When Gavin Hughes reflects on nearly 12 years at The Byron at Byron, most of them as head chef, he can’t help but smile at the way it unfolded.
“It’s been a journey that’s happened quite naturally”, the Scottish chef explains. “I started here when the resort first opened in 2004 as sous chef. To be honest, I had never been that keen on resort restaurants, and I thought I might only be here about six months. But then the head chef left and I was promoted to the position. I soon realised it was a great challenge and it’s just progressed from there.”
A new standard in resort dining
When Gavin took charge of the resort’s kitchen, he says he was determined to create a really great resort restaurant. Judging by the praise diners regularly dish out, it’s fair to say it’s a mission he has well and truly accomplished. “People are often surprised how good the food is here,” Gavin says, while graciously acknowledging the team behind the scenes. “I’ve had some wonderful people working for me and it’s been quite humbling. I’ve learned a lot and got here through hard work, determination and a bit of luck.”
Gavin moved from Scotland to Australia in 2000 and now calls the Northern Rivers district of New South Wales home, along with wife, Tash, who is also a chef, and their two sons. His adopted home is also his greatest source of culinary inspiration. “There’s nowhere else I want to live in Australia, and I’ve travelled the country quite extensively. To live and work here is amazing. I really enjoy the farmers’ markets and I like to support the underdog supplier.”
Honesty box truths
A keen cyclist, Gavin says he thinks about food a lot when he’s on his bike, riding through the Byron Bay hinterland. It’s also where he finds much of the produce he uses on his menu.
“We do a lot of honesty box roadside shopping up in the hinterland. The small grower really inspires me – they may not have vast quantities of produce, but it’s really important for me to try and showcase these guys. I will literally stop at an honesty box on the roadside to buy produce that I’ll use that night in the restaurant.” As a regular honesty box patron, Gavin stresses the importance of sticking to the rules. “Never steal from an honesty box – that’s bad karma. Even a Scotsman wouldn’t do that.”
In addition to his passion for supporting small producers, Gavin says it’s his connection to the land that drives his interest in hinterland produce. “Even though we’re right on the coast here, I do get my inspiration more from the land. I was brought up on a cattle farm in Scotland, so I probably feel a stronger connection with the land than the ocean. I’m more of a land animal.”
The producer is king
When it comes to his overall food philosophy, Gavin believes that less is more. “I’m very European in that way”, he says. “I think there’s a fine line between simplicity and bringing something really special to the table. I always try and make the producer king and by using top-notch ingredients, we can come up with the right menu for our customer base.”
By listening to what his customers want, Gavin has crafted a menu and atmosphere that has won the hearts of locals and tourists alike. “I try and have a relaxed vibe through our service and food as that’s what normally suits the mood of the customers eating here – especially if they’ve come to stay from the city and they’re a bit stressed out.”
One of the initiatives Gavin has introduced is the Market Menu. Centred on showcasing local producers, Gavin and his team visit the local farmers’ markets every Thursday morning and using what they’ve bought, create a two-course Market Menu that is served that night.
Gavin is a self-confessed macadamia fan and uses them regularly on his menu, in a variety of ways. Recently they have featured in macadamia brittle as part of a chocolate marquis dessert and as a macadamia custard in a bush trifle, with new ideas emerging all the time. “I discovered that they make a great puree – we put it with one of our local free range pork dishes”, he says.
Living in a major macadamia-growing region was the catalyst for Gavin’s love of macadamias. “Before I moved to the Northern Rivers, I rarely used macadamias. But as soon as I got here, I was really keen to discover which ingredients could connect my menu with the local area. And of course, being surrounded by macadamia orchards, I began to use them more and more.”
It’s not just the nuts that Gavin is a fan of – he’s discovered macadamia oil too. “Martin Brook got me into it in a big way. He sent me 12 litres of macadamia oil, so I started cooking with it. It’s got a higher flash point than other oils, it’s great for sealing off pieces of fish and chicken and it’s really lovely to cook with. We also use flavour-infused finishing oils drizzled over some of our salads”, Gavin explains.
When Gavin visits the local farmers’ markets every Thursday, macadamias are always on his shopping list. “I buy five kilograms of whole macadamias at the markets every week and we roast them to make our own signature spiced house nuts. Our spice blend includes lemon zest, sugar, salt, smoked paprika, chilli and a little bit of toasted cumin. Delicious! We’ve been doing those for years.
A macadamia moment with Gavin Hughes
Which ingredients are you loving right now?
At the moment there are loads of local strawberries around. Blueberries are amazing, and fennel. We have local asparagus starting and peas are awesome at the moment. I love broccoli and cauliflower, passionfruit and pineapples. And it’s the best time of year up here for heritage tomatoes.
How closely do you follow food trends?
I keep an eye on them. I still like to think I’m a bit young at heart. I do follow the trends but I’m very conservative about what I can incorporate here and what I can’t. I won’t tackle something if I can’t do it justice. It does excite me and there is a place for it, but not in my heart too much. One trend I hate right now is the plating up of food along one side of the plate only leaving the rest of it bare.
What’s your favourite way to enjoy macadamias?
I like them spicy. Macadamias love spice! They’re also great caramelised with just a little bit of sugar.
My mum’s house. There is nothing like going back home to Scotland, sitting in her tiny house around the dinner table having one of my mother’s Sunday roasts. It’s always so tender. I don’t know how she does it.
To be honest with you I don’t really cook that much when I’m at home. My wife’s a chef as well – she normally does the cooking at home. I do cook every Monday night though and I make roast chicken with roasted sweet potatoes.
You have a great Instagram account (@chefgavinhughes). Can you tell us the story behind it?
Instagram has really helped me connect with my family. I don’t just want to be showing off about the food I cook. I want to be more sincere and honest than that. I’m addicted to photography and Instagram. I’ll be driving along picking my kids up from school and I’ll see something out the window and stop and say ‘Where’s the camera?’. And the kids say ‘Oh no not again!’. I drive them crazy. The thrill of getting that magical shot – that magic moment – I get a kick out of it. I don’t think it’s something I’ll stop anytime soon.
What’s your favourite TV show or movie?
The Shawshank Redemption. That movie really captivated me. I have a fear of going to prison so the whole idea of being locked up is enough for me to be a good boy for the rest of my life. I’m not much of a movie person and I don’t watch much TV but that movie drew me in.
Salted caramel! I find that flavour weird but I keep going for it. I still get a surprise every time I have it.