In May 2018 it’s coming up for 12 months since chef Asher Blackford took the lead in the kitchen at Southern Ocean Lodge. With a history of running and owning his own restaurants in Brisbane and Melbourne, the move to take up the role as Head Chef of one of Australia’s best known luxury lodges presented a whole new challenge.
Over the 12 months, Asher has reconstructed his team which now includes many of the trusted team members he has worked with over the past decade or so. Given the long hours in the kitchen Asher is very committed to fostering an ambience based on mutual respect, creating a team of people who want to be on the job.
One of the key differences Asher identifies between managing a luxury lodge kitchen and one’s own restaurant is derived from the all-inclusive nature of a lodge experience. Diners at a restaurant are coming to a venue for a dedicated dining experience. The meal is the star and focus. At a lodge, the dining experience is vitally important but it also comes as part of an overall package, so it is interdependent on the lodge surrounds, the destination, service and experiences. Designing a daily-changing menu that is both locally- and seasonally-focused is a positive challenge that ensures the team is dynamic and thinking outside the square.
For Asher, it’s vital to get the guest’s first meal at Southern Ocean Lodge just right. It’s that moment of anticipation where the guest is reassured that the dining is going to be great over the duration of their stay. So it’s at that first moment that Asher and his team build trust with the guest. It’s also important to note that whilst guests at a restaurant might choose a three course meal as a once-a-week or special affair, at Southern Ocean Lodge each meal can be a multi-course event. So with that in mind it’s important to offer some more simple food combinations over the course of a guest’s stay.
Seafood on Kangaroo Island is the biggest food joy for Asher. It’s fresh, fabulous and available in abundance, with King George Whiting, beach-caught salmon and oysters as highlights. Guests are surrounded by the Southern Ocean and the views from the restaurant and the suites look to the sea, so naturally guests are keen to order it from the menu. The visual and taste aesthetics of each dish tend to be organic and very much refer to Kangaroo Island’s wildly beautiful landscape.
Working with small-scale local producers on the island and in broader South Australia is another high point. New and existing producers are often in touch with their latest crops – for example Scott Wilson who supplies the lodge with fresh marron recently called Asher to let him know he had a harvest of incredible apples to bring over – and the menu really pivots and takes shape from there.
Special dietary requirements are a bigger consideration now than they were perhaps ten years ago, and are more evident in an all-inclusive lodge experience as guests need to ensure they will be comfortable over several days. Asher sees it also as being a function of a better understanding of diet and its impact on overall health. Guests are generally more food-aware now and are often good cooks themselves. For many, food tourism is a key driver in their decision to travel or stay at a particular lodge, hence expectations are high.
If he had to choose a signature dish it would be the live marron, farmed nearby. The barramundi and herbs supplied by the local Parndana School’s hydroponics project is another source of joy for him and embodies everything he loves about food: sustainability, community, staying fresh and local and using the entire product with nothing wasted. Essentially Asher’s cooking is an emotional response to his surrounds and to the best ingredients available at a given point in time.
In his spare time, Asher loves to go fishing and spends time exploring the hidden coves around Hanson Bay and on the island’s north coast where the King George Whiting, salmon and flathead like to run. He also forages for edible coastal flora including samphire, ice plant and succulents which appear on the plate at Southern Ocean Lodge and reflect the lodge’s remote and beautiful seaside location.