Margaret River’s reputation for culinary excellence has jumped a notch higher with the arrival of Spanish maestro Santiago Fernandez at Voyager Estate.
The new head chef has only been in the job a few months but is already making an impact on fine dining at the popular winery restaurant.
Following a five-year stint at Sault at Daylesford, Victoria, he intends to bring some international flair and creativity to the region’s fine local and seasonal produce.
Prior to his move to Australia, he established a shining career in top Michelin Star restaurants, including Tristan (Michelin Two Star), Mallorca, Santiago de Compostella’s Toni Vicente and Tapies, Lleida. He has also worked in France, Germany, Mexico and Russia.
Now he is enhancing the traditional ‘wine-first’ concept at Voyager, which tells the Estate’s story via a wine and food sensory dining experience.
The Starfish stopped by Voyager Estate for a chat with the region’s latest culinary magician.
Where did you grow up in Spain?
I was born in Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain, and grew up in a small fishing village 30 minutes away from Santiago de Compostella. My parents had a restaurant, where I used to work, peeling potatoes and things like that. So I was always around food and hospitality.
Initially I wanted to be a ship’s captain, because there is a lot of fishing and trawlers in the region. I wanted to travel, and being a captain would help me do it. My second option was to be a chef. Fortunately for me, I think being a chef has worked out a lot better.
Did you study to be a chef in the region?
I did a five-year course in Santiago that was part of my general studies. It was like high school and TAFE combined. But we had comprehensive kitchen, cooking and hospitality training, as well.
Then it was off to make your way in the world?
Yes. After I left Spain in 1999 I worked in Paris for three months. I actually worked with an Italian chef in Paris, in one of the best Italian restaurants in France. After that I returned to Santiago where I worked in a Michelin Star restaurant, then on to Germany for a while.
You also worked in Russia?
I was working in another Michelin Star restaurant in Mallorca and a customer came in who was the owner of a restaurant company in Russia. He asked me if I wanted to come to Moscow to help them get things started so I went there for about a year and a half.
It was a company that had 12 restaurants and coffee shops. They were growing fast and were opening two or three restaurants annually. But I decided to leave Russia, because my wife was pregnant. We thought it would be easier to start our family in Spain because of the language and more support.
We moved back to Mallorca and I took some time off to be with my wife after the birth. She is Brazilian so we are quite a multi-cultural family. We also did some time in Mexico, but returned to Spain after that. Then we thought we would like to find a nice place to raise our family.
Right. My wife and I both thought Australia might be a nice, normal land. I found work in Warrnambool, Victoria. I have always preferred working in country regions rather than big cities, and with a young family I think it is easier and cheaper to raise children in the country.
There are also some very good regional restaurants in Australia, especially in country Victoria. I worked for a couple there – he was French, she was Australian – for two years. They wanted me to help improve the reputation of their restaurant. After that I moved to Daylesford where I worked at Sault.
What lured you to Margaret River?
I came through a recruitment agency. I suppose I matched the criteria. But when the agency explained to me they were seeking a head chef to work at Voyager Estate at Margaret River, it was a no brainer. There are close similarities between Daylesford and Margaret River, so I thought I would fit the position.
What is the most noticeable difference between Daylesford and Margaret River?
The obvious thing is that Margaret River is a very good wine region. In the past I hadn’t paid much attention to the wines. I would concentrate more on the food side. So I started to learn about combining the two when I got here, attending wine tastings and matching food with different varieties and styles.
And this was exactly what Voyager wanted. We make a point of designing the menus around the estate wines. This is not always the case elsewhere, but it works well in Margaret River. So I work with the sommelier and winemakers to create dishes that are a good match.
What else defines your Voyager cuisine?
We work as much as possible with regional and local produce in our dishes, as well as produce that is in season, so it creates a distinctive Margaret River match. We choose food that is complementary to the terroir. My objective is to create food du terroir.
We also specialize in fantastic seafood from very clean WA and local waters, so the match is perfect. I like to work with the freshwater seafood too, such as marron. We don’t have marron in our current menu, but is great and complements our white wine styles.
What’s currently good on the Voyager seafood menu?
I’m still learning about the fish species here, which are different to the ones I know in Europe. And even the Pacific species as compared to the Indian Ocean are often different. But it is all really good fish, and the crabs are good too.
At the moment we are using fantastic octopus from Geographe Bay. We use a lot of this back home in Galicia. I’m really happy with the local octopus. Seasonality also applies to the seafood. I think it is far better when the waters are colder, so being winter here it is excellent at the moment.
Have you discovered a favourite local fish?
There are many, but I’m also really impressed with the local snapper. We also try to use as much of the fish as possible. For example, we will use the roe to make Bottarga, which is when the row is salted and cured.
It makes sense. If you buy a fish and 60% is left over you are generating a lot of waste. You have the head, the spine and other parts. If you just use the flesh you are only getting about 40% of he fish. Fish are expensive so it is important to use as much as possible. In Europe, they seem to make better use of the whole fish.
Do you also use regional meats?
Of course. Our beef is currently coming from Harvey and it is excellent. I’m also looking at some local sources of beef, as there are very good producers here on the Cape. I’m still getting to know the local producers, but they are doing a great job. We use the local Arkady lamb and pork, and the venison from the local farm is very good.
How about native produce?
We are really inspired by the native landscape and the micro regions where we source produce. We like to use Lilly Pilly to make jam, and Myrtle, which go so well with venison and kangaroo. Both are great with our Shiraz. We use kangaroo for making snacks, but don’t currently have a main featuring it.
How would you describe your cuisine?
I’m constantly working with the team in the kitchen to evolve our food style. They are a great help and all very professional. I try to bring some of my philosophy and knowledge from past positions, but also listen to their expertise as well, as everyone has something to offer in the kitchen, which makes the menu better and more creative. Teamwork makes it all work smoothly.
But in the end, food speaks about the region, as do the wines, so the team works away trying to refine the two to form a really interesting mix and match menu that is uniquely ours.
Are some Spanish and Mediterranean influences creeping in?
Yes. We already have some Spanish influences from my background in the menu.
We are also working on bringing back some dishes from ancient times, which is really interesting. In my previous job at Sault we did things like using leftovers from the fish to make garum fish sauce, which goes back to Greek and Roman times. We have wonderful kitchen gardens here at Voyager and make traditional pickles and relishes, too.
Spain also has strong cultural heritage from the Arabs and the Jews, and they influence many dishes. Both cultures left amazing cookbooks which feature a fantastic repertoire of old recipes.
The Arabs brought so much to Spanish cuisine with their cooking style, spices and citrus. We wouldn’t have Paella or cold soups like gazpacho today if it wasn’t for the Arabic influence. They also made some wonderful drinks with herb infusions for digestion and healing.
What are your favourite Voyager Estate wines?
I think you could probably call me a red man. I’ve always liked wines made the old fashioned way, those similar to the European full-bodied wines. Yet since I’ve been here in Margaret River, I’m really very impressed with the New World styles. They are fresh, fruit-driven and complex – and perfect for food matching! The Voyager 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is really good, and we have a fantastic Tom Price cabernet that we released a few weeks ago.
Which Spanish wines take your fancy?
I think the Albariño wines from my part of the world are really good; and the red wines from the Ribera del Duero region are old favourites.
Are you and your family enjoying living in Margaret River?
Oh yeah, we are loving it here and it is a great place to raise the children. We now have two daughters and they are settling in well. We also wanted to be in a place that is a bit warmer than Victoria, and closer to the sea than Daylesford. I miss the ocean because it is always with you in Galicia.
The winter weather in Galicia is a bit like here, especially days like this. [Cool, raining and blustery]. I feel like I’m back home!
Thanks, Santiago. Good luck!
See our Yum section for Santiago’s Blue Swimmer crab recipe at www.thestarfish.com.au/recipe-blue-swimmer-crab-tartar-avocado-cucumber-green-tomato-gazpacho-avruga/
For more information about Voyager Estate, please visit www.voyagerestate.com.au
Photos: Rhys Rigby and Voyager Estate