Head chef Neil Cunningham imbues a new Coldstream restaurant with his natural enthusiasm and passion for good food.
Turning into the driveway at Meletos, Australia disappears and suddenly I’m in mid-Europe. Wide gravelled drive, vines to my left, apple orchards to my right, and a French-style farmhouse in front of me; I swear it has been picked up from rural Burgundy and dropped into the heart of the Yarra Valley.
My first (chance) visit led to a simple Napoleone beer brewed on the premises and accompanied by thick, hot chips and aioli. I was hooked. Coldstream’s Meletos is a rare find – classy, non-pretentious food and surroundings among so many wineries that tend towards degustation menus and strict booking policies. This is a place for relaxed pleasure.
Head chef Neil Cunningham is passionate about his food and the vibe of the restaurant. There is a strong European influence based on long, slow dining. Neil hopes to encourage guests to keep ordering – perhaps starting with a few anchovies or half a dozen oysters, then sharing a few gourmet wood-fired pizzas, or some of the salumi (Italian cold cuts) that I’m lucky enough to see being prepared. Neil is animated in his description of the process of curing and only too willing to let me taste the delicious, butter-soft capicola that’s nearly ready to be hung. The day before we met, the staff had all pitched in with the pressing of the Meletos table olives that will be used in the coming months.
The relaxed no-booking policy complements Neil’s unique, laid-back style. Everything about the place has been designed to encourage leisurely, indulgent eating. Neil believes “passion breeds passion” and feels this filters down from the top. The owners of Stones of the Yarra Valley, Steve and Vonnie Frazer, also own Meletos. Neil has seen their complete immersion in both and their willingness to be involved in every aspect of the running of the businesses. Neil’s work ethic echoes theirs; he will be in the restaurant at the crack of dawn baking bread and still find time to sit down and share an impromptu curry with his staff at the end of a busy shift. The team spirit shines.
Influenced from an early age by a family of chefs, Neil and his dad spent weekends catering for events and occasionally running pubs for friends in the English county of Derbyshire. “My mates thought I was stupid because I wanted to work at weekends – but it paid for my fishing hobby,” said Neil. The love of freshly caught food stayed with him throughout his training.
Marco Pierre White’s book White Heat made a huge impression; Neil sought out Michelin-starred restaurants to learn his trade. He worked with top-quality produce at the Old Beams restaurant in Staffordshire, fished for trout and salmon on the River Hamps, hunted pheasants and rabbits on the restaurant’s land, foraged for truffles and wild mushrooms, and sourced local cheeses. “Exposure to quality foods like this really set the bar for me,” he said.
Now in his thirties, even Neil’s spare time is dominated by food. “I’ve worked every weekend as long as I can remember. It makes me anxious to have a weekend.” We contemplated an ideal mid-week “weekend” and unsurprisingly Neil’s perfect break involves… yes, food. He loves nothing more than to share his passions with his young sons, taking them cycling, picking wild mushrooms, growing food in his own yard, fishing – and, of course, eating.
“My idea of a good life is the life I’m living. Being able to eat and drink well, living somewhere beautiful, sharing my passions with like-minded people… I get to eat good food and drink good wine all the time. What could be better?”
“You’ve got to love the job. It’s got to be your passion, not just a job.” He good-naturedly sees part of his job as opening people’s minds to good food, and believes the best compliment he can receive is when he converts people to oysters “and they really love them”.