Aaron Turner is back - for real this time. After closing Loam, his acclaimed Bellarine Peninsula restaurant, in 2013, Turner left Victoria for an extended break overseas, a hiatus he punctuated by teaming up briefly with his friend and fellow chef Morgan McGlone last year to open Melbourne diner Belle's Hot Chicken. Now the young talent is back on our shores to stay, with not just one but two restaurants set to open in Geelong in the coming months.
The Hot Chicken Project, the first of the ventures, will open in May with a menu that's not a huge leap from the one Turner helped design at Belle's. He spent much of his time in the US in Nashville, where he developed a burning passion for the city's signature cayenne-spiced hot chicken, and that's again the focus here, along with southern-style sides. "The menu format is the same as any hot chicken joint in Nashville," Turner says. "It's just something I really enjoy making and it's delicious."
He characterises the drinks list he and his partners have in mind as "booze for the people". It takes in the natural wines Turner himself likes drinking, but not in a doctrinaire way, and they're a part of the package rather than its sole focus. "I just want good booze, by good people", he says, citing the local pinot noir from Anthony Brain's Livewire project as a likely inclusion.
The second of the restaurants, Igni, a 50-seater slated to open in spring, is more ambitious - something of a return to the style of food he was doing at Loam when it was named the GT Regional Restaurant of the Year in 2012. Turner says he wants it to be much more relaxed for the diner while maintaining the same high standards in the kitchen. He's teaming up with ex-Loamers Andrew Hamilton and Joanna Smith for the venture, so the approachability and the quality of the service are as central to the business plan as the cooking, he says. "We're just going to get the bar-vibe happening, stick a char-grill in there and see what happens."
Eager to discard the trappings of fancy-restaurant culture, Turner is focused on making the most of a simple, usable space. "It's just a simple black building that backs onto a Bikram yoga place," he says. "We're thinking about putting in a window so everyone can watch."
Could this be Geelong's time to shine? Turner is philosophical. "Well, if nothing else, it's a good place to stop on the way to and from Brae."