A restaurant in the middle of a retirement village in Sydney’s East has millennials flocking to eat there.
The proliferation of food bloggers and Instagram influencers visiting The Bontanica elicits a mixed reaction from executive chef Perry Hill.
“Social media is a really powerful and can be used in an amazing way, and is bringing a whole lot of people that years ago might not have been that interested in food,” he said.
“But 15 years ago when known food critics would come in, I’d think, alright, its going to be stressful, but not every single customer is a food critic, so it’s OK.
“Now it’s going on the hashtag straight away, and everything’s under scrutiny.
“And yes, there are slip-ups – it’s the nature of business.”
Hill is acutely aware that “everything still has to look Instagrammable and amazing”, but the other thing he loves is the inspiration you can get from seeing what a chef on other side of the world is doing.
“I celebrate any little chance for a professional chef to educate people who might not be fully knowledge about what goes into their food, for example factory farming,” he said.
“Any little thing we can do to change how educate the next generation are about what they are going to eat is great.”
He can see the lighter side of the phenomenon, especially that some of the customers may not even get to enjoy the meal after all the time they spent trying to set up the perfect shot.
“The other day I joked because I was serving hot food to some customers who had been taking lots of topshots [a bird’s-eye view of the food] for social media, and I though, wait a second, their food’s going to be cold by the time that they go to eat it,” he said.
“It’s almost like restaurants have become a form of entertainment, where there’s a certain social cache associated with ‘look where I have been’ and the images that are associated with that.”
The Botanica isn’t not all just good looks though, as the modern Australian menu is a thoughtful curation of the farm-to-fork philosophy of simple, wholesome goodness, with lots of ingredients sourced from The Botanica’s new 65-acre working permaculture farm plot in Jamberoo Valley, two hours south of Sydney,
The menu standouts are the chewy sweet potato gnocchi with goat’s cheese, pesto and baby leeks, crisp fried octopus with finger lime and a tart coriander mojo verde dressing, and a sweet and sour blueberry, rhubarb and goat’s cheese meringue tart for dessert.
“We’re 100% paddock to plate. I’m always about using fantastic suppliers, growers and farmers, cheesemakers and that sort of thing,” Hill said.
Originally opened as Sol Botanica 18 months ago, the restaurant closed briefly after the purchase of the farm, before reopening in May this year.
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“The closing for us was a change of gear. We felt the purchase of the Jamberoo Valley Farm was really important to communicate a change of pace to our customers. It was really something to celebrate when we found the spot because its a magical piece of land,” Hill said.
“We wanted customers to know that things were grown from the heart, by people that really cared.”
Prior to the re-opening, Hill said there seemed to be a disconnect of the restaurant’s message, and a slight lack in focus.
“We thought we’d just re-imagine things a little and really celebrate what are doing with local produce and seasonal food, and really highlighting produce from the farm itself. And it really resonated with people. The food hasn’t changed that dramatically, its more of a focusing on what were doing best.
“Most of all it’s a celebration of the farm, a concentration on things we love doing and communicating that to our customers,” he said.
When he was putting the menu together for the re-opening, Hill said he tried to feel, rather than to think about, what to put with what.
“It’s not about contrived responses to things. The best thing for a chef to do is to try not think about how things should go together. Quite often the most successful and loved dishes are really the dishes that came out of an accident,” he said.
Hill’s career as a chef was no accident. He comes from a family of cooks, who encouraged his love of food at an early age.
“We grew up very connected to cooking. My cooking career began way before I started professionally,” he said.
“We grew up in a remote rural area about an hour south of Byron Bay. We had a small produce garden, and sold some of that at a food stall at the markets in the Hinterlands. Being in Byron Bay we sold gluten free and “hippy” food, but no one cared it was gluten free back then.
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His career began in the early ’90s at London’s famed River Cafe, whose alumni include Jamie Oliver and Ben O’Donoghue.
Hill went on to become the executive chef at the Boathouse at Blackwattle Bay, near the fish markets in Sydney’s inner west, but felt the tug to be his own boss.
He didn’t have a specific target market in mind for his restaurant.
“We just want to be a great restaurant serving great food. We weren’t specifically targeting over 60s or under 20s, we just wanted everyone to come together and enjoy,” he said.
The fare is simple, wholesome and unfussed. There are a few surprising tastes, such as the goat’s cheese dessert tart. Interestingly, it’s not usually the younger diners ordering the more out-there dishes.
“The people that live in the retirement village that come to the restaurant, they choose the most interesting dishes. They’re quite adventurous,” he said.
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