Situated on the lush Bouddi Peninsula in New South Wales, Australia, surrounded by ancient angophoras and fragrant eucalyptus, is a slice of luxury in the form of Pretty Beach House. This exclusive guest house, from its perch on the escarpment, offers breathtaking views of the beach below and the surrounding national park. Its accommodations are sophisticated and tailored to those with a taste for the finer things in life; well-designed private pavilions with heated plunge pools, wood-burning fireplaces, and cast-iron slipper baths, not to mention a peaceful spa, are just a slice of what awaits visitors to this internationally-acclaimed retreat.
This same standard of luxury is also apparent in the spectacular dining room, where chef David Lee has been creating locally-focused, unique menus for the past ten years. We recently spoke with Lee to learn more about his path to heading the kitchen of one of Australia’s most esteemed locales, as well as its evolving vision.
You initially attended university to study science, after which you started working with some of the most renowned chefs in Australia. What prompted the switch of career paths from science to the culinary arts?
I had grown up in a small seaside town two hours outside Auckland in New Zealand. We were surround by farms and farmland and had the ocean at our doorstep. My extended family was involved in agriculture, farming onions, asparagus, and deer. It seemed natural, having grown up surrounded by food both wild and harvested, to follow that path into university. I loved doing the studies in agricultural science and in many ways, it has helped me in relation to the kitchen ever since, as an understanding of food production is very useful when preparing food. Being so isolated from town [Auckland] meant we had a very close relationship to what we ate: fish and shellfish from the beach, local sheep from the farm up the road, the local Manuka honey, and even the vegetables from the market garden just across the street and from my mother’s and grandfather’s vegetable garden. My best memories would be the big kingfish cooked on a fire at the beach, or collecting big tins of Manuka honey from the local hives and the warm Sundays spent preserving the peaches from the giant old tree in the backyard. The cooking and baking from my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchen led me to cook from an early age. It seemed like a natural step to end up as a chef, as I was fascinated by food. In fact, I still love the new adventures and all there is yet to learn, see, and taste.
You have travelled and cooked extensively throughout Asia and Europe, immersing yourself in the cuisines of other cultures. Which country presented the biggest learning curve for you when it came to learning its recipes and methods?
Probably the food from southeast Asia and India has presented the biggest challenge and learning curve. I remember doing a one-off dinner in Singapore based on the book The Hundred-Foot Journey whereby the main challenge was cooking an Indian banquet followed by French patisserie for dessert, given the guests were both French and Indian. The pastry component was the easier of the two as I have had much training and experience in pastry and desserts. The Indian banquet was the hard part. I had to really study, research, and practice and taste dishes to achieve a good result for the client. I think the small nuances within these cuisines are hard to replicate without considerable exposure and immersion in the food, as well as the cultural understanding of the ingredients. It is the small nuances that separate good from excellent. As another example, I spent considerable time with a Thai friend and his family learning their pastes and curries; although I got pretty close, the mother’s curries were always just a little bit more complex than mine, but I’m still trying.
You’ve taken it upon yourself to become versed in cooking for a variety of dietary needs: kosher, vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian, sugar-free…Which has been the trickiest to master or forced the most creative substitutions?
Much of my work now is centred around special diets, almost fifty percent. I have found that vegan food has created the most challenges, especially coming from a meat-centric culture and society. Nearly eight years ago, when I first started my private chef business, my first client was vegan; this was a long time before the continuing shift towards this type of eating had started. The food was also sugar and gluten free with restrictions on fruits, grains, and members of the solanaceae family such as potatoes, tomatoes, chili, and eggplant. Specialized ingredients and products were a lot harder to find back then, so I had to throw out almost everything that I knew and believed about cooking, and all the ingredients that made cooking easy. It is fairly easy to char-grill a steak and get an instant result; it is much harder with plant-based foods. You have to work on ideas and dishes to really get the same result. I also had to alter my palate and the understanding of my palate, as if you eat vegan, your palate changes. Initially I didn’t understand how much until I followed the diet for several weeks and then months; only after this was I able to fully understand how to cook this type of food. The baking and dessert aspect was a massive learning curve as well, as without eggs, baking becomes considerably more difficult, especially if you’re trying to achieve a similar result to non-vegan baking. The important aspect of eggs is that they bind and aerate, among other things. Then try it without gluten and baking became a real challenge.
Michelin does not publish a guide in Australia; hence, its restaurants aren’t starred like those in other major foodie hubs. How do you think this impacts the country’s dining culture? Do you feel that the country’s chefs are a little removed from the international scene, for better or worse?
Naturally, Australian chefs are removed from the international scene through the actual physical distance that separates us from the rest of the world. This distance and the lack of Michelin is, in a way, liberating; we do have our own ratings guide, which is similar to Michelin. As I have gotten older, I have tended to place less emphasis on guide books and ratings. True, I have had some stunning meals in Michelin and The Worlds 50 Best, and they do provide a fantastic tool for eating out. But I have had as many good memories from unrated restaurants and street vendors. I think that this distance forces Australian chefs to become well-travelled, and as a result, I believe that we tend to take the best of the world and then come home to create a unique style of cuisine back home. Look at restaurants like Quay in Sydney and Attica in Melbourne, just to name a couple. We have excellent produce in this country as well as a unique environment that provides a wide and interesting array of native foods and locations, from tropical, temperate, and desert.
You’ve been chef at Australia’s iconic Pretty Beach House for over ten years now. How did you go about creating a menu that would showcase local flavours and suit the stunning location?
The food has developed over the past ten years. Originally, we were very Italian-inspired, using the very best produce that we could find in Australia. From Sydney rock oysters, local fish, seafood, and vegetables, to the best Australian [catches] such as South Australian Marron (native crayfish), spanner crab from Queensland, and salt water barramundi from the North territory, to name but a few. We complimented this with vegetables and herbs grown in our own vegetable garden.
As I mentioned, originally, we followed an Italian-inspired cuisine model using the very best Australian produce and treating it with respect and simplicity. This has changed with the same ethos, but more of a modern style. The food has become more refined over the years I have been writing the menus. During the period when PBH was being rebuilt (after a fire), I met and ate in Simon Rogan’s Fera restaurant in Claridges in London and Lyles in Shoreditch, also in London. The focus of these restaurants was a local food ethos, sourcing produce mainly from the local area. I think Fera was [outside a] fifty-mile radius of London. The regional food in Italy, and then again at Locavore in Ubud, Bali, have directly influenced the food and menus at PBH. I have tried to showcase the beauty of our local and native food and producers. The food, a focal point of a stay at PBH, has always been a reflection on the unique environment at PBH, and thus this philosophy has morphed into our current degustation format, utilizing many differing Australian native ingredients. I have avoided just using these ingredients as an afterthought on a dish; they are integral flavours and components within the dishes themselves. These flavours run as a theme though the cuisine, tying the food to the environment. Being so close to the marine environment, my menus utilize the local seafoods such as the Sydney rock oysters, local fish species, and local native plants such as samphire, Warringal greens, and sea parsley, which all grow locally. I feel now we offer a unique style of food that is tailored directly to suit every different guest.
Pretty Beach House is located in Bouddi National Park, just north of Sydney. How does your clientele differ from that of restaurants in the city centre? Are you catering to a specific type of individual?
Our clientele is a mix of domestic and international travellers, with a touch of high-profile personalities from business, sports, and entertainment. Our tariff is inclusive of all accommodation, food, and beverage, and is aimed directly at the ultra-high-end luxury market. We were one of only three hotels to make the Conde Nast Gold list 2018 in Australia. We have also become a destination for very high-profile clients visiting Australia who are looking for somewhere close to Sydney, yet completely private and [secluded]. With only four rooms, we offer a highly individualized service attempting to meet even the smallest of guests’ needs. Our clients have generally eaten out and travelled extensively with excellent food and wine knowledge. I had a guest recently that had eaten in every three-star Michelin in Europe, and some of the best throughout Australia, and had dined at Quay in Sydney the night before. These kinds of guests provide the biggest challenge and best rewards, as I try to offer an experience that is familiar but has a definite point of difference in an attempt to create a unique dining experience for each guest.
Are there any challenges to maintaining a certain level of excellence in a more rural area? How do you go about sourcing your ingredients when they can’t be found locally?
At first yes, but over the years I have worked with suppliers to ensure we can get the best possible produce all year round. The exciting aspect of this is that we change the menu on a daily basis. The menu is changed based on customer needs, dietary requirements, and seasonal availability. Dishes are often repeated as guests change, but often these dishes are varied based on the above. No menu is repeated and no menu or dish is repeated during a guest stay. This requires a considerable amount of planning. On some evenings, I can essentially have three different menus running with variations to deal with dietary requirements and the fact that some guests had been in on multiple evenings. I aim to never limit a guest experience based on a preference or a dietary requirement. As I mentioned above, I do grow some of the produce, but most of it is purchased though suppliers. It can be quite seasonal, and as well can be wild harvested and often low yielding, so using good suppliers is imperative to maintain standards.
My ethos with the bush foods is that they should be a spine of our menus. The Australian landscape is intrinsically linked to fire, and thus I use this earthy idea when using the ingredients. I tend to use the char-grill a lot as this gives a smoky, charred flavour and character to the meats and vegetables. Things like the kangaroo and marron are cooked on the grill to give a fired feel to the food. The native ingredients tend to complement one another as they grow within the unique Australian environment and are sourced directly from my garden or our supplier network.
If you were to open your own restaurant, where would it be located and what would be the general vibe of the atmosphere and menu?
I would open a restaurant very similar to PBH in a rural/natural area; I love the idea of terroir in food. The restaurant would reflect the unique environment of the coast and bush, a sustainable ethos and one of using the best produce treated with simplicity and skill. I’m sure it would not be fine dining but something more country and accessible. Having lived and grown up on the coast, it would be in a coastal rural area, with its own gardens and link all this wild, rural, coastal vibe to the guests. As for location, I would consider my home country of New Zealand as a perfect location.
What’s your favourite foodie destination? Any one city or region that excites your palate like no other?
Without a doubt, I would say for general food vibe you can’t beat Italy, but for restaurants, it would be London. Food and Italy are one in the same. I’ve eaten and used some of the best and most flavoursome produce in the world in Italy. The food is vibrant and linked to the region and the people like nowhere else in the world. For restaurants, London wins hands down with such an interesting and ever-changing scene, from fine dining, modern British, French, modern and rustic Italian, Indian, Spanish, and everything in between. There is such a variety and so much of it is excellent. What I love about London is the English are masters of [adopting] other styles and foods; they aren’t hung up so much on tradition and regionalism as, say, in Italy or France.
If you had to prepare dinner for, and then dine with, a dream guest…who would it be, and what would you make for them?
Not sure I’m that interested in having a dream guest — I’d rather an interesting and challenging guest. Someone like Winston Churchill would be a great choice. An original member of the Other Club (dining club), lifetime Francophile, champagne lover, well-travelled, and educated. A man that was polarizing, much criticized and disliked, yet kept on fighting and never gave up, even when all seemed lost. A man that made a vast many mistakes, yet never stopped believing in what he thought was right. I think that dinner conversation would be an interesting and fascinating one, on so many levels. Churchill was a futurist, so I would serve something modern and Australian inspired, maybe kangaroo with coconut marsala and quandongs. Even if he didn’t like it, I’m sure the reaction would be worth it.
Photos courtesy of David Lee.