Long time readers may notice a subtle difference in the title of this article.
So often when eating out, the experience takes the form of a vanilla, almost inhuman transactional business interaction.
I need, I order, I consume, I pay, I leave.
Don’t get me wrong, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, because sometime all you want is a decent coffee to start the day, or a couple of containers of take away on the journey home from work. Yet within that short-lived transaction, that momentary intersection between your little bubble and that of the restaurateur, there is such potential for fulfilment, such an opportunity for mutual enrichment, that due to the perceived pressures of modern life and a certain comfort in maintaining the familiar, more often than not it’s left to wither and die…
My recent lunch at Frogmore Creek was a revelation. It was also an education, and it has opened my eyes to the phenomenal potential that restaurateurs offer not only to our taste buds, but also to our lives and the lives of those we touch.
At this point I would normally launch into a a blow by blow description of the various dishes that were consumed, gleefully gushing over the successes whilemaking the occasional cutting criticism, however in this instance I feel I need to take a different approach.
The clue is in the title. This wasn’t so much a meal that was consumed at Frogmore Creek, as it was an introduction to a family with whom we shared an experience. Yeah, yeah…whatever…It would be easy to roll the eyes and scoff at the apparent cliché, but it is the only metaphor that adequately describes not only the dining experience, but the environment, attitude and vision that the Frogmore team embody.
In hindsight, I should have picked up on it earlier in the meal…the warm and genuine greeting by the very dapper Clifford at front of house (note to self…must grow beard…), the deft approach taken by maitre d’ Stephen (part owner of the old Gondwana restaurant, for those that remember that fantastic Hobart establishment) and his freakish ability to anticipate our every need before we even realised we were in want, the passion and smiles exhibited by the wait staff, and the unique talent to understand where the personal boundaries had been drawn, and where they could be challenged in a spirit of camaraderie (no one loves the over-friendly checkout operator with a psychology degree right?).
It was only during the leisurely drive home up the valley, thankful belly nestled snugly against the steering wheel, that I experienced a moment realisation. It wasn’t just a meal, it was something more. But what exactly was it? I’ve had plenty of great meals before and never felt this way or asked these questions. In fact, the last time we dined at Frogmore twelve months ago it was one of the best meals I’ve ever consumed, yet at no point was I inspired to dig any deeper.
Something had changed, and for once in my blogging life I felt like a gauntlet had been thrown down at my feet.
Do I simply move on, as I have every other time? Intro, photo, entree, photo, main, photo, rinse, repeat…?
Or, and here is where it got a little scary, do I have the journalistic and personal courage to find out more?
Like a foodie with a lamb cutlet, it wouldn’t stop gnawing away…it was time to take my experience points and level up!
A couple of emails later and I had what I wanted (I think)…an interview with Frogmore’s new head chef Ruben Koopman!
In all my effusive praise and meandering accolades, I haven’t yet mentioned the man that made the most striking impact on me during our meal.
On noticing my obsession in documenting my meal through photography, the aforementioned Stephen, off his own bat mind you, had spoken with Ruben mid-meal and asked if he would have any objections to me taking some photos from inside the kitchen. Are you serious?!!
And so it was that I found myself at the back of the kitchen, wide-eyed and under clear instructions from Stephen (who, with good reason, had gone all hardcore on me after stepping through the doorway!) to keep my distance.
All I will say is that for the next few minutes, much to the detriment of my fellow diners who simply wanted to get started on their meals, the shutter didn’t stop!
I find it interesting that if he hadn’t given me a wave on my entrance to the kitchen, I would’ve found it difficult to pick the ‘head chef’ amongst the numerous staff members milling about in a state of controlled chaos.
Until this moment…
A face and a gaze that demands respect. If I had left the kitchen at that very moment, it would have been with the reinforced notions of strong-willed chefs, imposing their culinary vision with an iron fist. An image so common in the popular media that it has almost become an expectation.
Yet only seconds later, I watched a transformation take place. I don’t know the reason why, and it isn’t important, but as I was to discover in my interview with Ruben, it spoke volumes about the man and his approach to not just food, but the people with whom he works.
In the hour or so that I spent with Ruben, sitting at the rough hewn bar absorbing another glorious Tasmanian sunset over the vines, just like the Coal River itself our conversation slowly wound its way across a multitude of topics, some expected, and others a little less so.
It’s important to me to understand context. Whether it’s an engineering challenge, a strongly held opinion or an approach to life, without context you’re ignoring the foundations of belief. To walk, even for a fleeting moment, in someone else’s shoes is to empathise, and ultimately, to understand.
I won’t regale you with a recitation of Ruben’s experience, but suffice to say that considering the number of Michelin stars with which he has either directly or indirectly come into contact, he could start his own Hollywood Walk of Fame!
From the Netherlands of his childhood and formative years, to London where he had the ‘pleasure’ of working under luminaries such as Marco Pierre White (where the persistence of more than 70 letters, emails and faxes to the man himself resulted in success…if only to stop Ruben from clogging up Marco’s inbox!), brothers Albert and Michel Roux, and Raymond Blanc…all invaluable experience with modern day masters that clearly demonstrate his flexibility and commitment to his craft.
It would be easy to spend paragraphs on these experiences, but to me it’s actually what Ruben got up to outside the kitchen that is of greater interest, throwing a clearer light on his current aspirations for Frogmore Creek and the Tasmanian service industry.
In fact, one of the first comments I made on commencing our interview was that Ruben obviously had a passion for food. Mandatory for a Head Chef right?
I could see his reluctance to correct what was a fairly innocuous statement, but over the course of the interview it became very clear that Ruben is not an egotistical Gordon Ramsay, nor a flamboyant Adriano Zumbo, nor a militant Marco Pierre White…
Ruben Koopman is his own man, and his passion is people.
Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the establishment of his own consultancy firm in the late 2000s. With their first child on the way, it was a time of consolidation for Ruben and a re-evaluation of priorities. When an opportunity arose to provide advice to a good friend regarding his ailing business venture in the hospitality industry, Ruben stepped up and within the space of two weeks had turned the business into a going success. At this point Ruben was very quick to point out that it wasn’t his skills as a chef that made the difference, it was his ability to work with people, to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and to motivate that were the key ingredients in this new recipe!
In no time at all the consultancy grew to not only providing advice to the service industry, but to the broader corporate community. Whether it’s a kitchen, an office or a director’s boardroom, people are people, and it’s only through a strong team that lasting success can be achieved.
With these principles in mind, Ruben’s arrival at Frogmore Creek is a master stroke by winery General Manager, James Skabo. There are big plans on the horizon for Frogmore Creek, and it’s going to take a personal commitment from each and every team member if it’s to be a success, in what is still a relatively fickle market within the Tasmanian business landscape.
Frogmore’s vision starts at a very basic level. In Koopman’s own words, they don’t want to simply sell food, they want to, “…share an experience and change expectations.”
Notice the word ‘share’ in there? This isn’t a one-way relationship they are striving to build.
With renovations planned for later in the year to modify the size and layout of the existing building, Frogmore will no longer be confined to being a high-end restaurant, instead broadening their appeal to a much wider cross-section of the community.
Living only 5 minutes up the road, I’m extremely excited by the plans for Frogmore Creek! I can easily see myself stopping by on the way home from work on a Friday evening, pulling up a stool at the new food and wine bar and selecting a couple of small dishes from the new menu. Sashimi, mussels, charcuterie selection, oysters, cheese…?? Sound tempting? And it’s not just about the food and wine either, with the new wine bar linking with the gorgeous lawns at the front of the winery, providing an outlet for kids to run amok and enjoy themselves while mum and dad chill out, glass in hand and olive in mouth.
The restaurant doesn’t go unscathed either. It’s a concept I’ve been hoping to see implemented in Hobart for many years now, and finally it’s about to happen. Not only will you be able to order from a typical a la carte menu (with a focus on keeping prices down to only $19-25, depending on the ingredients in the dish you choose), but you will also have the option to participate in a degustation like no other currently provided in Tasmania (to my knowledge anyway!).
You tell the chef what ingredients you prefer not to eat, and leave the rest up to Ruben. Three, four or five course options, its up to you. And to top it all off they are going to implement one of the simplest, yet clever ideas I’ve come across in a long while. Instead of matching your food with standard glasses of wine, they will offer a half-glass option, giving you the opportunity to try a greater range of wines, while still allowing you to drive home at the end of the evening without endangering yourself, the public, or the hordes of innocent wallabies that graze the verge of Richmond Road!
The Frogmore vision is ambitious, and Ruben acknowledges that change, particularly personal change, doesn’t happen overnight. With the departure of ex-head chef Wayne Smith (who I note is currently working with the delightful Coal Valley Vineyard on a Bastille Day event) there was potential for turmoil and a loss of traction, however by all accounts, and as evidenced by the food on display, the transformation is well on track. In my brief time in the kitchen the team spirit was obvious. Clear expectations, defined roles, a genuine commitment to the customer experience. In my best engineering approach I tried to explain it as a ‘well oiled machine’ to Ruben, yet he saw it, and quite rightly so, as more of a dance.
Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to witness one of Ruben’s moments of inspiration, whereby he exclaims to all and sundry a new idea or concept for exploration at a later date…apparently kitchen staff now carry notebooks in which to capture these pearls of wisdom! While it may sound a little odd, it’s clear evidence of Ruben’s desire to foster and encourage creativity within the kitchen.
It would be easy to label the new menu (commencing this Thursday, 5 June) as ‘Ruben’s’ menu, yet Ruben went to great length to explain that it isn’t about him. While he has strong opinions regarding the types of dishes that Frogmore will be presenting in the future, the process by which the dish is refined, ingredients selected and technique applied is significantly influenced by the entire kitchen team. In fact, it isn’t uncommon at the conclusion of service for Ruben and the team to set themselves up in a back room (the ‘Frogmore Lab’ I believe?!) and simply lose themselves in the exploration of new ideas. It’s almost enough to convince me to discard my high-vis and don the whites!!
As the interview gradually came to a close, and after I had the privilege of trying an experimental amuse-bouche that has found its way on to the new menu (think pulled pork lollipop, salmon crackling and a wasabi and goats cheese savoury macaron!!), I asked Ruben if he could describe to me as succinctly as possible, the vision that he has for Frogmore Creek. Without any hesitation he said,
“It’s all about the Frogmore Family. Creating a great atmosphere where young people can work and learn and feel that they are part of a family. It’s about making the guest feel like they’re also part of the team, taking them by surprise and showing that food can be fun.”
Well said, and I wish them every success!
For Part 2 of this review (ie. the food!!), click here.