Scared? No, Josep Espuga isn't scared. If anything, he's backing himself as the newly announced culinary director of Pt Leo Estate in the Mornington Peninsula where he'll oversee the flagship Pt Leo Restaurant and its fine-dining counterpart Laura. He likens the experience to skydiving, where success means jumping head-first into whatever awaits. One hopes there's a parachute for the safe landing. "Well, I've been working on the parachute for the last 35 years," says Espuga.
The Catalonia-born chef has a globetrotting CV that includes a stint at Madrid's La Broche with Sergi Arola (Arola being a disciple of Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame), a head chef position at the now-closed Degustation in New York, and a 2006 stage at Mugaritz in San Sebastián, where a young Australian chef by the name of Dan Hunter (now chef-owner of Brae in Birregurra) was on the rise.
Until then, Espuga's knowledge of chefs from Down Under was limited only to Tetsuya Wakuda, who once held a guest masterclass at La Broche. And now with the departure of Pt Leo Estate's outgoing culinary director Phil Wood – himself an alumnus of restaurant Tetsuya's – there's a serendipity to the next chapter of the Pt Leo story.
"Phil and I were born in the same year. We've seen the restaurant industry grow at the same time," says Espuga. "We grew up admiring the same chefs and reading the same books, just in different parts of the world [...] We both have a modern approach to what we do, but always looking to and respecting the classics."
One gets the sense the succession planning has been underway for months, with Espuga landing at Laura in December as executive sous chef – effectively Wood's deputy. After a largely dormant 2020 thanks to COVID-19, Laura kicked into gear in summer, its high season. "We've been really busy and it means I've had the time to work [with Phil] and be ready for this handover," says Espuga. "He's a funny guy as well. I'm going to miss his jokes."
Espuga has been accompanying Wood to various producers and ensuring the strong farm-to-Pt-Leo legacy carries over. "That's an important part of our operation. [...] Our suppliers are as important as our chefs," says Espuga.
Back in Catalonia, Espuga had no idea the Mornington Peninsula even existed, but now he speaks about the region's produce with a local's enthusiasm. He's recently returned from picking up pesticide-free zucchini flowers at Ripe N Ready Cherry Farm, a 10-minute drive from Pt Leo Estate. They're destined for the Laura petit fours where they'll be crystallised with eggwhite and sugar, then served with white chocolate Chantilly cream and red currants (also from Ripe N Ready).
So with the Pt Leo commitment to the peninsula's produce intact, don't expect any dramatic changes under Espuga. He assures diners the celebrated carrot soufflé, for example, will remain on the Laura menu.
But his mind is ticking. He has a passion for ice-cream, having completed a summer of work experience at Helados Monllor, a fifth-generation gelato shop in Valencia that's been churning the good stuff since 1925. "Back then it was made without electricity, made by hand, and [they used] salt to cool down the milk. It's pretty fascinating."
And the flavours of Catalonia might find their way onto the Pt Leo menus. Espuga cites his maternal grandmother as an enduring, formative influence on his cooking – from working alongside her, when he was aged eight, in a hotel restaurant; to memories of her home-made mató, a Catalonian ricotta-like cheese she would serve with walnuts and honey for dessert.
"On Sundays at least once a month she'd get a couple of rabbits from a farm nearby, kill the rabbits herself, and make a rabbit stew with rice," says Espuga. Saffron, paprika, snails – these were the essentials of her Catalonian cassola de conill. "I might do it here in the future. We've had rabbit at Laura before."
And there's another potential change on the horizon, but it'll be imperceptible to diners: a strict no-reggae rule during prep. The mellow sounds and half-time feel of the genre is not conducive when chefs are racing against the clock pre-service. No – Espuga prefers the sounds of US electronic music producer Jeff Mills. "I like techno [music] for prep time. It gives a lot of energy," says Espuga. "Reggae for prep in the morning is very dangerous."