Paul Cooper is a chef with an impressive pedigree. Starting his career on the Mornington Peninsula as an 18 year old, fresh out of school, he has worked in some of the finest restaurants in Australia, studied under some of the world’s most revered chefs and even been instrumental in helping London restaurant, Pied a Terre, gain a Michelin star. He and his wife Jaclyn are now employing their gastronomic expertise in the Yarra Valley.
As a child Paul loved eating fat chips and eggs made for him by his British stepmother. “We used to dip the chips into the fried egg yolk. Whilst it sounds horrible, it was truly delicious,” he says. As an accomplished chef, he has, of course, reinvented the dish in a more elegant form, to make it “a bit more in line with what we were doing on the menus.” Paul used potato skin to create crackers and paired them with a confit of egg yolk, giving diners a sophisticated twist on this ‘comfort food.’
Paul remembers travelling from the Mornington Peninsula to the Yarra Valley as an 18 year old. “We used to do day trips to the Yarra Valley to check it out and see what it was like,” he says. He was refining his palate and building his knowledge about food and wine, experiencing tastings at all the different wineries and learning how to make comparisons between the wine styles on the peninsula and in the valley. When asked if he prefers the wines in the Yarra Valley he replies emphatically: “Absolutely. They’re some of the best in Victoria.”
He loves the flavours that emerge during the season and the vibrant colours. “If you think of the autumnal colours and beautiful pale oranges and light browns, it's just such a wonderful time. You still get some warm days and cold nights. It's that time when you can start to do those slow cooked meats and nice heartwarming dishes. I think it's probably one of the best times of the year.”
Part of the fun of the season for Paul is being able to see the autumnal colours in his meals. The deep oranges of the root vegetables, the yellow of quinces, the paler hue of chestnuts, and the pure white of parsnips, become what Paul calls, “a wonderful piece of artwork on a plate”.
Paul has been passionate about whole beast butchery for the last decade. “I think there's something lovely about doing a rolled and roasted pork belly over a spit, watching it turn as the skin crackles up and gets nice and crispy.”
It’s always easy to pair apple and pork, he says, but he points to a more refined combination for the summer months when stone fruits are in season. “The sweet and sour nature of roasted apricot pairing with pork is perfect.” He, like many chefs and diners, believes that you can't go past mashed potato with pork and notes a need for pickled beetroot on the side, because pork belly is a rich piece of meat.
The finale to this meal would be a bittersweet dark chocolate torte, with poached Yarra Valley cherries to balance the richness, and a praline ice cream.
“What I most love is the openness, the fresh clean air, the vines; it's such a beautiful part of the world. And it provides a lot more inspiration when you're surrounded by nature and beautiful rolling hills as opposed to big tall buildings.”
Paul loves that the customers he meets are happy to come and relax, try new things and just enjoy themselves. He says they always come in a good mood and leave in an even better mood. “We think that one of the best parts of the Yarra Valley is the people.”