31 October 2023

Hats off to South Coast winners in prestigious NSW Good Food Guide awards

| Lucy Ridge
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A group photo of restaurant staff

Valentina chef and co-owner Ashleigh Cotter says having the right team is key to success in the hospitality industry. Photo: Valentina.

Several South Coast restaurants have been recognised in the NSW Good Food Guide, with hats awarded to The Milton Hotel, Queen Chow in Narooma and Merimbula’s Valentina.

Ashleigh Cotter is a co-owner and the head chef at Mediterranean-inspired Valentina, and no stranger to winning awards, having previously worked at much-lauded Bray in regional Victoria.

He’s also no stranger to the challenges of attracting high-quality staff to leave the big smoke, but he’s managed to do it in Merimbula.

“We’ve retained our hat from last year, which is huge, and it just goes to show that getting the right team really makes a difference,” he told Region.

“Building an awesome team in a regional spot can be tricky because often people want to get that experience in the city. But I think post-COVID, you saw lots of chefs leaving the city and saying, ‘We can do this here’.”

A beautiful white and beige dining room in a restaurant

The judges were impressed with Valentina’s Mediterranean-inspired menu. Photo: Valentina.

Ashleigh says he loves using the abundance of readily available local produce at his fingertips in Merimbula, from fresh oysters, seafood and meat to fruit and vegetables, grown just down the road. He sums up his cooking ethos like this: “The better the produce, the less you have to do with it.”

Four men in aprons stand by a restaurant bench

Chef and co-owner Damien Martin is hoping more restaurants will join the South Coast hospitality scene. Photo: The Milton Hotel.

The Milton Hotel has also retained its hat for the second year running. It’s home to a restaurant and brewery, Dangerous Ales, but it serves up something more interesting than your classic ”parmy and chips” pub fare.

Co-owner and head chef Damien Martin says awards can be a double-edged sword.

“It gives us a bit of reassurance knowing that other people ‘in the know’ like what we do and think we’re doing a good job,” he told Region.

“But things like this do come with some added expectations, so we just have to make sure we’re always on point. It does add a bit of pressure.”

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But Damen says they’re planning to stick to their guns and just keep doing what they do best.

He’s keen to see more restaurants, bars and cafes open up on the coast, and hopes that people will recognise the opportunities available here.

“I think we need a bit of a shake-up,” he said. ”We need more small, trendy places on the coast. There’s a lot of chefs who grew up down here who have worked in cities around the world who need to come home.”

Three plates of restaurant meals

The Milton Hotel has retained its hat for the second year running. Photo: The Milton Hotel.

Queen Chow is part of the Merivale hospitality group and serves up classic Cantonese dishes. Thirteen of the Merivale group’s venues were awarded hats, including Queen Chow Narooma, sister restaurant Queen Chow Enmore, and Mr Wong’s in Sydney, which took home two hats for the 11th year straight.

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Other regional restaurants awarded hats include Bangalay Dining in Shoalhaven Heads, South on Albany in Berry, and Wollongong’s Babyface Kitchen and Restaurant Santino.

Several Canberra restaurants also received hats, including Such and Such, which won Best New Restaurant 2023 (beating out several Sydney eateries), and Pilot, which remains the only two-hatted restaurant south of Sydney in the NSW awards.

See the full list of hats at the Good Food Guide website.

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