Interview: Lochiel House – under new management

Lochiel House, a much-loved and respected restaurant in regional NSW, changed hands in December 2020, with the passionate and talented duo of Graham and Gina Neilson taking up the helm. Our first look at the restaurant refreshingly confirmed it had fallen into the right hands, and we talk to the new custodians of this charming historic restaurant in Kurrajong.

Firstly, a very warm welcome to you both. Can you tell us about your background in South African hospitality, and how you found your way to taking over the helm at this charming regional restaurant in Kurrajong, NSW?

Thank you, we are very grateful to be here. We moved to Australia in October 2020 and officially took over Lochiel House restaurant and guest cottage mid-December after some much-needed upgrades to the kitchen, with our business partner, Charlene Pretorius.

We have been working in the industry for the last 20 years. In our 20’s we worked and travelled through the UK, the States, Bermuda and South America. Travelling and working in different kitchens really influenced Graham. His food is a unique combination of those experiences.

In 2010 we ended up buying the bistro we met at, when the previous owner moved to Perth. A few years ago, we visited Graham’s sister & family in Sydney and fell in love with Australia and decided to apply for a PR visa. We waited for the right opportunity to move and when Charlene found the restaurant for sale and asked if we would like to partner with her, we jumped at the chance. The restaurant is very special, the Hawkesbury is really picturesque, everything about the move just felt right.

You have expressed a commitment to supporting and showcasing local seasonal produce, and wines from within NSW. Can you expand further on the importance of that philosophy?

There are so many good reasons to support local, seasonal produce. Firstly, there is some amazing produce right on our doorstep, it would make no sense not to use it. It is also vital to support local businesses as that drives the local micro economy and that, in turn, brings income back into your business. As well as that, it’s good marketing for the region, bringing more emphasis on how wonderful the Hawkesbury is. We’ve found our local suppliers very supportive and pretty much all of them have been to eat at the restaurant since we took over. It’s also important to reduce your carbon footprint, if you can buy produce locally rather than it coming via long-haul transport. Lastly, restriction of ingredients creates uniqueness. You have to be more creative when you have fewer ingredients to work with – this builds your own style and signature.

I took a tour of your impressive kitchen garden. Can you tell us about your passion for that, and what you have planted that are you particularly excited about?

This is the first time we’ve had our own restaurant garden to grow produce, and while it is not enough to sustain us it’s wonderful to draw inspiration from it. It is also fantastic for guests staying in our cottage to wander through and pick their own herbs, veggies and fruit. There is just something about your own produce that makes it so much more tasty and full of flavour. We are currently using some wonderful squashes – they are gigantic. Graham has been pickling our cherries, rhubarb with shiso and Lebanese cucumber. He’s been infusing gin with currants and has just made some delicious passionfruit sorbet, which is currently being served with our Baked Chocolate and Wattleseed Mousse.

COVID-19 has had considerable impact on the industry in Australia, but former high-profile chef Liam Tomlin, who helped define Sydney cuisine, and who moved to South Africa, has been at the forefront of calling out the lack of supportive Government policy in relation to the industry in your former country. As you still run a restaurant in Durban and a bone broth business, can you tell us about some of the challenges you have faced in that respect?

Liam has had such an amazing impact on the Cape Town & South African dining scene, growing business and nurturing young chefs and doing his best to shed light on the difficulties the industry currently faces. COVID-19 has been devastating for the restaurant industry in South Africa. There is very little in terms of support; the country has rolling electricity blackouts (load shedding), as well as often having water shortages. This makes just daily operations very difficult. Adding to that pressure now with COVID, the government has banned the sale of alcohol and enforced a curfew – currently it’s 9pm. That means all guests need to leave by 8pm to get home, effectively ending your dinner service, and with no alcohol sales, revenue is down by 50 per cent. The alcohol and hospitality industry is now on its knees with many places closing and hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs. Obviously with no overseas tourism, cities such as Cape Town have battled even further. At 9th Avenue Waterside we have fantastic staff, an excellent business partner and a very loyal local following, so our game plan is to ride it out and plan as things happen. Sadly, there is talk the government might impose further taxations onto restaurants, which would result in more closures. It’s a very dark time in South Africa for the hospitality industry.

You also have accommodation available adjacent to the restaurant. Can you tell us about what is on offer?

We have a quaint old barn that has been converted into a luxury garden cottage. It’s the perfect little spot to come for a weekend in the countryside. It is especially great for foodies who can just wander up and enjoy dinner and not have to worry about driving far. There are also some great food and drink options in the area, so it’s worth a visit if you are a foodie. 

Looking forward, what do you have planned for Lochiel House?

As a team we have some fantastic plans. Charlene will be running some cooking classes and partnering as well with some local gardeners and artists. Graham loves cooking on fire, so we are planning to start running evenings where guests can come for a Braai or Potjie (South African BBQ and one pot cooked on the fire). We will also be opening for breakfasts in the future and start a little store to sell homemade preserves, produce and hopefully some bone broth! On a positive note, a few years ago we started a bone broth business, Dr Broth. It resulted from me being unhealthy with all the stresses of running my own business. Now, with COVID, it has really highlighted the importance of nutrition and eating healthily. So, our broth business has gone from strength to strength.

Lochiel House
1259 Bells Line of Road, Kurrajong Heights NSW 2758
(02) 4567 7754
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