Taking the job as executive chef at Chateau Yering was a homecoming of sorts for me, because I grew up not far from the Yarra Valley, in Ferntree Gully and Boronia. I love this area, which is very large - there are regions within regions. You can drive for two hours and still be in the Yarra Valley. But there are plenty of excellent accommodation options here, not just the rooms and suites at Chateau Yering, and it's only 60 minutes from Melbourne.
When I have visitors, I like to show off the diversity of the area. Yarra Glen is at a relatively low altitude, and in summer it can be hotter here than in Melbourne. But as soon as you get into the mountains, into Healesville and beyond, the air is crisp and cool, and Lake Mountain sees snow in winter. I like to take guests for a drive to see some of the many wineries and taste the local produce, and then go out for dinner.
Cyclists are a common sight on the roads around the area, especially the Black Spur, which winds up through the mountains and forests from Healesville to Narbethong on the way to Marysville. The 40km rail trail from Lilydale to Warburton is another excellent cycling option. Speaking of railways, a particular dream of mine is the rebuilding of the rail line from Lilydale to Healesville. The route is beautiful, and it goes right past so many vineyards. It's been disused for many years, and some of the bridges were burnt out in the fires, but if it were reopened to trains (or cyclists), it would be amazing for tourism in the area.
My food philosophy is to think global, act local. It's important to fill the mind with knowledge about what other people are doing. Everything's already been created, but there are so many ways of interpreting it. One of my chefs has just come back from working at Arzak restaurant in Spain (number eight on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list) and he shows us things we haven't seen before.
I focus on what's in season and what's in the region. I'm a huge fan of truffles, mushrooms and other earthy flavours. Beetroot, for example - the red ones are sweet and the yellow more earthy. Both are beautiful raw or cooked. But you need to respect them. Don't turn them into something they're not.
The autumn leaves in the valley are stunning. They're an inspiration when it comes to writing menus. But spring would have to be my favourite season. When I see the lambs out in the paddocks I think of them on the plate. It's a bit sadistic, I know, but I like the idea of everything being new again, when the area shakes off winter and starts growing once more.
MATTHEW'S TOP PICKS
Tarrawarra Estate and Tarrawarra Museum of Art
Tarrawarra is a beautiful property making very good wine. It consists of one long building set amid rolling hills and pastures. It reminds me of the Guggenheim Bilbao in the way it's a strong feature of the landscape, yet sympathetic and complementary to it. In recent years the gallery here, the Tarrawarra Museum of Art, has hosted the Archibald Prize exhibition, although this year the Archibald is showing at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery. Tarrawarra also displays regularly changing exhibitions from its permanent collection, and hosts special events.
An outstanding cellar door experience means the opportunity to visit a beautiful property where you're surrounded by vineyards. It also means enjoying the company of people who are passionate about what they do and want to share their knowledge. Oakridge, Yering Station, Dominique Portet and Five Oaks are just a few of the Yarra Valley wineries that offer such experiences.
A Wanda Inn, Healesville
Owner-chef Tomohiro Ishikawa used to work for me at Chateau Yering, and before that he was at Jacques Reymond. At A Wanda Inn in Healesville he does everything himself - he's the only chef in the kitchen. His Japanese and modern Australian dishes are beautiful. The dining room isn't exactly wonderful - the place is more like a hole in the wall - but it's all about the food, not the ambience. It's open for breakfast and lunch. Don't miss the sushi and the pork pancakes. 278 Maroondah Hwy, Healesville, (03) 5962 3625.
Yarra Valley Dairy
We have a close association with Yarra Valley Dairy at Chateau Yering: if you look out the dining room window, you can see their cows. If you happen to be eating our Persian Fetta dish at the time, then you're looking at the cows responsible for the milk that forms the cheese on your plate. The dairy serves light lunches that might include charcuterie and trout, but really it's all about the cheese. You can also buy cheeses to take home - the Black Savourine, say, or Ashed Pyramid. They do a lot of experimentation, and sometimes at Chateau Yering we might be asked to test one of their aged cheeses.
Hot-air balloon flights
Ballooning tour groups take off very early in the morning, before the sun comes up, and they come to Chateau Yering for breakfast after the flight. The ballooning guests are always very buzzy and excited, which is unusual at that time of the morning - "How about the views over the hills! How about the sunrise!" I've sent a few of my chefs up, and they've enjoyed it a lot, but I'd have to have a big bowl of Weeties before I'd get in a hot-air balloon myself - I'm a bit scared of heights. We work mainly with Go Wild Ballooning, but also with Global Ballooning.
Once a year during truffle season, I host a truffle-hunt, followed by a wine-tasting and truffle dégustation dinner. The growers I work with in the Yarra Valley import the inoculated trees from France, and it takes at least five years for them to start producing the Périgord black truffles. The trees like a lot of lime and a very specific climate. The hard work is in maintaining the soil. For the event, we take a group of guests to a truffière to hunt for truffles with the help of dogs. Dogs are excellent truffle hunters because they have such a keen sense of smell - in fact they can detect even unripe truffles. So it's up to the hunter to smell the soil for ripeness and to dig up the truffle. You don't want to disturb the soil prematurely, because it can kill the truffles. For last year's dégustation dinner, I used four kilograms of fresh black truffles, and guests who stayed with us at Chateau Yeringreceived a fresh truffle to shave over their breakfast in the morning. I'm passionate about truffles - the hunt is terrific fun. This year's event is on Saturday 13 July.
The annual Day on the Green at Rochford Wines is amazing and features top acts. The winery stages other shows throughout the year, too, and Paul Kelly, Neil Finn, Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen and Simply Red have all played there. The events usually finish with fireworks, which our guests can see from Chateau Yering.
Yarra Valley Regional Farmers' Market
This market, held on the third Sunday of each month at Yering Station vineyard, is no garage sale - it's all about the produce. Expect to see local berries, chestnuts, cheeses, olives, olive oils, and of course wines, all local. A lot of our guests who visit Chateau Yering for high tea on a Sunday afternoon have come from the farmers' market.
The chocolaterie in Yarra Glen is quite new, and it's popular with my staff. It's a bit like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory with its bright displays, wooden floors and panelling, and colourful boiled sweets. The chocolates are very nice, and the chocolaterie offers cooking classes for kids, too. At Chateau Yering we make all of our chocolates in-house, and we use a lot of couverture from Kennedy & Wilson, which has a retail outlet in Healesville.
My kids love Healesville Sanctuary. The setting is very natural, nothing like a zoo, and the animals are more free-roaming. You can see dingos, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and koalas as well as what my kids call "dangerous things". I often see eagles on the way to work, and ibises and other large birds, but the bird show at the sanctuary is an opportunity to see parrots and birds of prey close-up. It's a great place to take a picnic lunch and spend the day meandering around taking photos of the kids with the animals.