Breaking New Ground

Recently cited by Gourmet Traveller as ‘Margaret River’s most influential chef’, Evan Hayter traded the bright lights of a Michelin-starred international restaurant career for a tiny winery restaurant in Margaret River. We chewed the fat with him over how he’s blazing a trail when it comes to sustainability; and not just because it’s trending on Instagram.

WORDS Victoria Johnson

PICTURES Tim Campbell

When one thinks of the Margaret River wine region, the big players spring to mind – Leeuwin Estate, Vasse Felix, Voyager Estate – all essential dining stops on any trip to this gourmet corner of Western Australia. The lesser-known Arimia Estate, however, is rapidly rising to the top of any astute foodie’s south-west agenda.

It’s tucked away down a dirt road off the main tourist trail, so you won’t exactly stumble across it. Do your homework though, and you’ll find this small winery restaurant is punching well above its weight, and not just because the food is delicious.

For Head Chef and part owner Evan Hayter, paddock to plate isn’t a fad – it’s a mindset. The winery uses solar power, rainwater and a wood oven in the kitchen. Many ingredients are grown on-site; a practice that is becoming less of a hobby and more of a belief system for the small team. And we’re not just talking about a simple veggie patch.

“We farm trout in the winter, marron in the dams, and pigs, which were originally brought in to regenerate the property. They’re able to dig up and eat weeds like arum lilies, which were causing a lot of damage. Naturally, pigs are delicious, so they made their way onto the menu!” Pork now features extensively on Hayter’s menu. He makes his own smallgoods and even cites it as his favourite ingredient to cook with.

“We can see them `{`the pigs`}` from the kitchen – I know that sounds a bit gruesome – but they get looked after so well, they’re the healthiest and happiest pigs I’ve ever seen.”
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“We grow our veggies on a patch of land the pigs had already worked over – it’s probably half an acre’s worth. We’ve fenced it off and built up garden beds. Right now, we’ve got tomatoes, corn, watermelon, chilli, capsicums, eggplant… the next step is hiring a full-time gardener and taking it to the next level.”

The vines are managed using organic and biodynamic principles, and all the wine is made using fruit sourced from the property. There are 200 olive trees, fruit trees and even beehives on-site. “The whole place just makes sense, it all works,” Hayter says. The menu at Arimia changes every second month, which Hayter believes is key to serving up the best possible dining experience.

“It’s better for everyone if we’re all producing seasonal menus. I like my ingredients to tell me what I’m cooking, not the other way around.

“I’ve got great relationships with local suppliers; I get them to dictate what I can have, rather than calling up and ordering whatever I want, whenever I want it. That would be easier, but I don’t believe it’s the right thing to do because you end up with non-seasonal produce. I see my job as taking the best of what’s available and creating a dish out of that.”

As part owner of the Estate, Hayter takes his job seriously. Most mornings, he’s out the door at first light, taking the scenic 30-minute drive up Caves Road – a dream commute for city slickers.

“I walk into the kitchen and turn everything on, put a pile of sticks into the wood oven, then go for a walk around the property and collect some more sticks. The team and I then feed the pigs, and in winter we feed the trout. The chefs like it, it’s good for my team.”

It’s clearly the diversity of the job that keeps Hayter’s flame alight, and he attributes this to his business partner Ann Spencer.

“She has unwavering support for what I do. You can’t find that in hospitality – I’m so lucky.”

Hayter’s most recent passion project is his sourdough. “It [the sourdough] changes that little bit every day, from the way you prove it to how long you prove it for, and the timber you use in the oven – we use a mixture of jarrah, marri and karri, and they all have different qualities in the way they burn.

“We serve it with vegan aioli made from biodynamic garlic which we confit; we then purée that with a tofu that we make from soybeans. Served with a little bit of estate olive oil, it’s so cool.” When asked his thoughts on nose-to-tail cooking, it’s a no-brainer.

“The approach I’ve taken with meat is to only use whole animals. If I want beef on the menu, I buy a whole cow. It works out cheaper, if you’re smart about it – the challenge is I have to change my menu a lot.

“Beef from the shop is from animals as young as nine months old. I don’t believe that a cow develops much flavour in that time”.

“We’ve forgotten what beef tastes like. But a sirloin from a five-year-old animal is completely different. And the whole grain fed versus grass fed issue is irrelevant when it gets to an animal that’s been aged properly.”
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What sets Hayter apart from the masses though is his generosity of spirit. There’s an air of confidence about him, minus that notorious chef-like arrogance. What he brings to the table is unique, and consequently he views neighbouring businesses as friends, not competitors. Hayter willingly shares his knowledge for the love of food.

“A lot of local chefs have said they respect what I do, which is really humbling. I’ve put a lot of chefs onto the suppliers I use, which most chefs wouldn’t do. I believe that we can’t move forward without the support of everyone around us.”

In his home kitchen, Hayter keeps it simple. “It’s usually hand-made pasta and a couple of good bottles of wine.” And when quizzed on what he’s drinking right now, his response is unsurprisingly earthy. “There’s a local French dude named Francois; his label is Revelation Wines. He’s producing this natural chardonnay…he gave me a bottle, and it was awesome. It was a little bit stinky, it was just fun. I’m pretty excited about it.”

So, what’s next on the cards for Hayter? “Pruning of the olive trees, then the vineyard, and then it’s firebreaks again. There’s 135 acres on the property to maintain, and we all pitch in.”

Longer term, Hayter’s dream is to be entirely self-sufficient, and to share Arimia’s story with its diners. “I want to get a few more animals, grow everything on-site. Farm tours will hopefully become part of the experience – I’d like to step things up – become a destination restaurant. That’s where we want to be.”