éRemo Italian’s ‘greedy’ menu satisfies taste for the Hunter

Spicers Guesthouse in the Hunter Valley welcomed Michael Elfwing in January this year as executive chef of éRemo restaurant, the centrepiece of the tranquil resort, surrounded by vineyards and a verdant estate. The retreat has been a Hunter Valley icon since the mid-80s, and today Spicer’s signature emphasis on locally sourced produce and naturally sustainable practices is showcased in its modern Italian cuisine.

éRemo is a destination in itself or the highlight of a country experience with the beauty and vitality of the environment being expressed, devoid of pretention, on the plate in front of you.

Elfwing came to Spicers from the Shangri-La Sydney in The Rocks, where he was executive chef, but his years in high-end hotel kitchens has been matched to time in the iconic Margaret River region at the prestigious Cape Lodge, and now in the serene vinous Hunter Valley at Spicers Guesthouse.

One constant wherever he’s behind the pans is appreciation for the best produce, which echoes Spicers’ respect for nature and connecting with local producers.

Elfwing says, “I think it’s important to have a sense of place. I feel food tastes different in a vineyard setting compared to a minimalistic city dining room.”

éRemo has a real sense of place

Where the winemakers dine
The bottles catalogued in éRemo’s wine list are displayed provocatively on a scenic wine-wall, offering a cross section of the best local producers, including Tyrrells, Brokenwood, First Creek, Lakes Foley, Tulloch, Usher Tinkler and Angus Vinden as well as classic regional Australian and international styles.

Executive Chef Elfwing has gone through the training for a Professional Sommelier Certificate and shares his enthusiasm for wine with friend and mentor, the knowledgeable Dr Ron Georgio (MW). Elfwing says, “Food and wine pairing is a great passion of mine, and I enjoy collaborating with our restaurant managers and sommeliers to create a complete dining experience.”

“At éRemo we get to cook for some of Australia’s best winemakers and their well-trained palates; it’s another great thing that makes this place exciting.”

Avido the ‘greedy’ menu
“I love the fact that the opportunities are endless at éRemo,” says Elfwing, “the beautiful space, the kitchen, the great produce and ever-changing menus, and our amazing staff are all what I love about this place. I love the confidence of locals to not look at the menu and leave the cooking to us.”

There is an a la carte menu, but the Avido menu, which means ‘greedy’ in Italian, is the chef’s selection of dishes, served to share. éRemo is currently offering a soulful Autumn menu that celebrates the cool evenings and golden hue of the vines shedding their leaves for winter, with an emphasis on flame and radiant heat, with mains off the grill and traditional pizza.

Executive Chef Elfwing selects his favourite dishes on the current menu – “It must be our free-range, dry aged duck, which we source and then season and dry age for 9-14 days before serving. It is regional dish with a sense of place, served with Italian staples like cavolo nero and preserved peaches.”

“For dessert I can’t resist my ‘one-minute’ chocolate tart using organic Bahen & Co chocolate served with a hazelnut gelato – it’s so light, it just takes one minute to eat it! Ha! Ha! – the one minute actually refers to the cooking time!”

Start with the right ingredients
Like so many of the leading chefs who Spicers Retreats have carefully recruited and nurtured, Michael Elfwing’s and his young family appreciated the ‘vine change’ from the big city, although he began his kitchen career in the country and has kept returning to regional restaurants in harmony with their environment.

“I grew up in Landskrona in the south of Sweden, a small seaside town,” he said. “I would probably fish 150 days a year growing up, so my love for working with seafood probably started there. My father is a chef and I think visiting him in his kitchens as a young boy had a strong influence.”

As a teenager Elfwing followed his chef father from Sweden in 1997 to a winery restaurant near Perth and a four-year chef’s apprenticeship. In 2001 Elfwing moved to the Adelaide and found work as pastry and cold larder chef in a French/Italian restaurant, Bergerac, who’s owner was also a vendor of organic vegetables.

Elfwing said, “At Bergerac we had the most amazing produce to work with; it would come from peoples’ backyards and private properties. We were voted best new restaurant in South Australia by Australian Gourmet Traveller, which was a great achievement for a few young chefs.”

Art at Spicers GuesthouseéRemo provides a lovely vine change for Michael and his family

Journey between west and east
With the success of Bergerac to his name, in 2002 Elfwing joined the kitchen of The Grange Restaurant by Cheong Liew at the Hilton Adelaide, at the height of its fame.

“It was an amazing time to be there,” says Elfwing. “To move from a ‘western’ kitchen and into The Grange was humbling and exciting. Cheong Liew is so good at mixing cultures and cuisines. When you eat his food, it just makes sense, and is truly delicious and eye opening.”

Elfwing’s time at The Grange saw Elfwing begin his rise through the ranks of five-star hotel kitchens in Asia-Pacific, relocating in 2004 to the Hilton Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. In 2017 Elfwing spent two years as executive chef at the newly opened Conrad Luxury Hotel in the heart of Osaka, Japan, before moving back to Australia and the Shangri-La Sydney in 2019.

He says, “Having lived half my professional life in Asia, you just need to open a window to be inspired. Japan is another story of its own with such perfection on the surface and something so different behind the curtain.”

During this time, his passion for European cuisine saw him travel to Europe for work and inspiration. “Before moving to Kuala Lumpur in 2004, I spent two months driving through France, Italy and Spain, to see where all these famous, weird and wonderful ingredients we use come from.”

“In France, it was Normandie seafood, brie from near Paris, Loire Valley goat’s cheese, and Michelin three-star restaurants; in Italy, Tuscan olive growers, cheesemakers producing only two wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano a day, balsamic vinegar producers where only the daughters carry on the tradition; and in Spain, markets in Barcelona, waiting outside El Bulli for four days to get a table with no luck, and endless eating in San Sebastian.”

Executive Chef Michael Elfwing draws inspiration from his European travels

“Today I can say I have visited these places, seen how this amazing food is made, and appreciate the price I pay for good produce.”

Again in 2013, a sabbatical took Elfwing to Europe to work as Stagier at The Fat Duck in England (three Michelin stars) and the Matsalen at Grand Hotel Stockholm by Matthias Dahlgren (two Michelin-stars).

“Heston Blumenthal influenced me with his approach to detail, and the need to pay attention to detail, time and accuracy,” says Elfwing. “The Fat Duck was also the most polite and pleasant kitchen I had worked in. When you asked a question, you received a five-minute answer. We worked hard, long days, it was repetitive with no room for error, but never boring.”

A world of inspiration
Elfwing is driven to experiment and adapt by the range of ingredients he can access, and the seasonal changes in the landscape. “I have this feeling that there is always something new, something different, something I haven’t cooked for a while that I want to cook differently. I want to see how we can guide a guest to try something they would not normally try.”

Elfwing admits to being a strong believer in teaching, training and motivating a team to reach new heights. He says, “The backbone of any kitchen is the team as a whole and how it is built and trained in layers, according to each individual’s different needs and methods of learning and growing.”

“A must read for any young chef is the Culinaria range,” says Elfwing. “Also, Relae by Christian Puglisi, Cedric Grolet’s Fruits and Opera, and all of Heston’s books because they are true to what he is cooking in every detail.” Elfwing’s own cookbook, Cooking with Michael Elfwing, was shortlisted for Best First Cookbook at the 2012 World Gourmand Cookbook Awards in Paris.

In 2014 Elfwing left big city Kuala Lumpur for the sea and space of Cape Lodge in Margaret River, WA, a where he was executive chef until 2017. While there, in 2015 he became the Australian Ambassador for the Truffle and Wine Company (TWC), which producers roughly 60 percent of the Australia’s black winter truffles.

“Truffle Hill in Manjimup is Australia’s first commercial farm and they have just done it right from the beginning. The first tree was planted in 1997 and I started buying from them in 2013 and have never stopped since. The quality is exceptional and always graded to perfection. I’m a truffle lover and rather generous with it. I feel it is such a great treat and should be enjoyed to its fullest over the winter months.”

Michael claims to be a truffle lover

Discover a sense of place
Spicers Guesthouse is the perfect romantic base to experience life and explore the delights of the Hunter Valley. With 40 acres of grounds overlooking the surrounding mountain ranges and neighbouring vineyards, there are plenty of spots to sit down and enjoy a private picnic.

Featuring a mix of textures and patterns created by the use of natural materials, the stunning buildings encompass 45 rooms, a four-bedroom cottage, numerous event spaces, a dedicated wedding and events coordinator, and catering for groups of up to 120 people.

After enjoying an Italian feast at éRemo, sit out by the outdoor firepit and take in the views of the sparkling Hunter Valley sky. Stay the night for an early morning hot air balloon flight and a la carte breakfast, or pick up a gourmet picnic hamper and find your sweet spot in the shade.

éRemo Restaurant and the Guesthouse are a two-hour drive from Sydney or one hour from Newcastle; Sydney Airport is 180km away, Newcastle Airport is 70km. Transfers are available upon request.