It's been 21 years since Amanda's on the Edge served its first customer.
Perched on a hill at Windsor's Edge Vineyard, this Hunter Valley restaurant was built from the ground up with love by a close-knit family who worked hard to realise a dream.
It has weathered drought and fire and economic downturns and is even managing to survive a global pandemic that has shaken the hospitality industry to its very foundations.
And not just survive, either. Amanda's on the Edge has thrived.
Amanda Patton inspired the restaurant's name and inherited not only her grandmother's dream of owning a restaurant, but also her flair for cooking and hospitality.
Patton was living in Brisbane when her brother, Tim, called her out of the blue 23 years ago and invited her to the Hunter Valley. He was a Qantas captain, close to completing a degree in winemaking at Charles Sturt University and keen on the idea of owning a vineyard.
"He told me he had something to show me and it was an empty block - about 130 acres - and he said 'Righto, what do you think if we all come and live here together? Mum and Dad, we will build your home there; Amanda, we will build your restaurant there; we'll get some accommodation in and a vineyard and we'll see how we go'," Patton says, laughing.
"It was a blank canvas yearning to be reinvented but I could see the potential.
"I wanted to create a restaurant that served hearty, uncomplicated home-cooked food - not a fancy restaurant like you would find in Sydney. I knew this was the place that I could do that."
The property was a former dairy and known for hosting the Black Creek picnic races.
The family bought the property and then the hard work began. Stage one was building the main homestead. Stage two was the construction of the cottages, and stage three was the restaurant.
Today, the property also boasts another residence, a pool and a tennis court.
The old horse track remains and its starting posts were used in the landscaping of the property which overlooks vines, rolling hills and picturesque countryside.
"No one can sneak up on us here," Patton says, laughing.
She completed "a business degree in hospitality many, many years ago, running lots of other people's businesses" before deciding it was time to run her own.
"I started off pretty small," she says.
"Every week I would jump in my car and drive to every single accommodation house in the Hunter Valley with my menu and say 'Here I am again!'. I was so much in their faces that they were like 'She's not going to go away, is she? Let's back her'.
"And they did. They started coming in and eating with us and they're all still my regular customers, which is awesome."
Head chef Sara Connors has worked with the tenacious Patton for 13 years. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with.
"I'll do some research and she'll perfect it. For example, I love dumplings and I know you can't get a good dumpling around here so I thought 'Well, we'll just have to do it ourselves'," Patton says.
"I tend to pick a food I don't know how to make and spend a year perfecting it. I did that journey with dumplings and took my head chef on that journey with me and now she is even better at it than I am. We still have dumplings on our set menu at the moment. We make all our own dough and fillings by hand."
Connors is a born and bred Novocastrian who started working at Amanda's on the Edge as a fourth-year apprentice.
"My relationship with Amanda has been great - we both love the same cuisine and style of food, so we communicate very well," she says.
"She has a lot of input into what goes on the menu because she knows what sells, and she knows what the locals want.
"With my skill and her knowledge, it works really well."
Connors was raised on a diverse and interesting diet courtesy of her mother, who was a creative cook.
"We never ate just meat and vegetables. She had fun with our meals," she says.
"As a second-year apprentice I was cooking mains and once I started doing it, I loved it. I was lucky to be working with an owner-chef who saw that passion and embraced it. Back then, not a lot of females were chefs. He really helped me get to where I am today."
Connors and Patton introduced "special menu" nights at the restaurant and so far have covered dumplings, Indian curries and yum cha. Each one was a sell-out. The Indian curry night will forever be etched into Patton's memory. It just so happened to coincide with the COVID-forced closure of restaurants in NSW.
"I walked into the kitchen, saw all the prep we had done and rang every single customer who was booked, saying 'Look, do you still want to do it? We can do it takeaway'. And they all jumped at the chance," she says.
"It was such a success I realised that we needed to keep the ball rolling, so I developed an app with our menu on it so people could order straight from our website. It's pre-paid and contactless and it's still going."
Patton laughs when recalling a phone conversation with a customer who was wearing her pyjamas and reluctant to hop out of the car to pick up her meal.
"Afterwards, I posted on social media 'If you want to stay in your car, we'll bring your food out to you and we promise we won't tell anyone you're in your jarmies'," she says.
"We did takeaway the whole time. The local community kept us on the hop. I did it for my staff. I didn't want them to be out of work. I said to them 'OK everyone, go on holidays, give me a couple of weeks and I'll figure this out'. Within a week my head chef was back and we were back in business."
Customer numbers were already down prior to COVID, Connors says, due to drought and bushfires.
"People were told not to travel to the Valley, so it really affected us," she says.
"Then COVID-19 was a whole other ball game. It was a bit tough trying to get my head around how I was going to serve the food that I cook in an a la carte restaurant as a takeaway, but we got there. I'm thankful because it's actually put us in a really good position now."
Patton and Connors have introduced a dine-in set menu at the restaurant and are amazed at how much simpler and cost-effective it is proving to be.
"Our menu has a choice of five entrees, five mains and desserts and we've packaged it up with a bottle of wine for two people at $110 per head. We were doing it tough with drought and fires but now, boy oh boy we have bounced back," Patton says.
Connors adds: "You know it's going to be a $110 minimum spend and we've been booking out so I told Amanda we'd be silly to change anything right now because it's so successful. Once JobKeeper finishes we need to be able to keep going. I'm not sure places will survive if they're not getting the customers in now."
The two women are also on the same page when it comes to the restaurant's fresh food philosophy.
"We are using as much local produce as we can and we grow a lot of our own produce as well," Patton says.
"We don't over-complicate the food, that's not our thing. It's comfort food, really, but done well."
Connors has been building connections with local suppliers and producers for many years and prides herself on having a good working relationship with them.
"My fish supplier, for instance. Shane's Seafood. I've dealt with him since I was a sous chef," she says.
"You're not treated as a number, it's a personal relationship. If I'm ordering they will tell me if it's not the best quality this time around and suggest an alternative. The relationship allows you to get the best and freshest products."
Amanda's on the Edge is a family affair and that looks set to continue. Patton's daughter is 14 and already helping her work the floor on weekends.
"I couldn't believe how quickly she picked it up. She was like 'It's OK, Mum, I've watched you do it and I know what to do'," Patton says.
"Still to this day they book their favourite table for lunch on Fridays, sitting by the sun-dappled window seat among the businessmen, the couples, the family celebrations ... happy to be together in their dream."
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