Thomas Chiumento of Caveau shares why he and business partner Simon Evans are so passionate about our local and Indigenous produce, and the culinary delights that await guests at the THETA opening ceremony.
Q: You and Simon have made some big changes at Caveau since taking over the reins two years ago. Can you talk us through the vision and what you’ve created there?
A: We both worked at Caveau before we took over. Simon and I were keen to do things a little differently and are really passionate about putting Wollongong on the map as a food destination. To us, the best way to do that was to showcase the local produce and what makes the region unique from a cultural standpoint. We’ve also focused on relaxing our service and making the experience fun and comfortable, I guess challenging traditional expectations around dining in a hatted restaurant. If you want to wear shorts and thongs, great. If you want to lick your plate, go for it – it’s the ultimate compliment. What’s important is that people walk out having had a great meal and experience, and that they can’t wait to come back.
Q: Where do you guys take your inspiration in designing menus?
A: There are so many different cultures here, and the Indigenous culture in Wollongong is particularly strong. So we took our inspiration from there, and the further we went down that path the more interesting it became. We’re working with ingredients and techniques we’d never experienced before, and that’s really exciting for us both. We’re currently doing our own version of a traditional Aboriginal recipe where we wrap dry-aged barramundi in lemon myrtle and then foraged paperbark and cook it over coals.
I grew up in Wollongong and the café scene has always been quite strong, so we also like to play on that and have some fun with it. We’ve got a bacon and eggs dish where the bacon is made from swordfish and served with fish eggs on a tomato crisp, and a smashed avo dessert of custard-soaked brioche topped with avocado cream and liquid nitrogen-frozen avocados smashed into pieces.
And of course, the exceptional local produce is the inspiration for everything, and the very best part of what we do.
Q: What makes you both so passionate about the local produce and how do you source your ingredients?
A: We absolutely love Wollongong. It’s the only place in Australia where the Great Dividing Range meets the ocean, and you have this phenomenal environmental change occurring in such a short space. The things that grow and live here are just so diverse, and we have the most fantastic local producers that are really focused on delivering high-quality, unique and sustainable products. Everything from the amazing sheep’s milk yoghurt from Pecora Dairy in Robertson and the best apples and cider from Darkes Forest, through to the South Coast’s renowned oysters and seafood. We put a lot of effort into working closely with local producers and really learn from each other.
Most of our vegetables come from an urban permaculture farm in Warrawong run by Green Connect – a social enterprise that creates employment for refugees, which we’re really proud to support. We break our menus down to eight or ten-week blocks based on what ingredients they will grow in season. They know all year round what we’re going to use and in what quantities so they can plan ahead, and Caveau gets the best possible produce because it’s grown with love in the right season and environment.
Simon and I take a lot of pride in sourcing really special local ingredients; I’d say around 70 per cent is local, including what we forage ourselves. Some of our other unique ingredients like our magpie goose and Indigenous fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds come from the Northern Territory, which we buy direct from the local Aboriginal communities.
Q: And sustainability is a key consideration?
A: Sourcing primarily local produce supports our local producers and economy at the same time as minimising the distance food travels from farm to plate. But using native produce is probably one of the most sustainable things we do at Caveau in terms of food. For example, the environmental impact of raising beef is astronomical, yet we have 30 million kangaroos in Australia just in the wild. We’re trying to open people’s eyes to the stunning ingredients that grow well naturally here and are far more sustainable.
Q: So what’s in store for guests at the opening ceremony of the THETA Conference?
A: We’ll be offering a wide range of canapes that reflect what we do in the restaurant. There’s the bacon and eggs snack, emu neck churros and crispy kangaroo tendons. We have green ants and ham – magpie goose ham – and kangaroo cutlets marinated in native Illawarra plums. We’ll be foraging for pine mushrooms and saltbush to serve with Pecora Dairy sheep’s curd, sourcing South Coast abalone and Gerringong finger limes, and making traditional Indigenous damper bread. The focus is on local and Indigenous produce and really showcasing how special these ingredients and our region are.
To taste Caveau’s deliciously imaginative menu, register for THETA 2019 and join us at the Welcome Reception on the evening of Sunday 19th May.