Phil Wood will miss the weather. It's a strange thing to fixate on, he admits, but after announcing his departure as culinary director of Mornington's Peninsula Pt Leo Estate yesterday, it's the view of the Western Port bay that will linger in his memory. "Particularly when it's stormy you see the clouds roll through the heads and up the port, and the rain comes from all corners … It's a very special beautiful place."
Since landing at the Gandel family's big-budget sculpture park in 2017, the chef has turned heads for all the right reasons: first at Pt Leo Restaurant with its smart, modern bistro stylings; then in 2018 with the opening of its fine-dining counterpart Laura, where Wood and his team nabbed a Gourmet Traveller best new restaurant award.
And in his three-and-a-half year tenure, the New Zealand-born Wood has never wavered in his commitment to showcasing the best of the state's produce.
"The Mornington Peninsula changed the way I cooked. I went from Sydney where everything was a little more cerebral," says Wood, who clocked up a total of eight years at Rockpool and Eleven Bridge. The fine-dining world he says, at least back then, encouraged a concept-first, produce-later philosophy. "Here it's the other way around. It's all about the produce first and how to make it the star."
He name-checks his favourite producers from the region: Mushroom Forestry for its lion's mane fungus and king trumpet 'shrooms; the folks from Main Ridge Dairy who turn milk from their goat herd into chèvre; to the enigmatic "Harry" of Flinders Mussels; plus tomato-grower Cheryl McGaffin of Daniel's Run. "I don't think I've met anyone with such a singular focus on a [fruit] like she has," says Wood. "She has 160 varieties of tomatoes, builds her own beds using her own compost, intersperses companion plants throughout, and keeps the tomato seeds every year. It's an amazing little farm," says Wood.
He remembers, too, when the owners of The Fruit Forest sat down for lunch at Laura. "They asked the shop manager if we wanted some figs ... Then they turned up later with 50 different varieties," says Wood. They've since provided other specimens from their crop of rare and unusual fruit – cornelian cherries, medlar fruit. "They have an allspice tree, a Sichuan pepper tree, all different types of citrus. And they're just 800 metres down the road."
But for all the bounty of the region's land and sea, no-one could have prepared for the dumpster fire that was 2020. The Mornington Peninsula is, for the purposes of state lockdowns, considered part of wider metropolitan Melbourne. Whenever the city shuts down, so too must Mornington Peninsula businesses. "With [restaurants in the city] they could convert to delivery or online. But with regional restaurants, the number of people within our five-kilometre radius we could probably count on our hands and toes," he says.
Like many restaurants in Melbourne and wider Victoria, the estate restaurants were closed longer than they were open in 2020. After the nationwide lockdown, and save for a brief three-week reprieve in June, Pt Leo Restaurant has only been open since November; Laura, since December.
It feels strange to be walking away just as the restaurants are getting on their feet, but Wood is confident they're in safe hands. Both restaurants, too, managed to retain most of their staff. "The foundation is really there. The reopening has made me very confident in how they're running."
But the five-day Melbourne lockdown earlier this month hit particularly hard. It's part of the reason why he's moving to Sydney – the current environment of snap state border closures, and the prospect of being separated from family (his wife Lis Davies has family in Sydney) is cause for anxiety.
It's been speculated Wood is headed to Sydney's Double Bay where Neil Perry – Wood's former boss at Rockpool and Eleven Bridge – is set to open a new restaurant. Wood chuckles at the rumour. "I think eight years with Neil was plenty. He's a wonderful guy, but it's not happening."
His last service at Pt Leo is on March 28, and after that, who knows? But before he makes for the big smoke, he's hoping to do a farewell lap of the state.
"I'd love to visit West Gippsland and Port Fairy, places which are that bit too far for a weekend trip [from the Mornington]," he says. "Victoria is an incredible state of producers and restaurants. I'm going to miss a lot about it."