Joel Bickford likes to keep things simple when it comes to food. The newly appointed head chef of Aria Restaurant in Sydney has a “less is more” approach and favours seasonal, regional produce.
At this year’s Hunter Culinary Association Food Fight, though, he will be forced to think outside the square to win the popular vote.
Bickford will take on chefs Frank Fawkner (EXP.restaurant), Mitch Orr (ACME) and Hamish Watt (Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley) in a hotly-contested battle to create a course that is a “new twist on a classic dish”.
Bickford knows what course he’s preparing but has yet to decide on a dish. He needs to speak to the other chefs first “to make sure the menu flows”.
“It will need to be functional, given the amount of covers you need to do in a short period. Something simple and tasty,” Bickford said.
So, is this laidback but talented chef competitive?
“I don’t have an arrogant sort of competitive nature, I compete with myself more than anything and try to be the best I can. The Food Fight is all about fun though, isn’t it? That’s what I’ve been told anyway. Maybe they’re trying to soften me up,” he said, laughing.
Hunter Culinary Association deputy chair Lisa Margan said this year’s challenge celebrated the classics: “The tried and true dishes people love year after year and pass down through families and generations.”
“The Hunter Valley is the birthplace of the Australian wine industry so it’s the perfect setting for a contest that marries the old and the new. And when we have four chefs of this calibre given free rein to put their individual stamps on dishes like these, you know the results will be incredible,” she said.
“Combined with the use of fresh, locally sourced ingredients and delicious Hunter Valley wines, it’s a winning formula and an unforgettable culinary experience.”
The Food Fight raises money for the Brett Graham Scholarship through a charity auction. The scholarship program is one of several offered by the association and helps support the region’s young chefs by offering them the opportunity to work with Graham at his acclaimed London Michelin-starred restaurant, The Ledbury.
Food Fight 2018 will be held on June 18 at Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley, Pokolbin. Canapes will be served at 11am. All are welcome to attend. To book, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit hunterculinary.com.au.
- Joel Bickford, head chef, Aria. Joel moved to Sydney from the Blue Mountains where he grew up to pursue his passion for cooking. He trained under and worked with chefs such as Stefano Manfredi, James Viles, Anthony Mussara and Sean Connelly, who each gave him a broad skillset and appreciation for different food styles and philosophies. He has worked at no less than eight hatted restaurants, including The Gantry, Bel Mondo, Eschalot and Biota.
- Mitch Orr, executive chef and owner, ACME. The 2010 Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award winner has spent time in the world’s best kitchens, including the likes of Sepia, Osteria Francescana, Duke Bistro and a pop up at London's Michelin Star restaurant, Lyle's. Mitch is a part-owner of ACME, which opened in 2015. Mitch is also one half of The Mitchen, a Sydney food podcast he records with Andrew Levins.
- Frank Fawkner, executive chef and owner, EXP Restaurant. Frank’s cooking career began at Mount Broke Wines in a simple cafe, followed by three years as part of the opening team at Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley. His hunger for international experience saw him move to London where he worked for Tom Aikens, climbing to the ranks of sous chef at Tom’s Kitchen. Many know him from his time as head chef at the Hunter’s famous Muse Restaurant when it gained its two-hat status. Frank opened EXP in 2015.
- Hamish Watt, executive chef, Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley. Beginning as an apprentice at Rockpool under Neil Perry, Hamish’s career has seen him spend 10 years in London, where he honed his craft and love of cooking at various restaurants and kitchens, including Pissarro’s on the Thames and Kensington Place. On his homecoming, Hamish took up the executive chef role at the Botanical Garden Restaurant in Sydney, after which he opened a restaurant in Surry Hills before a tree change drew him to the Hunter Valley where he is now executive chef at the Crowne Plaza.