Michael Ryan is one of regional Victoria’s most respected chefs. With partner Jeanette Henderson, he is the owner of Provenance Restaurant in Beechworth, north-east Victoria (Australia).
Ryan initially studied Science at Adelaide University and after several years working in the field of chemistry, Ryan was drawn to cooking and after a six-month break in Japan, commenced work at Mona Lisa’s restaurant in his hometown of Adelaide. Here, under the tutelage of chef and food educator Brigita Turniski, he gained knowledge of Middle and Eastern European cuisine, while learning the fundamentals of running a kitchen. In need of a change, he then worked on the ski fields of north-east Victoria. Eventually moving to Melbourne, Ryan became head chef at the Greville Bar, Prahran, in 1996, producing a tapas-styled menu of wide-ranging influences.
Returning to north-east Victoria, Ryan then joined the team at the King River Cafe, run by well-known brothers Will and Steve Flamsteed. Here the focus was on Mediterranean food with a strong French influence, utilising the best regional produce to emphasise seasonality. When the King River Cafe changed hands in 1998, he undertook a stint in Harare, Zimbabwe — an eye-opening experience, despite having to style the menu around limited ingredients. After a year, he returned to Australia to work at The Star of Greece — a restaurant perched on the edge of a cliff at Port Willunga (South Australia), where the menus were based around the freshest local seafood available, combined with simple Mediterranean flavours.
Invited to become head chef at the Milawa Cheese Factory in 2001, Ryan was welcomed back to north-east Victoria with open arms — the region in which he has since remained. At ‘The Factory’, he built a reputation for innovative handling of the region’s produce, with menus incorporating the Milawa Cheese Company’s artisan farmhouse cheeses matched with French, Italian, Spanish and Middle Eastern influences. In 2005 The Age Good Food Guide awarded the restaurant a chef’s hat. The following year, he shifted to Warden’s Food and Wine in Beechworth, laying the foundations for that restaurant’s award-winning Italian food.
With a growing following of diners keenly interested in his increasingly refined style that demonstrated the breath of his experience, in 2006 Ryan opened his first restaurant with partner Jeanette Henderson, Range. At Range, Henderson was finally able to support his cuisine with an intelligent and creative wine list. Though located in the small town of Myrtleford, Range won a succession of Age Good Food Guide Hats, as well as Country Restaurant of the Year in 2008.
Ryan and Henderson’s newest venture, which opened in early 2009, is Provenance Restaurant and Luxury Suites — its name acknowledging that every ingredient and flavour he uses has an identifiable place of origin, and so brings its own history to the table. Located in a nineteenth century bank building in the historic town of Beechworth, Provenance, in its first year of operation, picked up a chef’s hat in the Age Good Food Guide and was awarded Best New Country Restaurant in the same publication. In the next two years the restaurant has received two hats each year from the Age Good Food Guide and was awarded Best Country Wine List in 2011.
In 2012, Provenance was awarded Best Regional Restaurant in the Age Good Food Guide and Michael himself was awarded the coveted Chef of the Year.
Provenance has also been listed in the Gourmet Traveller Top 100 Restaurants for the past four years.
At Provenance, Ryan had expanded his culinary style by exploring textures and investigating different techniques of food preparation. Another hallmark of his menus is their elevation of vegetables beyond the level of garnish. While continuing to balance the aspects of the culinary traditions in which he has worked, Ryan has also proceeded to incorporate more Asian influences in his food — always remaining respectful of the cuisines from which they are drawn. In particular, recent trips to Japan have proved a source of new inspiration. Aside from maintaining the integrity of his food, Ryan states that his aim is to avoid stagnation, and to keep moving forward through experimentation.
INTERVIEW MICHAEL RYAN
Michael Ryan has become a familiar face in the northeast parts of Victoria. Originally from Adelaide, Michael has built a reputation on his sensitivity for the regional and the seasonal produce from working in the area over the past fifteen years.
Michael’s citations amongst the countries top food critics are impressive to say the least and his awards speak for themselves. Given that the gongs are for non-city restaurants – it’s even more amazing.
A run down of awards is certainly in order: 2 chef’s hats, Age Good Food Guide, 2012, 2013
Best Country Wine List, Age Good Food Guide, 2012
No 28 in the Gourmet Traveller Top 100 Restaurants of Australia, 2012
The Age Good Food Guide Chef of the Year 2013
The Age Good Food Guide Regional Restaurant of the Year, 2013
After two years as chef/owner of Range Restaurant in Myrtelford Michael moved with partner Jeanette Henderson to Beechworth to open Provenance Restaurant in 2008
BISTRO sits down with Michael Ryan to find out more.
BISTRO: Is there any particular strategic reason why your restaurants have been in the Victorian countryside?
Michael Ryan: Chance and circumstance. Met my wife, Jeanette in Falls Creek (both working there) and moved to Melbourne. She was originally from the Kiewa Valley and was studying wine making and wanted to move back to the area to make wine. Have been here ever since.
B: You have a BSc in Organic Chemistry. How has this played a part in your love of cooking?
MR: The Degree hasn’t played a role directly, but the scientific practice learned in University has moulded my approach to how I cook and my interest in how and why things work.
B: You are well known for your use of the Region’s produce. What is the stand out food items from the Region?
MR: Fruit is fabulous – berries, cherries, apples, stone fruit. Meats are very good, particularly beef and lamb.
Vegetables are increasing all the time. We have just started using an organic vegetable grower from Stanley who is doing great stuff.
B: How has this produce affected your menu?
MR: It is what drives my menu. Sometimes when creating new dishes or menus the creative drive can be difficult. When this happens, I always go back to the produce of the area and the season.
B: What effect did the droughts have on local producers? How did it affect your menu?
MR: The droughts were a tough time for our local producers. The area lost a few producers, most notably a very good venison farmer.
B: Japanese and Spanish play a strong influence in your dishes. Why?
MR: I’m not so sure about the Spanish. It not a main feature of my menu, however the Japanese influence comes from my years spent in Japan and my study of the language at University.
B: Do you look to any particular chefs for inspiration?
MR: I just spent three days with Ben Shewry of Attica, culminating in a collaborative dinner at the restaurant with seven other chefs. Creative, driven and inspiring chefs.
Andrew McConnell showed how to expand a restaurant group, but still keep standards at such a high level.
Zaiyu Hasegawa, of Den in Jimbocho, Tokyo is a wonderfully creative chef.
B: Can you tell us a bit about your clientele?
MR: Beechworth in general has an older clientele, but in the 5 years we have been operating, we have noticed a lot younger Melbourne clientele, particularly from a hospitality background.
B: Is sourcing produce locally easier or more difficult than say sourcing produce from the city.
MR: Sometimes easier, sometimes harder and it is often more expensive getting a delivery form 10km away than it is getting a delivery from Melbourne.
B: You are a big fan of social media. How does it help your business?
MR: On a personal level, it keeps me connected to other chefs and hospitality people, which living in a regional area you often miss out on. It also gives some customers a direct link to the restaurant, which they appreciate.
B: Any plans for a restaurant in the city.
MR: Always an option and would be a nice twist on restaurants in one city opening in another
B: What are your favourite restaurants in Melbourne?
MR: Attica, Cutler and Co, Dainty Sichuan and Huxtable.