Dave Verheul, head chef, Embla

I think Australia has an incredible and incredibly diverse dining scene and there are restaurants here that would and will hold their own with the big guns in the years to come ...

There is a certain joy seeing something you’ve worked long and hard on earning praise. Any musician, artist or writer lives for that feeling – and the same goes for chefs! For any kitchen maestro, the feeling that comes with crafting a delectable dish is indescribable, so imagine that sensation extrapolated a thousandfold when it’s an entire restaurant that is earning acclaim. Dave Verheul’s Embla is a recent success story on the Australian dining scene – having already racked up numerous accolades since opening to the public in 2015. Pairing wine with dishes cooked almost exclusively in a wood oven and grill, Embla has wasted no time setting itself as a must-try eatery. Dave will be in town at the end of the month to cook up a storm alongside chef Ben Williamson for Good Food Month’s Hat Swap! In a feast for the senses, this collaborative dinner will include five shared courses with matched wines and will be hosted at Gerard’s Bistro across two sittings on Thursday July 27. Before Dave hops into the kitchen, we asked him a few questions about his journey to date and what it’s like to see his hard work recognised on a national level.

Let’s start at the beginning – where did your love for food stem from?
To be honest I’m not really sure. I grew up in the deep south of New Zealand and there really wasn’t a diverse food culture there back then, I didn’t even eat pasta until my early teens. I do remember raiding my next door neighbours blackcurrant bushes as a kid and making a rough ‘jam’ which may start to explain my sweet tooth.

What can you remember about stepping into a professional kitchen for the first time?
I remember being totally drawn to the energy, teamwork and camaraderie of the kitchen. I was lucky with my first boss as she took me under her wing and took it upon herself to make sure I went to the right school/city to learn, even to the extent that she enrolled me.

You honed your craft working in Michelin-starred restaurants in London! What was your most memorable experience of working in one of the food capitols of the world?
I think that people look overseas to these other cities and put them on a pedestal a little too much. Yes, there are some incredible restaurants and food cities around the world but I’m not sure people look towards our cities enough. I think Australia has an incredible and incredibly diverse dining scene and there are restaurants here that would and will hold their own with the big guns in the years to come!

Embla has already earned numerous accolades and was even ranked eighth in the 2017 Australia’s Top Restaurants list. What does it mean for you to see something you’ve built from the ground up earn such acclaim?
There are definitely proud dad moments and it is great for all of our staff that work so hard, but at the end of the day they only really mean anything if you care about that kind of stuff. I’d much rather have my restaurants full of happy diners having a good time than any award any day. 

The world of fine dining moves incredibly quickly – what’s your approach to ensuring your restaurant is enticing and engaging to diners?
Well I’m not sure we’re close to being fine dining here at Embla. We really try to put forward an experience that is highly professional but presented in a casual, fun and engaging way.

Where do you draw inspiration for your dishes?
A lot of the time it comes directly from our suppliers, we try to work directly with people who are growing, raising or making the produce. Other times it comes from the people or equipment we work with, we’re super lucky to almost solely use a wood oven at Embla, it’s an amazing way to cook and almost everything that goes through it comes out delicious, or burnt.

We are excited to hear that you are teaming up with Gerard’s Bistro head chef Ben Williamson for a collaboration dinner during Good Food Month. What can diners expect from the evening?
It’s going to be a great night! I’m super excited to cook alongside Ben and the team at Gerard’s. We’ve quite a few dishes planned, so definitely come hungry!

What’s your go-to dish for impressing dinner party guests?
I think the fact that I’m cooking at all will be the impressive part!

And then on the flip-side, what’s your favourite meal to cook when you are home alone?
My go to dish at home would have to be a roast chicken and rice soup. Slightly overcooked rice, loads of green vegetables, olive oil, lemon zest and a chicken broth base – it fixes everything!

To see Dave Verheul at work, grab a spot at one of the sittings at Gerard’s Bistro for Hat Swap! this Good Food Month on Thursday July 27. There are two sittings – one at 5:30 pm and another at 8:00 pm. Purchase your tickets here.

Image: Gareth Sobey Photography

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