Sarah Swan’s feasts

Were I single, I would much rather meet someone new around a very long table groaning with platters, wine flowing in the company of strangers, than via RSVP. With which I had a brief and unsatisfactory flutter in the period last year when the man I love and I temporarily cleaved off in different directions. I had just heard about the latest Sarah Swan’s 100-Mile lunch and thought how fantastic a notion: an Asian feast at Bangalow Guest House, that lovely old building I had always wanted an excuse to step inside, an eclectic mix of guests ranging from crystal experts to local rugby boys. ‘You’re bound to meet a gorgeous architect,’ a friend urged.

I didn’t end up going, nor – and just as well as it turned out – did I meet the gorgeous architect – but I did eventually meet Sarah Swan. The New Zealand-born chef has been living in the Shire for less than a year, having moved up from Sydney with her husband for what has been a sea-change in spirit more than in actuality: she and Dan were living right on the beach at Manly. Now they are on a property at Myocum. For the last eight years she has been handling PA duties and social media for Neil Perry and his Rockpool empire – it is only very recently that she has begun to hand over the reins to someone else.

Eight years, then, out of restaurant kitchens, so it is hardly surprising that there were certain elements of the hospitality industry to which Sarah would ultimately be drawn back. This, after all, is a girl who knew she wanted to be a chef from the age of fourteen, whose mother and grandmother were both great cooks. The family moved to Australia when she was seventeen and Sarah did her apprenticeship at the Sheraton Wentworth. She spent three years in London working for chef Peter Thornleigh in Mayfair, the only woman in a kitchen of sixteen men, putting in ninety-hour weeks. Back in Australia she started working at the Bayswater Brasserie in Sydney with Tony Pappas, an experience she tells me was ‘amazing. He really opened my eyes, and ran a fabulous kitchen’. After that she sous-cheffed at the Bathers Pavilion under Genevieve Harris for five years, where her love of Asian food began, then it was Wokpool under the incomparable Kylie Kwong. ‘That was really learning the nuts and bolts of curry pastes from scratch,’ she tells me. ‘We were really busy!’Then – following several months’ break in India – it was XO at Potts Point, the short-lived Neil Perry venture where she was acting head chef. And ultimately on to Rockpool itself.

‘Neil’s been the greatest influence on me in terms of teaching me about produce and
how to handle it with integrity,’ she tells me. It was Neil who instilled in her the sense of provenance and locality as far as ingredients were concerned, the importance of seasonality and respecting its rhythms – and who ultimately informed her desire to continue to cook with a focus on small local events, away from a city and away from a restaurant kitchen.

Sarah hosted the first of such events while she and Dan were still based in Sydney. They had always come to the area for holidays, six or seven times a year; Brunswick Heads had been the first port of call for her UK-born husband when he arrived in Australia. ‘There’s only a couple of places in the world where there’s a quality of light,’ Sarah told me, ‘and the other one is New Zealand. Up here it’s the perfect mix of urban and coast.’

Sarah still maintains the website for all seven Rockpool venues, but what she really wants to develop are these events. ‘Essentially it’s a love of food and wine and people and bringing it all together,’ she says. ‘A bunch of people, an interesting demographic mix, put them together with shared plates plus wines and create conversation…’. So far her lunches have all been at the Bangalow Guest House but she is keen to vary her venues, to be mobile. The next event will probably be in July and she is thinking slow roasts and possibly even at the Myocum property – but meanwhile is open to the concept of taking her feasts into private homes. For anyone wishing to book Sarah – enjoying thereby all the advantages of a restaurant in the comfort of your own home – she can be reached on 0413 634 858.

I didn’t actually regret not meeting the gorgeous architect – but apparently the lunch I missed out on was spectacular, and I definitely regretted that!

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