Back To Basics

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1 March 2016 


In an age when the gastronomy scene is swarming with novel concepts and foodie buzzwords are becoming commonplace, James Viles is ignoring what’s in and focusing on a holistic culinary approach, writes Tatyana Leonov.

James Viles is pulling wine out of a pond. He’s wearing gumboots and laughing alongside a few colleagues as he wrenches out a few more bottles...and then plunks them back in the pond. It’s evidently just another typical day at Biota Dining + Rooms.

Located in Bowral, a picturesque country town in the Southern Highlands, ‘just another day’ at Biota is possibly as interesting as the most exciting day at most other workplaces.

James Viles is no ordinary chef. In fact, the 36-year-old is pretty much the opposite of ordinary. Head chef and director of Biota, he creates food so mouth-watering that Biota is famed for being one of the most-awarded regional restaurants in Australia – La Maison du The Regional Restaurant of the Year for NSW and ACT for two years running, a sustainability award, and a consistent The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide two-hat rating for a number of years.

The food James crafts isn’t just tasty, though. James cooks in a way that forces the diner to think. For James, food and thought go hand in hand and his menus, food preparation and even the kitchen set up reflect his philosophy.

The wine in the pond was just one small component of a no-energy dinner that James held as a special one-off event. Understandably, no fridges were used (the pond was used as a natural cooling system), no electrical stoves, no power. Mood lighting came from candles, live music (a beautiful transgression of vocal harmonies) set the scene, menus were handwritten onto corkboard, and credit card payments were not taken on the day.

All the food was prepared using primitive cooking methods, such as wood-fire cooking, air ageing, fermentation, curing and smoking. Everyone loved it!

Since then, James has organised several other thought-provoking events and he plans to hold many more. His objective is to inspire people to think about the way they approach dining. To James, eating is not simply about nurturing the body or relishing the meal, but also about knowing where the food comes from and having an appreciation of the progression from source to plate.

“Mother Nature inspires me in every way. I have always loved being outside, so if I can emulate those stories onto a plate for the diner, then that just makes sense to me,” James explains.

As a reflection of his passion for the natural, the sustainable and the seasonal, James sources food that is truly natural, sustainable and seasonal. These buzzwords are not just dustings on a main – they are the main – and the entrée and dessert, too.

“I get my ingredients from local farmers and growers. Some are not commercial at all. Some people just bring kilos of ingredients into the restaurant and say, ‘James, can you use this?’ I say ‘Yes!’”

James doesn’t just unearth the best; he grows a substantial amount of it in the two onsite vegetable gardens.

“We grow camomile, borage, yarrow, pea shoots, Jerusalem artichokes, zucchini, eggplant and pumpkin,” he explains, looking around, aware there’s more to the already-impressive list.

He’s always got a concept, an event idea, a community project in motion and they’re all environmentally friendly. “At Biota we have waterless toilets, we recycle all kitchen scraps, we don’t use any linen in the restaurant and we wash all room linen in house (there are 12 on-site rooms). We are far better for it,” he says.

Further to that, in 2014 James was the first chef in the country to open a solar-powered kitchen. “We have over 1000 square metres of black roof space, so we thought it was a sensible way to save some money,” he explains. “Also, more to the point, we use Mother Nature to inspire us and give us direction in what goes on a plate – so it makes sense to use her to fuel our cooking as well.”

Everything that comes out of the solar-powered kitchen is a reflection of James’ culinary ethos. The regional wine list works seamlessly with the food offerings too.

“We serve mostly local and semi-local wines with a focus on sustainability and we like to work with grape-growers and winemakers who love their grapes,” sommelier and restaurant manager Ben Shepherd explains. “Biodynamic, organic and natural wines have an obvious place within these bounds. New for 2016, we are launching monthly regional wine dinners where we match wines from a specific region with tasty, seasonal food. ”

Whether it’s the winemakers who love their grapes, the growers who appreciate the first shoots their vegetables sprout, or the farmers who nurture their cattle, this desire to work with passionate people is a perfect summary of the Biota culture.

“We’re all connected to Mother Nature,” James says, “So we need to work with her and allow her to guide us in what we eat and how we treat each other. It’s as simple as that.”