in the media: delicious.
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Food fights are generally to be avoided, but not this one. In fact, discerning diners should be beating down the door for a place at the Hunter Culinary Association’s annual Food Fight and its associated auction.

This year’s event – the tenth – sees four of Australia’s top young chefs go head to head at the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley in Pokolbin. Each will prepare one course, with diners voting for their favourite at the conclusion of lunch.

The four chefs – dubbed the ‘Ledbury All-Stars’ for their time cooking under Brett Graham at The Ledbury in London – are Thomas Boyd (Margan), Troy Crisante (Quay), George Mirosevich (Restaurant Mason) and Eilish Maloney (formerly of Saint Peter);

“Each of these talented chefs have trained under the legendary Brett Graham at his acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant,” says Hunter Culinary Association chairman Gus Maher. “So guests will be dining at an incredibly high standard.”

The Food Fight, and its signature auction, supports the Hunter region’s young chefs by giving them the opportunity to work with Brett in London through the Brett Graham Scholarship, undertaken in conjunction with TAFE NSW, explain Maher.

“What is rewarding is seeing young chefs and scholarship winners coming back to the Hunter,” he continues.

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Gus Maher

What happens when four of this country’s young gun chefs – all of who have cooked alongside Brett Graham at The Ledbury in London – sharpen their knives and go head-to-head in the kitchen?

 The annual Food Fight is the signature event organised by the Hunter Culinary Association (HCA) and is a highly-anticipated occasion on the Hunter’s culinary calendar. This year’s clash promises to be as thrilling as ever, with the chefs working their magic and creating a dish of their choice to take out the prestigious title. Each chef will prepare one lunch course matched with a Hunter Valley wine. Guests will then vote for their preferred dish at the conclusion of lunch.

 The chefs are: Thomas Boyd (Margan); Troy Crisante (Quay Restaurant); George Mirosevich (Restaurant Mason) and Eilish Maloney, formerly of Saint Peter;

 HCA Chairman Gus Maher said the tenth annual Food Fight was set to be an ‘unforgettable gourmet event’, once again hosted by the inimitable duo Colin Fassnidge and Matt Kemp, who are longtime supporters of the Hunter Culinary Association.

‘Each of these talented chefs have trained under the legendary Brett Graham at his acclaimed London Michelin-starred restaurant, so guests will be dining at an incredibly high standard,’ Mr Maher said.

 ‘That is extra special as the Food Fight, and its signature auction supports our region’s young chefs by giving them the opportunity to work with Brett in London through the Brett Graham Scholarship which we undertake in conjunction with TAFE NSW.’

HCA Chairman Gus Maher says the Food Fight has allowed the Brett Graham scholarship to grow, but most notably allow the overall HCA scholarship program to expand benefitting the career development of many young chefs.

‘The key objective of the HCA is to provide scholarship opportunities to develop the careers of young and aspiring chefs and apprentices. 

The Hunter Culinary Association Food Fight lunch attracts large industry support, but is also open for members of the public to attend and immerse themselves in this special food experience.


Date: Monday 17 June 2019

Time: 11am

Location: Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley, Pokolbin.

Cost: $175 for HCA members, $195 for non-members and $90 for apprentice chefs 



Gus Maher
Autumn Seasonal Lunch
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The highly anticipated – and always delicious - Hunter Culinary Association (HCA) Autumn Seasonal Lunch has taken a sweet turn this year with a new partnership bringing all the pleasures of baking to the plate at the stunning Elements Restaurant and Bar at Mercure Hunter Valley Gardens Resort, Pokolbin.

 Partnering with leading European food wholesaler Eustralis, the HCA is not only offering a mouth-watering chocolate demonstration at its first event in 2019, but has also added an exciting new scholarship to its offering of scholarships supporting up-and-coming local talent.

 A supplier of ready-to-bake products and essential ingredients for pastry chefs, cooks and catering companies, Eustralis has recently established a partnership with the Hunter Culinary Association. As part of that Partnership Eustralis has provided a scholarship opportunity for an experienced or aspiring pastry chef.

Guests at the lunch will be treated to an amazing chocolate demonstration from Eustralis pastry chef Jeremie Mantelin, who has worked as a pastry chef in France and Australia alongside noted chefs like Tony Bilson and Adrian Zumbo. His French cheffing pedigree takes in the Hotel San Regis and the three Michelin Star-rated Jacques Marcon in Paris.

 Following the demonstration, guests will be treated to a three-course meal highlighting the seasonal produce of autumn, prepared by Elements’ Executive Chef Michael Watson, complemented by a selection of beverages provided by Peter Drayton Wines and Ironbark Hill brewery. The event will be rounded out with an incredible chocolate-based desert showcasing Eustralis product.

 HCA Chairman Gus Maher said the new partnership significantly broadened what the Hunter Culinary Association was able to offer its Members and the industry.

 ‘Eustralis bring to us their culinary expertise in a very specialised field, which we are confident will provide a great benefit. That benefit at lunch will be chocolate in all of its wonderful glory!”

 Eustralis Sales Manager Greg Bonneau said he was thrilled to be partnering with the HCA.

 ‘The type of industry exposure enabled by scholarships and events such as this can make a huge difference to a chef’s career development and we are as passionate as the HCA is about guiding and empowering the Hunter’s aspiring chefs through mentoring and knowledge.’


 Date: 9 April 2019.

Time: 11.30am – 3pm.

Location: Mercure Hunter Valley Gardens Resort, Pokolbin.

Cost: $100 for HCA members, $130 for non-members and $30 for apprentice chefs. 

To book contact Angela at Hunter Culinary Association –

Gus Maher
Brett Graham Scholarship winner; Jacob Hobbs from Muse Restaurant.

Brett Graham Scholarship winner; Jacob Hobbs from Muse Restaurant.

Winners of three highly anticipated TAFE NSW and Hunter Culinary Association (HCA) annual scholarships were announced last night at an awards ceremony held to celebrate the best apprentice chefs and front of house professionals for 2018. 

The winners were selected following a series of interviews, cooking assessments and challenges that saw them battle it out for the three hotly contested awards:

·      Brett Graham Scholarship.

·      First Creek Wines Front of House Scholarship.

·      Hunter Culinary Association Rising Star Award.

Apprentice chef Jacob Hobbs of Muse Restaurant was named winner of the $10,000 Brett Graham Scholarship. He is one of the youngest apprentices at just 17 to have won the prestigious award. Abbey Taylor of Margan Restaurant took out the First Creek Front of House Scholarship and the Rising Star Award was presented to Vienna Dowell from Yellow Billy  Restaurant.

Designed tofoster the talent of young local apprentice chefs, the $10,000 Brett Graham scholarship gives Jacob a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly to London and work alongside Brett Graham at The Ledbury in London’s Notting Hill, which is currently ranked inthe World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The Brett Graham Scholarship is a partnership between the Hunter Culinary Association and TAFE NSW and is named after Novocastrian Brett Graham, who is one of TAFE NSW’s most successful alumni.

 The three Brett Graham Scholarship finalists were selected from an initial group of nine apprentices. Each created, prepared and cooked a menu based on ingredients selected by Brett Graham while also managing and directing a kitchen “support team” of apprentices. The individual courses were served to industry guests and the panel of expert judges.

TAFE NSW Commercial Cookery Teacher and head judge Tracey Amos said, the standard of dishes produced by this year’s entrants was exceptionally high, with all three finalists showing a great understanding of the importance of using quality produce and creating subtle flavour combinations in their dishes.’ 

‘This year we were very fortunate to have acclaimed Sydney chef Jane Strode as guest judge, along with Georgia Maher from NBN News and Warren Fouracre from The Junction Hotel. We jointly agreed that Jacob was the deserving winner.’

Guest judge; Sydney acclaimed chef, Jane Strode.

Guest judge; Sydney acclaimed chef, Jane Strode.

The First Creek Wines Front of House Scholarship saw ten hospitality professionals compete this year for the top prize. 

 After a thorough judging and interview process, the three winners were; Abbey Taylor of Margan Restaurant took home the coveted First Creek Wines $5,000 Scholarship; as a very close second Patrick Hester of Yellow Billy Restaurant was awarded $1000 to contribute to wine training through the Wine Education & Spirit Trust (WSET); and in third place Jessica Thorley from EXP Restaurant was awarded a wine decanter.

 Vienna Dowell from Yellow Billy Restaurant was awarded The Hunter Culinary Association Rising Star Award. This award recognises the potential of a young hospitality industry professional, encouraging them to continue education with a fully funded Diploma of Hospitality Management from TAFE NSW.

Hunter Culinary Association Chairman Gus Maher said, in our most competitive year yet, the judges were very impressed with the high calibre of front of house applicants who all performed strongly.’

‘This is great news for our region and is evidence of the dedication and focus of those working within the industry.’

First Creek Wines Front of House Scholarship winner; Abbey Taylor from Margan Restaurant.

First Creek Wines Front of House Scholarship winner; Abbey Taylor from Margan Restaurant.

Gus Maher
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The hospitality industry is pretty competitive and the restaurant and kitchen environments are famously high pressure places to work in – especially when there’s a high standard to live up to … what’s it like working together in that environment? Obviously, it’s a huge part of your life … how do you turn off at home? Is it difficult leaving work at work?

ANNA: It's terribly difficult leaving work at work, and I think when it is your own business you don’t really have this luxury. You are always thinking, planning, taking a call.

For me personally, this has been a major struggle since having children. I now consciously take my ‘work hat’ off when I get home, put my phone away, don’t have my laptop inside. I strongly believe that engagement is key to whatever you are doing, and this is ten-fold with kids. I was pushing the swing the other day and took my phone out to take a photo – my two year old son said ‘please mamma, no phones’. That’s terrifying. That shows that even with a conscious effort they still notice when you are distracted. 

I always feel thinly stretched – when I’m at work I should be with the kids, and vice versa, but I think if you wallow in this ‘guilt’ then you’ll be swallowed by it. You have to do your best to achieve what you can in the appropriate time frames. 

Alessandro and I never ‘switch off’ with each other. Our lives are dominated by our businesses and this is both a blessing and a curse. We share a goal, we always have this constant pressure on us to continue achieving, to continue growing, but in saying that this is also what makes us such a great team at both work and home. We are both motivated, ambitious, and passionate about what we do, and to be able to share that with your life partner is pretty awesome.


It’s pretty well documented that restaurants and kitchens have been male dominated workplaces in the past. Anna, this is something you feel strongly about and your role as a mentor and participation in Women in Hospitality make that pretty clear. Are things changing? Are women being increasingly respected and valued for what they offer? Alessandro? What are your thoughts?

ANNA: I believe that women in hospitality is a focus right now, both right here on our doorstep but also internationally, for example just look at World’s 50 Best, or the Parebere Forum. This is a great thing. Just consider if all the amazing women who started in hospitality stayed in hospitality. Just think about that opportunity for our industry right there for a second!

Everybody gets a job in hospitality when they're 14 – girls and boys, no problems. Then they go through school, make their money and everything's good. The issue is when young women start to weigh up their options in their 20s (and contemplate their upcoming life changes) – they start to leave because they don't see a viable future in the industry. I just want to jump up and down and say, 'there is, there is!'

To encourage women to stay, it's necessary to show how hospitality is a legitimate career path. This is my passion, this is why I’m involved in WoHo and my other (more informal but awesome) initiative Council of WAR (Women and Restaurants). There is a huge range of roles and responsibilities in our industry and I think there has never been a recognition of this fact publicly, these jobs are not as glamorous as the chef or customer facing roles, but are just as important! Think IT, accounts, PR, marketing, HR, compliance, events and reservations! We are losing women in the industry because we are not educating people about the rest of the ‘industry needs’.

I believe we need to respect and value these jobs just as much (and tell people they exist!), and maybe doing this will have an immediate effect on balancing the male domination we currently see. Hospitality is NOT just about restaurants and kitchens, there is the business side too.


Running four restaurants must be extremely constant and challenging. We often hear about successful businesses collapsing after stretching to open just one more restaurant … how do you find that sweet spot? How do you control quality and ensure what’s happening in your restaurants is happening the way you want it to be? I guess this is where education, faith and trust play a role?

ANNA: Cost control!!!!!!!! Control of the numbers is key. It’s easy to push back everything on the to-do list because you’re tired, or the kids are sick, or the inbox is overflowing, but the cash flow needs to be controlled daily. Chase up your suppliers when they get a price wrong; question the bank if your fees go up. Make sure your team are meeting their budgets, and teach them how to do this daily.

Employ great people. Trust them. For us it has been key hiring staff for the roles that require specific hours or tasks so we can take care of our larger responsibilities when we’re at work. Don’t be scared of hiring people that are better than you - learn from them! And allow yourself to delegate. 

 Obviously Italian cuisine is your passion … is there a valid case for its traditions being lost? Have you seen this happening? Or are there enough passionate custodians like you two out there ensuring it lives on? And can these traditions be merged with modern hospitality? What are some dishes you think should be just served the traditional way and not played around with? What are your favourite traditional dishes?

ALESSANDRO: I don’t think tradition is getting lost in the modern army of chefs – they embrace tradition but utilise new techniques. Tradition was also limited in the past by their knowledge, so we can actually IMPROVE on tradition based on our education, but still keeping the respect within that. 

As for my favourite traditions, I’m a mountain man, from the north of Italy, so I love cooking on fire, it’s so simplistic and yet such a challenge to get it right. And pasta of course. Hand making pasta is an art unto itself. 

In an area like the Hunter Valley, how do you believe restaurateurs should be harnessing the wealth of what it offers? Is it a case of every business doing their own thing and doing it well and the rest will follow? How important is working together to cultivate and nurture identifiable regional cuisines and traditions like what’s found in the regional parts of Italy? 

ALESSANDRO: I think having such abundance of fabulous produce on your door step is such an opportunity. Working with your neighbours, whether they be food or wine, or even other restaurants creates a community, how lucky you are! It’s not about following it’s about working together. 

I believe Australia is incredible in all the cuisine styles it offers, that’s not something you find in Italy very much. It offers the industry an incredible chance to showcase the region as a whole, not necessarily a ‘regional cuisine’ in this case. It’s so interesting. 

Tell us about the importance of marrying food and wine, particularly in a region like the Hunter Valley that’s internationally renowned for its wines. What are some of your favourite Hunter Valley wines? How do you work with them? And what seasonal produce can we look forward to seeing you work with at the Spring Seasonal lunch?

ALESSANDRO: Food and wine matching is also an art. When the back and front of house can work together with their palates and expertise to bring an incredible experience to the diner – isn’t that what it’s all about? 

We currently have a number of Hunter wines on our list (Margan, Brokenwood, Lakes Folly, Mount Pleasant), but who can go past Hunter Semillon, what a creature it is. I love the aged ones the best, that bit of extra weight and complexity is amazing. 

The spring seasonal lunch is the second being hosted by the Hunter Culinary Association (HCA) in 2018 and will be held at the award-winning, one-hatted Margan Restaurant on Monday, 12 November. Following Alessandro’s cooking demonstration, Margan head chef Thomas Boyd will prepare a three-course lunch, which will be served with a premium selection of Margan wines.


Date: Monday 12 November 2017.

Time: Demonstration starts at 10.30am and lunch 11.30am – 3pm.

Location: Margan Restaurant, 1238 Milbrodale Rd, Broke.

Cost: $100 for HCA members, $130 non-members and $30 for apprentice chefs. 

To book contact Angela at Hunter Culinary Association – or visit the ‘events’ page on our website for more details.


Gus Maher