In conversation with Lisa Margan

For those not yet familiar with the Hunter Culinary Association (HCA), can you tell us more about its purpose and ambitions?

Hunter Culinary Association (HCA) was founded in 2006 as a not for profit organisation. It aims to continue to highlight the Hunter region as a culinary destination by promoting those within this regional hospitality industry including restaurateurs, chefs, front of house professionals, providores and producers. It highlights the depth and breadth of the dining offer from casual all the way through to nationally awarded fine dining restaurants. Importantly, it creates a forum for the hospitality industry in the region – chefs, apprentices, front of house, sommeliers etc. – to discuss and consult on issues of common interest, such as training, staffing, produce and culinary trends as well as important networking opportunities.

HCA fosters the professional development of younger and less experienced industry individuals through our scholarship programs, workshops with guest chefs, industry events, networking and mentoring opportunities.

We offer promotional opportunities for all members via our marketing and PR initiatives. We are proudly supported by a range of industry partners and sponsors who share our vision and support us in achieving our mission.

The Hunter Food Fight returns this year, both bigger and better. What is planned for the event in June?

As always, we have a great line-up of chefs this year. We missed last year with COVID so it is a real celebration of hospitality getting back on its feet.

As a passionate advocate and ambassador for the Hunter, can you tell us what that means to you?

The Hunter Valley is Australia’s oldest and most visited wine region and the food and wine offer today is up there with the best in the country. The Hunter region also extends to the coastal regions inclusive of the city of Newcastle, which has a thriving culinary offer ranging from casual cafés to fine dining and everything in between.

I have lived and worked in this rural region for more than three decades and am passionate about the industries that are thriving here. The culinary scene is diverse, exciting and quality driven and the wines are internationally acclaimed. Being in a rural region, there are many challenges but I love that the Hunter has a strong community bond and resilience that enables it to rise above whatever the weather or the region or even COVID can throw at it.

Apart from being involved with the HCA, Margan Wines & Restaurant is a major focus of your life. Can you tell us how COVID-19 has affected you as a major business owner in the region?

Well, we were toughened by three years of drought, then the terrible fires of early 2020 that wiped out 80% of our grape harvest to smoke taint. Then it rained, which thankfully put out all the fires, but of course it flooded. By March 2020 we were joking about what would come next. The plague? Well, yes. COVID, of course, shut down our business overnight (along with many others) and we lost most of our revenue sources – our own restaurant, cellar door and events, domestic wholesale to other restaurants, export markets, airlines and all the wine we sold to cruise liners. We stood down 30 of our team. It was a very upsetting time. Then JobKeeper kicked in and we were able to find work for our team – pruning vines, gardening, packing wine, etc., so that kept everyone in a job. When the regional travel ban lifted, the Hunter was on everyone’s hit list, and since then – last June – we haven’t stopped. So a very unusual year!

What lifestyle aspects of the Hunter particularly resonate with you?  

It is a beautiful rural lifestyle that I really connect with. We live on the same property that Margan Wines & Restaurant is on so no traffic jams getting to work, although sometimes we are a little too close to work! We love that we can be surrounded by vineyards (they never give you sass) and a range of produce that we grow on this property, including our one-hectare kitchen garden and orchard, free-range chickens, estate-reared lambs, beehives and olive groves. We love getting to cities for dining and all the other exciting things on offer but love the peace and quiet of home. 

International travel restrictions have seen food and wine lovers revisiting their connection with regional areas like the Hunter. What plans do you have in place to keep them as engaged after the borders re-open?

We really connected with a strong wine and food market once everyone was allowed to travel within NSW. Regional areas have benefited hugely, and the Hunter is no exception.

So much of the feedback has been around visitors rediscovering the Hunter after not being here for decades – or ever – as they usually travel interstate or overseas. They loved the food and wine offer and the range of accommodation all in a beautiful rural setting, so they are all rebooking and coming back. Our job is to stay connected with them and continue to lift the bar on quality and diversity of our offer. At Margan we offer a range of experiences where our guests can tour our gardens, vineyards and winery, enjoy cooking schools, wine and cocktail masterclasses, etc. We sometimes joke that we hope the borders don’t open!

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