The Worldly Chef
STORY AND PICTURES BY RICHARD CORNISH
It is mid-morning on a clear summer’s day and Hepburn Springs chef and restaurant owner David Willcocks is preparing for the evening service. Deliveries are dropped off at The Surly Goat, a casual restaurant housed in a little weatherboard building, shaded by sprawling trees on the edge of the Hepburn Mineral Springs Reserve. The site has long been a café or restaurant and holds a special place in the hearts of many locals. David Willcocks came to the Surly Goat as a chef. He had been working between ‘The Goat’ and the charcoal fuelled kitchen at Passing Clouds at Musk and was looking to make the move from chef to restaurateur. “It was time to make the plunge and a conversation started up with The Goat’s owners’ Simon Bevanda and Vanessa Kalamistrakis,” he explains. “It all happened quite naturally. It was less a sale and more a commercial succession,” says David with a smile.
The Mount Evelyn born chef has an unassuming nature that belies his impressive CV. The first chef he worked under was the Yarra Valley’s legendary Gary Cooper. “He taught me to embrace the seasons and cook with what the growers were bringing in the kitchen door,” says the David with his gentle demeanour. “The older I get the more his teaching influences me.” In 2001 David moved to Melbourne and worked with ground breaking chef Teage Ezard at his eponymous restaurant. “He showed us how to season a dish without using plain salt,” remember David. Instead Teage not only used fermented sauces such as soy, fish sauce to add layers of flavour to his dishes. “Teage also eschewed white starch such as plain rice and potato instead looking at more flavourful vegetables instead,” he says. “I also learned a lot about cooking under pressure.”
David moved to Amsterdam in 2003, capital of his mother’s home country, where he cooked under Schilo Van Coevorden in a restaurant housed former music conservatorium. There, the kitchen team needed to create dishes that matched the colour scheme of the old building and the shapes and forms of its architecture. David followed Schilo to the south of Spain where he discovered the delights of casual dining in the bars and on the beaches between Malaga and Cadiz. After cooking around Europe, David returned to Australia moving to Hepburn Springs in 2012 to cook at The Argus. In 2015 he helped set up the remarkably simple menu at Passing Clouds and then, on October 17 last year, he took over The Surly Goat.
The food is beautifully simple while packing a punch when it comes to flavour. The small dining room, with its bare hardwood floors and wooden tables is complemented with a popular bar that seats 12. The small plates menu offers finger food such as béchamel based croquettas to juicy bronze lamb meatballs sitting on grain and yoghurt salad. For mains, look for grilled steak and crumbed pork chop all backed by a compact wine list hand-picked sommelier Stacey Lee Edwards from award winning Geelong restaurant Igni.
Under David, The Surly Goat has retained all its intimate charm and hospitality. Simon Bevanda has stayed on, working front of house, and the focus on local produce continues to expand. “It is such a good place to become the owner,” says David. “There was always something special here.”
The Surly Goat, 3 Tenth St, Hepburn Springs; Tue-Sat 5pm-10pm, Fri-Sat 12pm-3pm; 03 5348 2648; thesurlygoat.com.au