It’s a delicious thread to trace — from a sterling recent accomplishment back to a takeaway food store nearly forty years ago — and in learning about it, you begin to realise the indelible mark the Mahlook family has made on the Gippsland Lakes food scene.
In the weeks before this edition was released, the Australian Good Food Guides Chef Hats were awarded to discerning chefs around the country. Winning a coveted ‘hat’, one of three in Gippsland for 2020, was the youngest Mahlook, Nick, for he and his team’s brilliant new restaurant, Sodafish in Lakes Entrance.
Yet, for many Gippslandians, the first Mahlook name that comes to mind when you start craving fresh Lakes’ seafood is Sam, and Miriam’s Seafood Restaurant. But you couldn’t dine at Miriam’s without enjoying a glass of Wyanga Park Winery’s finest drops, the bottle featuring artwork of Lyndel Mahlook, the wine made by her son Matt, and the winery now managed by daughter Sarah and Sarah’s husband, Kane.
What began as a piece on a single restaurant revealed so much more.
Geoff and Lyndel Mahlook, proud supporters of local produce, had eight children: Matt, Sam, Amber, Mick, Luci, Tim, Sarah and Nick. While we’d need a book, a hefty tome too, to share all their incredible knowledge, Gippslandia had the opportunity to speak with Nick, Sarah and Sam on their careers in hospitality so far and learn why your next special meal should be in East Gippsland.
Where does your passion for food and hospitality come from?
Nick: My passion for food started from an early age. All my brothers and sisters loved to cook. Also, Mum is an amazing cook.
Sarah: I’ve always loved to cook, always worked in hospitality and I’ve always been surrounded by people in the industry.
Sam: My passion for food and hospitality was really born when I started dating a local fisherman. I fell into that whole ‘fishwife’ thing: wanting to transform what Mick, my then boyfriend, caught into something that other people could enjoy.
Was hospitality always a career-calling for you?
Sarah: I grew up at Wyanga Park Winery, running through the vineyards, climbing trees and stealing soft drinks from Dad in the bar. It’s in my blood and I’ve watched my older siblings work in the industry since I was little.
It was a natural progression. I started working at the winery restaurant when I was 14 and Sam was my boss and my big sister. My other two sisters, Amber and Luci, both worked at the winery too. My brother Tom was a chef as well.
We have all had a taste of the hospitality industry. Not all of us kept at it, but it’s started us all off [in our careers].
Sam: Mum and Dad weren’t really that into food, although they were pioneers with the ‘eat locally’ trend in having a takeaway food shop in 1970s Metung that had locally made ice-cream (Riviera Icecream Co. by Gippsland Jersey’s Sallie Jones’ dad, Mike) bread and locally-sourced veggies all in stock.
Nick: Yeah, I suppose it was. It just fell into my lap and I ran with it.
Can you please briefly describe your current restaurants/venues?
Sarah: Wyanga Park Winery was established in 1970, making it the oldest vineyard in East Gippsland. At that stage it was one of a handful of wineries in Gippsland. By the mid-90s there were almost 100 wineries in the area. There was a need for growth [at the winery], and in 1995 Sam opened Henry’s Cafe (named after the winery dog).
We serve honest, heartwarming, comfort food in a casual, rustic setting. Our menu is designed for sharing with friends over a glass of wine or two. We seat up to 100 guests and cater for weddings, Christmas parties, etc. We offer lunch cruises in collaboration with Peels Tourist and Ferry Service, departing from Lakes Entrance two to three times a week.
Our wine is made from fruit grown on the property by my oldest brother Matthew Mahlook, who is also the winemaker.
Mum and Dad grow all of our herbs, lettuce and anything else that is required for this season’s menu.
Sam: My current hospitality venture is Mama Miriam’s Seafood Kitchen on the Slipway, Lakes Entrance, where I continue my dream of cooking and selling local seafood, but in its purest form now. I can actually take my stainless steel bowl 20 metres up the wharf, buy some fish straight off a boat, take it back to my shack and cook it.
I am also a partner in Sodafish with my brother Nick, his wife Emma and her brother Brenton…
Nick: Sodafish Bar and Grill is a casual seafood restaurant focusing on freshly caught fish, no frills.
“Lakes Entrance is a great place to be a chef because you’re actually living and breathing the seaside life."
What makes Lakes Entrance and that corner of East Gippsland such a great location to be a chef?
Sam: Lakes Entrance is a great place to be a chef because you’re actually living and breathing the seaside life. That is what inspires me. It’s easy to keep the food pure and regional because the maritime culture is so strong.
Nick: Great produce and great people.
Sarah: East Gippsland is such a large area with so much on offer. With the growth of local tourism due to the pandemic, our locally produced ingredients have really been highlighted.
Would you say there are sibling rivalries in all being in hospitality or is it better support?
Sarah: I love having my siblings nearby. We always help each other out with advice or a friendly ear.
Nick: Definitely, it’s about more support than rivalry.
“I love having my siblings nearby. We always help each other out with advice or a friendly ear."
Nick, was it a difficult decision to shift to Lakes after your time at The Atlantic in Melbourne?
Nick: No, easy. When my wife Emma and I made the decision to move, all our family network made it so easy for us to come down. We couldn’t have done it without so many favours and help.
Sam, we hear that after over 20 years, you’ve recently closed Miriam’s Restaurant. Was that tough to do? Will your future plans also be in hospitality?
Sam: I should have shut Miriam’s after Mick died in 2016. I’ve tried to keep it going for him but it’s no fun without him, so it’s actually a relief now to have closed it down.
How substantial has the effect of Covid-19 been on Gippsland’s hospitality businesses?
Sam: [This situation] has given me a chance to reset, go smaller with Mama Miriam’s Seafood Kitchen and embrace outdoor dining. We have many more Melbourne visitors now, which is a great thing.
Sarah: In the history of our winery, we have been closed only a handful of days. In the last 13 months we have been closed down five times: firstly because of the bushfires and then four times due to Covid-19.
To say it has been challenging is a massive understatement. We’ve had to adapt and change in ways we never imagined in order to keep our doors open. I have learned so much in the 18 months since taking over the reins of the family business with my husband, Kane.
Nick: It has had a positive effect on us so far, but we always watch out for the next twist though.
We got the tip off about the Mahlooks from Strengthening Business Facilitator, Michael Duncan in East Gippsland, given your considerable experience in the industry, what government programs or initiatives have been successful in assisting hospitality businesses?
Sam: Other than Strengthening Business, the best government programs for hospitality have been the wage incentives for apprentices, which have encouraged training.
Nick: I was part of an overseas exchange program with some Vietnamese students when I was in Melbourne. These guys were great and had amazing attitudes towards learning. We've just started in Strengthening Business and looking forward to seeing where that takes us.
“To open a restaurant in Gippsland, you need to be pretty self-sufficient, thrive on hard work and be extremely flexible and resilient."
What can be done to better support the Gippsland hospitality industry going forward?
Nick: Better venues create better staff and, therefore, a better environment [for the region].
Sarah: Fewer lockdowns would be a great start!
Sam: To open a restaurant in Gippsland, you need to be pretty self-sufficient, thrive on hard work and be extremely flexible and resilient.
How do you keep your joy in a demanding kitchen?
Sam: I keep my joy by transforming occasionally unloved and under-appreciated fishes into delicious food. My mackerel taco has been one of my favorites, as well as my dish of sardine escabeche.
Sarah: I get to spend less time in the kitchen these days. When I do, I love to spend a few hours experimenting with new dishes and creating excitement with the kitchen team.
Nick: It’s hard to back it up every day, but something keeps the fire burning. Not sure what it is, maybe the fear of failing?
It’s the family Christmas dinner, who’s doing the cooking?
Nick: We all share. I usually bring the cheese.
Sarah: Everyone brings something along and there is always enough food for everyone to feed their own families for a week afterwards. Just don’t ask Nick to cook the paella!
You’re taking your most revered chef or restauranteur on a tour throughout Gippsland. What are the three food-related places or experiences you’re showing off?
Sam: My must-visit foodie stops are Snowy River Sweet Corn on the Buchan Road, Orbost; Picnic Point Farm apples from Bairnsdale, and The Fruit Farm, Johnsonville, for the best peaches and, finally, head to Lakes Entrance for school prawns freshly cooked on the boat.
Nick: Prawns off the boat with a cold beer, fish and chips at Sodafish and then cruise on a boat out to the winery for a platter — easy!