Coming Full Circle: An Interview with TarraWarra Head Chef Mark Ebbels

The travel quote ‘home is where the heart is’ rings no truer than for Melbourne Michelin star chef Mark Ebbels. A native of Melbourne’s outer eastern region, Mark has travelled the globe to hone his skills and articulate his talents as a chef. Mark completed his training and started his career in Melbourne’s Yarra Valley wine region, as Chef de partie (station chef) at Balgownie Estate, before flying out to London to work in Heston Blumenthal’s experimental kitchen for The Fat Duck as an experimental kitchen chef over two years. Mark then inched back home, as Chef de cuisine (Executive Chef) for Bacchanalia on elite HongKong Street in Singapore (known for its fine dining and exclusive bars), before returning to the Yarra Valley.  From establishing his own gourmet pop-up vegan dining experience The Circle Dining, Mark is now settled permanently as Head Chef at the luxurious winery TarraWarra Estate.

A plant-based diet is has been at the centre of his experimental craft in recent years, yet it’s those early childhood years of home in Melbourne’s outer east that sparked his earliest food memories. “Lots and lots of carrots!” Mark quips. “I grew up on a carrot farm in Toolangi. However, the first real dish I remember is my mum’s bean and ham soup with apple pancakes. That is a dish from Heppenheim in Germany where her family is from. Having those apple pancakes with a main dish was a real treat. I also used to eat broccoli from the freezer when I was around four years old, much to the shock of my parents and brother.” Cooking was at the heart of Mark’s home, and his earliest culinary influences were family members before starting his career behind the stoves. “I always enjoyed cooking with my mum and grandmothers, and I enjoyed home economics during high school. So, I got a job as a kitchen hand to see what it was like to do it for a living. I really liked the excitement of service and the fast-paced kitchen environment.”

It’s been in recent years that Mark shifted his diet to plant-based, yet his career did reveal some barriers. “I’ve been plant-based for about three years, inspired by friends and all the information out there. I couldn’t really consider myself vegan, though, because of what I was tasting every day at work. In a restaurant, the chef needs to taste everything to ensure it is up to standard, including meat, cheese and dairy.”

“There wasn’t much of a professional exposure to a vegan lifestyle whilst I was in England or Singapore. Although, coincidentally, one of my first projects in the Fat Duck experimental kitchen was a vegan beetroot risotto that I made over and over again for months, with slight changes every time. That repetition was part of life working in the lab.”

The Circle Dining was fulfilling a need for those diners who wanted to experience an exclusive, gourmet vegan dining experience over multiple courses. Exquisite entrée, main and dessert courses made from seasonal and local ingredients using methods such fermentation and dehydration, all matched with good wine and beverages, delivered Mark’s inspiring dining experience on an intimate scale. “There wasn’t a set method; most of the time a dish would start with an ingredient that is in season and good quality. However, sometimes it could start with a specific technique I’m interested in that is new to me that I want to play with.”

Restaurants in the Yarra Valley – The Herd in Healesville and TarraWarra Estate in Yarra Glen – hosted his high-end pop-up events. Beforehand, Mark worked at TarraWarra Estate casually and established good relationships there before the position of Head Chef later opened up. TarraWarra Estate has proven to be the perfect playing ground for Mark’s creations, and vegan food is coming of age thanks to his culinary skills. Mark even has a rolling quarter-acre kitchen garden from which her can pick optimal ingredients and pique his creative juices. “We have meat dishes on the menu at the moment; all the components for those dishes are vegan aside from the meat. So no eggs, dairy, gelatine, etc on anything. It was quite easy to introduce as we have a very open-minded and diverse customer base. All the plant-based dishes have been received overwhelmingly well. It’s very confidence inspiring.” Mark is also witnessing TarraWarra’s customer base expand to include more vegans and those with other dietary needs. “We have quite a few vegans, and also quite a lot of other dietary requirements. We are able to cater to them quite well so the word has spread a bit.”

Generally, diners seem to expect a higher level of quality, which could be attributed to T.V cooking shows and the media’s interest in food. “[The media is] a reflection of what is popular in the industry, so that influence rests with the restaurants and how well they put forward what they believe in. That disconnect closes when the diner can have an understanding of the food they are eating. Where is it from? What has been applied to it? Is it in season? With that information, people can relate to the food more. The quality of the ingredients and the season dictate what goes on the menu.

“If it is delicious people will eat and enjoy it, whether it is a plant or not. So, cooking delicious meals with plants is a way to change hearts and minds. It feels as though in five to ten years, many more restaurants will have embraced plants and be showcasing them on their menus. The amount and quality of vegan dining options is growing really rapidly as people begin to see the possibilities involved from both a personal and business point of view.”

Mark is keeping very busy with his posting at TarraWarra Estate, and it’s an exciting time for the venue in creating its own specially curated appearances around Melbourne’s prominent food events, not to mention new dishes and an invitation for collaborations. “The next [one] coming up is a demonstration at the Melbourne Truffle Festival, and a vegan mushroom terrine. Events upon request are always possible. We’re excited about doing more chef collaborations out here in the Yarra Valley.”

You can experience the vegan versions of dishes on offer at TarraWarra Estate in Melbourne’s Yarra Valley wine region. The current menu can be viewed here and other dietary requirements can be catered for upon request prior to booking.

TarraWarra Estate, 311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, Yarra Glen Victoria 3775 Australia. Phone: +61 3 5957 3510

Reservations can be made online or by phone. The restaurant is open Tuesday to Sunday 12 noon to 5.00pm (lunch from 12 noon to 3.00pm)

TarraWarra Estate will also feature at the Melbourne Truffle Festival on June 22.

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