Foodies On Fire
Words Cleo Glyde – Photography David Li
The cares of the world seem to ebb away the more you wind along the serpentine curves of the Hawkesbury River on the sealed roadto Bush River Kitchen, in the farming and fishing enclave between Lower Mangrove and Spencer, just east of the emerald sweep of Glenworth Valley.
Not far from a public boat ramp and the gateway to green water sparkling in the sun, the private 1.2-hectare property is elevated and backs onto National Park bushland, with views north over Mangrove Creek and the mountain valleys beyond. The driveway leads straight uphill to a double-storey timber house: in the garden, the outdoor kitchen appears like a man cave fever dream.
It is a pioneer-style marvel, with massive timber studs as the overall structure, coupled with suspended iron bars where cooking implements dangle in the breeze. Accompanying the domed, wood-fired oven is a traditional Argentinian Parrilla-style barbecue, used to cook with direct heat. Small pots sit on the grill shelf above flaming pink and orange coals.
As bluegrass roots music plays, the smoke – deliciously scented with herbs and roast meat – swirls around blokey blokes in cloth caps and Akubras, wearing leather aprons clasped with brass studs and buckles.
Long hair, tattoos and concentration on the task at hand… we have clearly found the chefs. There is a hive of activity as bearded KevinSpiteri from Smokin’ Gauchos, the specialist who built the Parrilla barbecue, unfurls a long leather pouch with his collection of new and antique knives with timber and bone handles, wide or long and slender.
Italian chef Nico Coccia, from Osteria il Coccia restaurant at Ettalong Beach, is a gentle giant. He winds a sheet of freshly made pasta through a metal pasta-making machine on a wooden workstation. Once it is flattened, he fills small circles of round pasta with a parmesan, egg yolk and nutmeg filling. John Ralley, the owner and creator of this bushranger’s paradise, Bush River Kitchen, twists them into tortellini to help out.
With a giant glass of red wine nearby, Nico’s hands keep moving all morning, tossing herbs into a casserole dish of lemon and oil on the cast-iron stove, spooning smooth, jammy cooked figs onto a firm ricotta cheesecake in tissue paper, shaving parmesan onto the steaming tortellini.
At one point he reaches over to give the jumbo barramundi hanging from a hook a big kiss before shaving the scales. “Nico’s a beautiful beast, isn’t he?” exclaims cook and potter Jason Roberts, who was in charge of bringing the barramundi (from @HumptydooBarramundi).
John is using herbs tied to a stick, which he dips in a saucepan of oil and cooked lemons, to baste a whole goat that is splayed on a metal brace and tilted over a brick pit so the fire cooks and smokes it. When we ask what herbs he is using he replies, “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme”. Special guest Angela Brewer, singer and founder of Coast Opera Australia, cannot resist bursting into a chorus of the Simon and Garfunkel song of the same name, to our delight.
Jason cleaves wood, swinging an axe to the crack of wood splitting; Nico hangs three cooked ducks to dangle over a pan as drops of fat hiss into it. The raw, elemental beauty of the timber, iron and flame has a primal appeal that is heightened by the freedom of cooking in the fresh air, without walls. The chefs, ever of service, send the dishes over for the guests, including aunties and mums, who are finding a seat in the gentle autumn sun.
The public can come to Bush River Kitchen for lunch and dinner experiences, with wine and whisky pairings; guest chefs cook with locavore ingredients in this intimate bushland setting designed for no more than 16 guests.
READY TO FEAST
Dishes are placed around a jug filled with a profusion of wildflowers. The tortellini is served in cast-iron pots, tossed with silky, oil-coated mushrooms. Jason delivers his giant, wood fire-cooked Japanese pumpkin, “the wagyu of the garden” as he calls it, served cut open to reveal the farro – a whole-grain wheat – cooked in clay with Meredith Farm goat’s curd, zatar, pomegranate molasses, and lashings of olive oil. Jason also lays down the flatbread, made with half flour and half yoghurt.
A bowl of oversized mussels in broth is lined with slices of yolk-yellow bread around the edges. John is an experienced pastry chef and baker, so not only has he created plain rye sourdough, but a sourdough infused with pumpkin and confit garlic, topped with oats and pepita seeds.
The chefs seem to glory in the camaraderie. It’s a novelty for them to work among peers – other head chefs – rather than lead a large, younger team. There is a self-sufficient ease to the way they attend to their own tasks, yet a communal flow as they each lend a hand. And now, in the age-old tradition of clan and tribe, it’s time for the men to gather, share their stories, and explore why cooking and eating around the fire is their happy place.
MEET THE DREAM TEAM
Kevin Spiteri – Founder of Smokin’ Gauchos
“Humans are very drawn to fire. There is such an attraction because the community traditions of gathering and wood fire cooking are so linked. Modern society is a construct of busy work schedules that made us lose that nurturing hospitality,so the events of 2020 and covid created this incredible void that reintroduced the sanctity of slowing down. A lot of people used the lockdown period to rediscover the values that we had forgotten as a culture: the art of gathering and celebrating conversation. No screens – just being together around beautiful food, wine, fire and company.
“This is how Smokin’ Gauchos was born. In lockdown, my family wasn’t travelling or rushing to sports events and kids parties, so I had time to start cooking smoked meats. I’m a barbecue enthusiast who has always had smokers and wood-fired ovens, but when I went looking for my ultimate passion, a Parrilla Argentine grill, I couldn’t find one to match the versatile type of cooking I wanted to do. I decided to create a prototype, spurred on by the desire to build a business around handmade goods. I not only embraced but leveraged the ceremonial joy of cooking a beautiful meal throughout the day.
“We launched Smokin’ Gauchos in 2020: a passion project that is taking on a life of its own. As well as the Parrilla barbecues, we make handmade leather goods, iron tools, and gloves – and we are receiving an amazing response from all over the country.
“My dream is to make wood-fire cooking accessible to other barbecue enthusiasts and professional chefs. Smokin’ Gauchos is above all about the love of cooking, and how it connects us, particularly around the fire.
“It is so satisfying to see how eclectic the Central Coast has become. You can have incredible wood-fired food in a superb restaurant like Osteria, or out here in the bush at John’s venue. Coasties are so blessed to have access to the coast and forest.
“A day like today is a reminder of how to live well. Slow down before life gets too busy; know what you eat.” @smokingauchos
John Ralley – Pâtissier, hunter and owner of Bush River Kitchen
“I was a pastry chef and had my own bakery in Alexandria, Textbook Patisserie, for seven years; I was always known for my croissants. Before that I was in restaurants, which is how I have known Nico for more than 10 years – through pastry! I still consult for other bakers on the side. I got this property three years ago at the start of covid. I already had friends here on the river, so we were looking around the Hawkesbury; I love that you can take the boat out and visit people by water. I wanted an outdoor kitchen so when we found this place, my love of hunting, fishing and the culinary arts came together. I kept everything very raw.
“I have been doing small private lunches once a month with different guest chefs. The whole idea behind this is that everything on the menus is hunted and gathered. I usually try to find like-minded chefs who have an affinity with the land, then we throw around ideas and go for it. Because people coming up for the lunches like the idea of lingering afterwards, I am going to set up accommodation and glamping tents. It’s outdoor life, so we’re really embracing it.” @bushriverkitchen
Jason Roberts – Chef, author, potter
“I’m originally from New Zealand and grew up on a dairy farm in Queensland, so camping and being around a fire with my family is in my blood. For me, the idea of a gathering around the fire is to ‘come for the food, stay for the conversation’.
“My grandparents on both sides were really good cooks – in fact, I still have my grandfather’s copy of Escoffier’s A Guide to Modern Cookery – and they not only inspired my calling but taught me the joy of creativity. I started my career as an 18-year-old apprentice chef at Ravesi’s in Bondi in 1991 and by 1994 had landed at Bistro Moncur in Woollahra, where I graduated to the head chef position under the watchful eye of friend and mentor Damien Pignolet. I have now cooked professionally for more than 30 years. A good chunk of that time has been in front of a camera, sharing and telling stories around
the world and teaching people to cook intuitively.
“During covid, I transitioned into ceramics, working with my hands as another outlet to create, heal and tell stories. It became a real source of purpose after my father passed away in 2022. Today, the larger solid pots are being used to cook farro and flatbreads while the fresh clay (raku) is for cooking whole chickens stuffed with fresh herbs.
“We’re using both smoke and heat to cook the goat – from Saratoga Quality Meats at Kincumber – over a three-hour period, moving the goat and coals at various times to adjust the temperature. Joints like shoulder and leg need a gentler heat. The amount of heat changes the structural element of the meat as it breaks down and becomes tender, but smoke helps us increase the flavour profile, which is why we’re using ironbark.
“Apart from being an exciting and visual way to cook, smoke and fire are nostalgic for me – a place where I can transcend the now and travel back to my childhood. Fire is where transformation happens.” @chefjasonroberts
Nico Coccia – Chef and owner, Osteria il Coccia, Ettalong Beach
“I learned how to cook on the fire from my grandmother, who still makes her coffee on a fire stove. I studied cooking and worked in Spain at Michelin-starred restaurants, but a few years ago when Alex (my wife) and I decided to open our own place in Australia, I said, ‘That’s it! I’m done with fine dining!’ I was attracted to recapturing the regional cooking of my homeland and my past. The fire is my thing. I dedicated my first cookbook, Farm to Flame, to it.
“When Alex and I discovered the Central Coast, we loved the people. I find them very warm and neighbourly. We started with a small restaurant in Ettalong, which is such a beautiful place, then last year we moved to a bigger place along the beach. Our whole kitchen is built around the fire, which is rare. Our degustation experience is designed to showcase cooking over ironbark, stone fruit and olive wood in our charcoal oven. Everything, from our bread, to the ricotta cheesecake we’re having here today, to the fresh cream, is handmade in our kitchen.
I work closely with a few of my favourite farmers, who bring me produce. “Life is good on the Central Coast because everything is nearby. We have the sea; we have the land. If you want to go away for the weekend, everything is on the doorstep.
“Today is so special because it’s great to be on the land, by the fire. Here we are in John’s fantasy kitchen; I am cooking pasta with tools that Kevin built for me. The tortellini I am making is from a recipe that I was taught when I worked at a small restaurant in Italy. The mama of the owner taught us the perfect mix of flour and egg yolk, then the parmesan, egg yolk and nutmeg filling. Simple. Beautiful. The good things in life are usually the simplest.” @osteriailcoccia
Amanda Hughes Nalevansky – Content Director at Central Coast Life & Style
“In our search for great Central Coast stories, the idea of foodies and fire was a natural fit. There is so much pride in seeing Chef Nico and wife Alex (with her sommelier knowledge) change the culinary scene on the Coast forever at Osteria il Coccia – they are the true definition of ‘team’.
“Discovering the work of Kevin Spiteri, the mastermind behind Osteria il Coccia’s kitchen design, with not a conventional oven in sight, made me realise how the movement has really taken off. Similarly, having experienced Jason’s intuitive cooking methods in many different settings and crossover events, gathering around the fire brought back many fond memories of camping with my late father, hence making my own connection to cooking and flames a more personal one.
“The idea of capturing the synergy came together because everyone knows each other. When Kevin suggested John Ralley’s kitchen in the great outdoors of the Hawkesbury, we knew we had the perfect community story for our Food Edition. David Li’s stunning photography captures one of many, many special days that will be had over the flames at Bush River Kitchen.” @davidliphotography