined.
Guests were greeted with a delicious sparkling wine courtesy of The Inner City Winemakers, Rob Wilce and Janine Adele, who make their wines on site at Wickham, and Angus Vinden’s Vinden Estate.
Diners enjoyed a magnificent selection of cheeses courtesy of the Cheese Mongrel (aka Kyle), breads from Baked Uprising, and Nic’s menu featured an array of mouth-watering canapes – whipped cod roe, squid crackers, steamed brioche, confit chicken and John Dory – followed by mains of sher wagyu beef, before a forage on a forest floor of chocolate.
Musicians Jack Dawson and Huw Garven provided an ambient vibe while the team from Hobo Techno set the stage out front with a stunning light installation beamed onto the facade from the United Service Club across the road.
It was definitely an event for which Novocastrian foodies obviously have an appetite – cool, interesting and different. As Nic said, it was frenetic but in the wash-up, everyone behind the scenes is still talking to each other and plans are afoot for similar events. Perhaps an entree of things to come as the talented people of this region continue to pop up and do great things.