In recent years, it seems as though Byron Bay's irresistible coastal siren song has been tuned specifically to lure chefs to its sandy shores and verdant hinterlands, with many celebrated culinary talents packing their aprons and their surfboards and heading north.
Among them is fresh Byron arrival Ollie Wong-Hee, who has stepped up to his first head chef position at Bar Heather, crossing the threshold from rising talent to seat-filling drawcard.
Like his former stomping grounds Franklin, Ester and Sixpenny, Wong-Hee's freshman menu defies simple categorisation. Classic French techniques are slickly deployed in service to the region's superlative produce, and while the chef shows deft restraint with his careful use of Southeast Asian, South Asian and Middle Eastern colour, it's his regular meetings with local producers and suppliers that ultimately provide the inspiration for new dishes.
"[Bar Heather's] menu is entirely dictated by the farmer and the seasons," Wong-Hee says, grateful for the connections he's quickly made in town. "In Sydney it's harder to build those relationships. I couldn't just wake up in the inner west, go past an organic farm to get produce and go to work. Here you can, and I think there is something very special about that."
It was a chance meeting at Dark Mofo – the annual arts and culture festival held in Hobart – that led to this unplanned sea change. Wine importer and distributor Tom Sheer, who had served as beverage manager at LP's Quality Meats in Chippendale while Wong-Hee worked the pans nearby at Ester, was opening a wine bar in Byron and needed a chef.
"I was riding the Covid hospitality limbo, so the timing was perfect," says Wong-Hee, who remained in Hobart after his stint at Franklin came to an end when the restaurant closed in 2020. For Wong-Hee, the chance to build a restaurant from the ground up within an up-and-coming food scene was "a dream scenario."
The move has proved a success. Any doubts the chef admits to having about heading up the kitchen have proved to be unfounded, with Bar Heather's snacky, wine accompanying menu hitting the mark.
As for the future, Wong-Hee says he's looking forward to becoming even more immersed in his new Byron Bay surrounds and discovering more local produce. "It will evolve… the food already feels more confident in its environment."
The same, it seems, is true of the chef.