ALEX Perry is at the forefront of Victoria's regional food boom, writes JOHANNA LEGGATT
Alex Perry has all of the external trappings of the effortlessly hip chef – the chichi modern bistro in a regional foodie centre, the paddock-to-plate philosophy and a deep acquaintance with words like “Welsh rarebit” and the dead giveaway – "terrine".
But at 27, Alex is far from impressed by the slavish food obsessions of Melbourne’s foodie army, nor by chefs’ attempts to win awards with increasingly complex flavour combinations and menus.
"I mean there is a menu in Melbourne which has pressed watermelon with salted anchovies," he harrumps.
"As if that will be a food combination that is around in 50 years. Food has become quite ridiculous in that sense."
Among the diners to raise Alex’s ire are the "couple in their mid-20s who spend the first part of their meal looking us up on (food review website) Urbanspoon".
"They’re not enjoying spending the time together, they are simply staring in to their phones," he says.
"It robs us of the chance to give them a proper dining experience. You have to ask if you are really nourishing yourself or if you are there to be seen."
While customers are unlikely to see overworked foam dishes at his The Good Table restaurant in Castlemaine, this does not mean Alex is any less dedicated to his menu.
He grew up in the area, and was inspired by his hard-working Italian grandparents to make food the centre of his life.
"After World War II, my grandparents moved to Australia, settling in Wood Wood, near Swan Hill, where they grew table grapes and sultanas, as well as some garlic crops," he says.
"I would visit them every school holidays and was inspired by watching them work the land for the food, which was the same food they ate."
Alex, who regularly works 90-hour weeks, was influenced by his grandparents’ enormous capacity for hard work.
"(My grandparents) still grew 75 acres (30ha) of grapes until they were 75 years old. The way they engaged with the land, they wouldn’t see that as hard work, it is just something that you do."
Having resolved at 15 to become a chef, Alex wasted no time after his school graduation in heading to Melbourne, more specifically, to the city’s Italian tourist precinct, Lygon St.
"I was 18 and I thought that’s where I needed to go to learn more about Italian food," he laughs.
Alex then did the rounds of some of Melbourne’s top restaurants – including 2½ years at MoVida – while completing his apprenticeship at The William Angliss Institute.
Still yearning to learn more about Italian cooking, he saved up as much money as he could – and at 23 – got on a plane for a year-long food tour of Italy.
"I saved about $20,000 and spent at least $12,000 on food just eating out at Italian restaurants around Italy," he says.
The year abroad was a revelation, and gave him enormous insight in to the art of keeping things simple. When he returned, aged 24, he jumped at the chance to open The Good Table.
"As soon as I landed, I moved back to Castlemaine and it all started there," he says.
"When I came back there were no restaurants operating, there was the two pubs, so my goal was to make use of all the produce and grazing cattle we have in the area.
"And I thought, 'Why aren’t we utilising it in the way that other towns do, and other towns probably have a lot less to offer than what we have got here'."
Unsurprisingly, Alex uses a variety of the local meat producers, and 50 per cent of his herbs and vegetables come from a combination of the Mount Alexander Sustainability Group's kitchen garden – which happens to be outside the back of his restaurant – and Bress Vineyard’s organic produce in nearby Harcourt.
When asked what his friends were doing while he was signing the lease on his European bistro, Alex replies quickly,
"They were having fun".
"I was way too young to start a restaurant, but if someone gives you that opportunity, you take it."