A Moonah is a native coastal tea tree that grows along dunes and grasslands. It’s also the name of Tobin Kent’s 12-seat restaurant found at the Minya Vineyard & Winery in the wetlands of Connewarre in Geelong, Victoria. When Kent made the move from chef to business owner, he was adamant his restaurant would let the produce speak for itself. Moonah would never be fussy or put-up dishes too perfect to eat. Instead, each plate would connect the diner to the ingredient, most likely grown in Kent’s own backyard.
The chef has worked in the kitchens of Attica and Brae (as well as a seaside stint at a restaurant in Apollo Bay), and has culminated his experiences which have become the lifeforce of Moonah – a hidden gem found down a long dirt road.
Kent speaks to Hospitality about sustaining the restaurant with fruit and veg grown on his own land, why 12 was the magic number of seats and how the kitchen will never do anything other than let the produce speak for itself.
Tobin Kent started taking cooking seriously at the age of 18 – it also marked the time he decided to give gardening a go. Tomatoes were planted in a one-metre-square garden bed, which led to experiments with growing methods and inevitably cooking techniques. The chef completed his apprenticeship in Geelong, going on to stage at Nahm in Bangkok, Attica in Melbourne and the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, which turned into a more permanent position as a commis chef.
He was offered a role at Dan Hunter’s then soon-to-launch restaurant Brae, where Kent spent two years before he moved on to Gladioli and later La Bimba in Apollo Bay. It was here at the casual eatery where the pieces fell into place. “I came to an understanding about what kind of restaurant I wanted to open – it had to be creative and contemporary,” says the chef. “I started looking for venues and came across Minya Winery, which had the perfect rustic farmhouse.”
The location went hand in hand with Kent’s vision for Moonah. “I had been sourcing lots of second-hand furniture, antiques and vintage pieces to showcase the rural heritage of the area and it reflected our theme.” Moonah would take over what was once a cellar door and events space, which overlooked a billabong surrounded by its namesake trees. “When you arrive at Minya, there is a long road and there’s no traffic or houses – it’s really tranquil and peaceful.”
Some of Australia’s most iconic and successful restaurants are in rural areas, but Kent didn’t want Moonah to be like any other high-end fine diner off the beaten track. The restaurant has taken a more challenging path, but it’s one that’s undisputedly more rewarding. While 12 seats is small, it’s a number of necessity. “My first idea was to have a 16-seat restaurant because I understood the difficulty of getting staff to work with us, especially in rural areas,” says Kent.
“A restaurant can’t reach its potential without staff, but if you only have 12 seats, a handful of staff are more than enough to get you through. We also wanted to take the time to meet and interact with customers because it’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of fine dining. We would be too busy if we had more guests and wouldn’t be able to offer that experience.”
The number is also closely tied to a non-negotiable for Kent: sustaining the restaurant with its own produce. 95 per cent of Moonah’s fresh fruit and vegetables are grown across 1.5 acres on Kent’s property which he lives on with his partner. “I didn’t want to compromise on that,” he says. “I didn’t want to start purchasing things from the market because it would drop the quality of our offering straight away. We grow everything ourselves because the quality of the food you can create all comes down to the produce. As a gardener, I can see the way we grow things gives us much higher-quality produce than what you can buy at the market, so all our fruit and vegetables come from our farm, our friend’s farms or the wild – there’s a lot of foraging involved.”
It’s a model exemplified by Brae, which served as a pivotal experience for Kent during his time at the fine diner. “I worked with Dan Hunter for eight years and there is a lot of integrity in his kitchen,” he says. “Being able to understand the quality of a product – you don’t see that heightened level in other kitchens. Even simply cooking a spear of asparagus … the result is completely different to anywhere else. It was a big eye-opener for me applying that [approach] to every element in the kitchen and doing things the hard way. Working in the garden also made me realise it was the way I wanted to work as well.”
The chef has spent the past 12 years trialling different gardening approaches and researching alternate philosophies before settling on natural and dryland farming practices, which are applied across a berry garden, fruit orchard and vegetable patch. While it’s perhaps not the most efficient approach in terms of time and labour, Kent is sticking to his guns. “I have finally stumbled upon a philosophy I’m happy with; I am the kind of person who doesn’t really follow what others are doing,” he says.
“I want to go in another direction and do something different. Other growers rely on volume, which is related for income, but we aren’t looking for that – we want high-quality produce that goes directly on the plate and is served to the customers.”
A week at Moonah begins on Thursday with a day of prep; a must for the model to gel. You see, Moonah is open for lunch and dinner service Friday to Sunday, with staff working four days a week. “It provides lifestyle balance, and I can get onto the farm and spend time doing things there,” says Kent. “Our staff really enjoy having three days off and are happy to do longer days to have more time off.”
The set menu is also a central cog in the Moonah wheel, with the team able to prepare each and every dish for the week’s six services without any waste. “We know exactly how much each guest is spending on food, therefore we can budget and control costs,” says Kent.”
So, what can one expect from a Moonah menu? There will always be eight courses served over three hours, and plenty of attention paid to vegetables as well as proteins sourced from small-scale producers. “Basically, the dishes are dictated by what we grow as well as the meat and seafood we source,” says Kent.
“We are going down this rustic fine dining path where we want the food to look good, but it has to be delicious and not over the top. We step back and let the ingredients speak for themselves and we use things that might not be trendy or popular. We are focused on using wild, sustainable seafood and under-utilised products from fishermen such as blue-throated wrasse, which isn’t that common.” The fish has been recently served with young garlic and a sauce made with crayfish and citrus.
Treating ingredients with respect is a must, especially for those grown with the utmost care and consideration. Preserving the natural flavours of produce is also integral, which is where technique and experience comes into play. Kent has developed a method of cooking that’s essentially a combination of steaming, sautéing and blanching – but there’s no water involved. “If you blanch asparagus and then put it in an ice bath, the flavour and nutrients is sucked out into the water,” says the chef.
“The flavour profile changes. But sweating a vegetable in a saucepan with high sides over a heat means you are essentially blanching it in its own liquid. A bit of steam is trapped in the pan and there’s no water added, so the flavour isn’t diluted in any way. When you taste the vegetable, the integrity remains.”
A vegetarian course using pumpkin seeds is another example of Moonah’s minimal-waste approach. “It has been really popular, and customers enjoy it as much as any other dish on the menu, which is really satisfying for me,” says Kent. Pumpkin seeds are dried and fermented before they are made into a crumble and teamed with seasonal vegetables and goat’s cheese. “It depends on what is in its prime on the day, but we have been using baby radishes, asparagus and a lot of herbs. We top it with a dressing made from reduced whey from the cheesemaker, which is a byproduct.”
When you are both the producer and the chef, obstacles are bound to arise. But they often present an opportunity for teams to innovate and think quick. “In regional areas, you have access to what’s around you, which can be limited,” says Kent. “But if you’re limited, you have to be more creative, and it pushes you.”
The chef references a duck course on one of Moonah’s early menus that yielded a positive outcome with a long-lasting impact. “I had used all the vegetables from the farm on other dishes, so I went outside to the wetlands and started foraging coastal succulents and used them as the side for the main,” he says. “It was received really well, and the dish stayed the same for the next six months.”
Wine is naturally a big part of the dining experience, and Kent selects each drop served at the restaurant as well as curating the wine pairing. Moonah’s cellar is decked out with wines from Australian makers, with many bottles made in line with minimal-intervention practices. “We have quite a few natural wines and we look for people who share similar philosophies to us,” says Kent.
While it’s far from basic, the chef says Moonah’s food is purposefully pared back to ensure a harmonious dining experience. “The food is simple in some ways because the main intention is for it to go with drinks,” he says. “If you have a dish that’s overcomplicated with wine, it’s almost too much and you can’t focus on the detail.”
Moonah has been open for just over two years now, and the 12-seater has largely flown under the radar since its launch. The restaurant is unassuming in many ways – there are no menus published on its website or pages of lengthy accounts about the dining experience to trawl through. And that’s a good thing.
“We don’t want too much hype or attention – we want people to come in and be pleasantly surprised,” says Kent. “We are doing things differently and in the way we believe is right. In doing so, you aren’t recognised as quickly, but we are on our own path.”
Each of the 12 customers who attend lunch or dinner at Moonah play a pivotal role when it comes to the viability of the restaurant, which is quietly getting on with doing things in its own time. “People feel connected when they come here,” says Kent. “It’s tranquil and peaceful, and that’s a great thing for a diner.”