Caroline Gray has worked with Four Pillars in Healesville for many years, pickling and preserving the fruit byproducts of the gin distillation process. She recently joined the team full time as kitchen manager of the renowned carbon neutral distillery that has been named the world’s leading gin producer by the IWSC in London.
Starting in hospitality as a uni student in the mid-80s, Caroline has worked behind the bar, as front of house and in food businesses all of her life. She moved to the Yarra Valley in the late 90s and bought the Healesville Hotel with her ex husband. “We took the pool table out and the backlash from locals was pretty nasty, but I realised that Healesville was definitely the place I wanted to live.” A self-taught cook, she worked in various kitchens and cellar doors and spent 13 years at Cunliffe and Waters in Coldstream, where she discovered her passion for preserving. She later started her business, A Bit of Jam and Pickle.
Caroline remembers helping her mum create dinner parties from the Women’s Weekly Dinner Party Cookbook. She also reminisces with fondness about her Nana cooking a lamb roast in the electric frying pan.
Caroline’s best friend’s family owned an Italian restaurant in Lygon St, Carlton, and lived above it. “They were fabulously eccentric,” she says. “Santina, the chef, she was amazing. And I just used to watch. She was probably my first inspiration.”
As a child, Caroline and her family picnicked up on the Black Spur. She returned as an adult in the late 90s when she was exploring the area, searching for somewhere to live. “It felt like it was on the edge of something, it was quite exciting. We were finding like-minded people… there was definitely a community and it attracted people out here,” she says.
Caroline loves it when the weather turns and she notices her wine choices transitioning from rosé to pinot. Then she knows it’s time to start making soups again.
“There's almost an urgency to get things done and dusted before it gets too cold,” she says. “In Autumn, I'll make two or three soups a week and that keeps us all going at home.” Caroline’s favourite is a veggie soup, with everything in it. She uses lots of spices, garam masala, ginger, garlic and chilli, then adds in whatever else is around so the soup becomes a pot of spicy, nourishing vegetables and lentils.
Caroline would create a spread involving lots of veggies, salads, herbs and spices, very much that style of Ottolenghi, which is something she likes to cook.
The hero dish would be a fish of some description, surrounded by lots of different dishes so that people could graze. She likes to make something special for everyone. “I always tend to take on way too much and regret it when I'm cooking. I like to complicate things rather than simplify them. I include lots of flavours and colours and lots of different sauces and condiments, because that's my thing.”
She’d also make sure that there were leftovers for the next couple of days - every family of six needs that.
Caroline loves that there are still so many exciting things going on in the region and the Yarra Valley is becoming an even more enticing destination. “The thing I like the most is that kids are coming out here to live, rather than the other way around,” she says.
“At Four Pillars we’re about snacks. We’re not a restaurant, we’re a distillery. So we’re getting a little bit more serious about people being able to eat whilst they’re here but we’re definitely still the supporting player to the gin and the whole experience.”