Neil Cunningham – HEAD CHEF
Born of a chef and the grandson of a pastry chef, besides a short-lived dream of being a barber, Neil Cunningham was destined
for the kitchen.
Helping his Dad in the kitchen until cooking school at the age of 16, Neil started his career at a local golf course. “The chef there gave me a copy of White Heat by Marco Pierre White and I was fascinated to read about Michelin Stars.” Inspired, young Neil bought the Michelin guide and found that The Beams, a restaurant four miles from his home in Cheddleton, UK was rated with a Michelin star.
He wrote them a letter and the next week was working in their kitchen. There he remembers deliveries of old wooden boxes full of wild mushrooms. Carried in by their feet, rabbits and pheasants would be delivered still warm from a hunt.
After some formative years working through the UK, in 1999 the decision was made to move out to Australia. Landing feet first
in Melbourne, in busy city kitchens and hatted restaurants, Neil explored the Yarra Valley on his days off. Falling for the charms
of Healesville, he and his partner Sally, a copywriter, made a pact that if the right job came up in the region they would move.
Shortly after, as if meant to be, the head chef position at The Healesville Hotel opened up and within a year they had bought
a house within walking distance.
Neil has cooked in a range of venues since then and reflects, “The Yarra Valley has changed so much in the nine years I’ve been here. There was so much choice for so little people and now it’s flipped. A lot more people live in the area and that means a lot of opportunity for existing and new venues. People are caring more and more about the food they eat and the coffee they drink.” During the build of Meletos, we met Neil who at the time was filling a maternity contract at Stones of the Yarra Valley. Managing Director Steve Frazer recounts, “The timing was just right and with all his experience Neil was the perfect candidate for the role as Executive Chef for our new venture. Neil’s created a fantastic menu and built a really strong team around him.” On a warm autumn’s evening we’re invited to his spot just out of Healesville, a peaceful contrast to cooking at Meletos for an average two thousand people a week, and a place where we learn that a boyhood tradition is being continued. Neil grew up fishing with his dad and grandfather on the River Seven in North Yorkshire, and with the Yarra River just a short drive from home, it’s an easy stop for a fish with his two boys after school. “They’re learning quick – Augie’s keen to master his technique and Iggy is fascinated with the catch when it’s reeled in.”
Though the odd trout has been nabbed before, the catch is mostly carp, a major aquatic pest in Victoria, making fishing a purely recreational activity. “My dad heads a fishing association back home, where strict regulations and laws result in cleaner waterways and diverse, healthy ecosystems. I would love to see that here.”
Over a tense ten minutes we were lucky to witness Neil stealthily reel in a five kilo mature carp, declaring it the biggest fish he’s caught in Australia. “I reckon Dad would be impressed with that.”