While chef James Viles was visiting Bangkok recently, his two-hatted Biota Dining & Rooms was also awarded Top Regional Restaurant. Just one more accolade to show that this self-proclaimed country boy is a global culinary sensation.
by Laurence Civil
James Viles is the chef and owner of two-hatted Biota Dining & Rooms (18 Kangaloon Road, Bowral, New South Wales, Australia; +61 2 4862 2005; www.biotadining.com) in Bowral, New South Wales. He has become one of Australia’s most respected young chefs and restaurateurs thanks to his commitment to sustainability and his imaginative modern food. His work was endorsed by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide, in which the paper announced that it had awarded Biota as Top Regional Restaurant while Viles was in Bangkok participating in the World Gourmet Festival last month at Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok.
Viles’s career began at a young age as chef at The Schoolhouse in the Southern Highlands, where he had grown up. As head chef at the restaurant, he was one of the youngest chefs ever awarded a Sydney Morning Herald Chef’s Hat, at the age of 23.
From there he worked overseas for a number of years to gain experience in the kitchens of some of the world’s best chefs. He was been involved with the openings of several acclaimed restaurants and hotels throughout the Middle East and Europe, and he has worked alongside chefs such as two Michelin-starred Hans Haas of Tantris in Munich and Alain Ducasse at Spoon in Hong Kong.
Viles had become disillusioned with the amount of imported ingredients he was working with, particularly in the Middle East. He felt the dining experience should have a sense of place. When he returned to his native New South Wales, his vision for Biota Dining was to create a regional dining destination that supported both local farmers and growers.
Biota won the converted Chef’s Hat award in its first year of opening, and has become the most awarded restaurant in New South Wales. It won its second “hat” in its second year, in 2012, as well as the Sustainability Award for its commitment to using sustainable practices and sourcing its produce ethically in addition to growing much of its produce on site.
As the hotel is a 90-minute drive from Sydney, Viles realized it wasn’t responsible dining to serve tasting menus paired with wines and expect his guests to put their driving licenses at risk driving back to the city. He therefore built 12 stylish rooms uniquely available for restaurant guests to stay overnight, and these make an ideal base from which to explore the surrounding Southern Highlands. It is a pioneering trend for restaurants located outside major cities to offer bed, breakfast, and dinner packages. Currently, the restaurant is fully booked until February 2015.
“We need to focus on less is more,” he says, “to show the world you don’t need the fuss of a table cloth to enjoy fine dining. Our décor style is pared-back Scandinavian. When it comes to ingredients, if we can’t grow ourselves or if it can’t be sourced in New South Wales, we do without. I am saying no to importing food; what we serve at Biota is a reflection of our region. The locavore policy isn’t just restricted to food, as we have only Australian wines in our cellar.
“We are only open for dinner as we need to forage in the daytime. That represents between 20 or 30 percent of what we use in the kitchen. I believe produce belongs to farmers and Mother Nature, and it becomes ingredients when it reaches the chef’s hand.
“Dining in Australia is expanding experientially, but we don’t have our own cultural cuisine. I am one of a handful of chefs who are trying to define Australian cuisine by region. I use a lot of aboriginal rye berries, saltbush lamb.”
As the Biota gardens tended by his mother play a key role in the dining experience, Viles chose to demonstrate his signature dessert Mum’s Rose at the World Gourmet Festival: a combination of rose petals, peaches, ice cream, and meringue. Viles admits the perfume in the petals varies at different times of the year—not a problem, he simply increases or decreases the number of petals used to get a consistent taste. This dish is made a la minute, tableside in his restaurant. Rather being baked in the oven as is traditional, the lightly whipped egg whites of the meringue are cooked with liquid oxygen in a matter of seconds. “It’s the next generation of the Australian classic, the pavolva,” says Viles with a playful smile. There was an amazing rose experience in the first bite.
Of his recent visit to Bangkok, he says, “Coming to the World Gourmet Festival in Bangkok was a challenge for me. As ethical sourcing is a priority, I had to know where the ingredients I was going to have on my menu where coming from … oysters from France, lamb from Australia. What excited me was the opportunity of using the abundance of fresh botanics available in Thailand as well as seeing and using new ingredients.”