Classically trained chef Robin Murray comes from good Scottish hospitality stock and has a fine international restaurant pedigree. But he now calls the Southern Highlands home and performs regular culinary miracles at the lovely Centennial Vineyards Restaurant.
Perhaps it’s the ‘dreich’ Scottish weather or the austerity of the landscape that engenders a collective gritty realism, but no matter how far from home, you can always trust a Scot to tell it how it is. Take hugely experienced, classically trained chef Robin Murray. He arrived in Australia nearly 25 years ago and has been at the helm of Centennial Vineyards Restaurant for the past 15.
After training at the prestigious Scottish hotel, The Caledonian in Edinburgh, and the illustrious hotel, golf and spa resort Gleneagles, he headed to Melbourne. For the next 10 years his mentors and contemporaries included chefs Raymond Capaldi, Gary Meaghan and George Calombaris (who did his apprenticeship at the Sofitel in Melbourne, where Robin worked before they both jumped ship). Calombaris then went to work for Murray at his molecular style restaurant, Reserve. When Murray departed in 2004 with now wife Mandy to take over the newly opened restaurant at Centennial Vineyards near Bowral, Calombaris went on to start The Press Club in Melbourne.
But don’t expect to find Murray spruiking his past successes or close MasterChef Australia mates. This is one old school chef not interested in self promotion. Likewise, there is no food trickery or tomfoolery on the menu when you eat a la carte lunch, dinner or high tea at Centennial Vineyards Restaurant. And when Meet the Author events (held with The Bookshop Bowral) are happening, Murray stays in the kitchen out of the limelight and lets the calibre of his cooking speak for itself. No chance, then, I ask him freshly on the day Escape Southern Highlands visits for lunch, we’ll be seeing him as a guest judge on MasterChef Australia any time soon?
‘Och no, I’m not interested in that sort of thing,’ says Murray in his broad Scottish brogue. ‘Too much smoke and mirrors for me. I’m more of a real chef as such. My style is very classical with French and Mediterranean influences. Honest food. We might trick something up in a garnish, but I cook in a very classic way that is very produce driven.’
Murray has hospitality in his blood. His grandfather owned hotels and several of his brothers are chefs. Raised in Lossiemouth, Aberdeenshire, he came to Australia in 1995 to join an older brother working at the now closed but well remembered White Horse Inn in Berrima.
‘I thought all of Australia was like Home and Away, and I arrived in winter in Berrima and found instead it was like bloody Scotland,’ recalls Murray. ‘I lasted six weeks and moved to Melbourne. I met my wife, Mandy, in a pub there and ended up staying.’
Scotland’s loss is our gain. We are sitting in Centennial Vineyards Restaurant as Murray chats about his small farm at nearby Mandemar. He keeps chooks and bees, and grows fruit and veg for his restaurant kitchen. Everything from berries to citrus to edible flowers, garlic and herbs. He’s even got yabbies in the dam that will find their way into his pot. He loves knocking about there with sons, Hamish and Brodie.
‘The day I started working here I stopped shaving and stopped wearing a chef’s jacket.’
He certainly chose a terrific place to make his tree change. Centennial Vineyards Restaurant looks out over acres of tempranillo grapes, waiting for the approaching harvest. The beautiful property including the vineyards, winery, cellar door and restaurant are owned by locals and businessmen, Mark Dowling and John Large. Murray leased the restaurant in 2004 and hasn’t looked back. It is an imposing building with an al fresco feel reached at the top of an inclining driveway, past paddocks dotted with black Angus cattle. Huge wooden doors like you’d find on a medieval hall greet us. Weddings are a large part of Murray’s business now. He often caters for four or five a week thanks in part to his restaurant’s ability to hold large numbers (140 in the main restaurant, 60 on the verandah, 70 upstairs). There is a wide glassed in verandah and a sunny courtyard outside. The restaurant has high rafted ceilings, sandstone floors and a huge fireplace at one end. It wouldn’t be out of place in Tuscany or Bordeaux.
My lunch partner and I are seated in the glassed in verandah; a beautiful place to be. With the help of the attentive wait staff, we study the wine list. Centennial Vineyards and its cellar door are well known for the breadth of wines available. From its chardonnay to sauvignon blanc to pinot noir as well as its tempranillo (an early ripener that suits Bowral’s cool climate), the vineyard has received countless accolades and awards over the years. We go for a glass of the Centennial pinot grigio. It has a light, delicate flavour and moreish finish. The mushroom latte aperitif that arrives unexpected is frothy and delicious.
‘It’s one of our signature things,’ explains Murray later. ‘I like to get everyone in the mood to relax and enjoy the food.’
We share a starter of salmon gravlax with a dill and mustard honey sauce, and Murray’s perfectly crisp rye bread. My main is the barramundi with a nicoise salad of green beans, boiled egg, black olives and tomatoes. It is plate licking good. My partner is tempted by the Italian lamb shoulder with prosciutto, white bean and garlic mash and Mediterranean vegetables but instead is swayed by the Szechuan spiced duck breast with sweet corn puree and plum glaze. It packs a tasty punch.
Keen to hold onto the warmth of early winter, we share a summer trifle with fresh raspberries, cake, custard and cream. It is a scrumptious meal and just when I think I can’t squeeze in another morsel, the handmade gluten free hazelnut biscuits that arrive with coffee prove me wrong.
Our meal is a fine example of modern Australian a la carte cooked by a deft chef who has no interest in reinventing the wheel. Murray’s many longtime repeat customers, and locals like me who have never been before but will find their way back, tell him he has his formula down pat.
‘This restaurant is my maison, my house, my home,’ says Murray. ‘What do I want people to take away? I want them to enjoy themselves and walk away feeling satisfied. It’s that simple.’
Spoken like a true Scotsman.
Centennial Vineyards Restaurant
252 Centennial Road, Bowral
4861 8701 centennialrestaurant.com.au