It's all about the scent. The sweetness of the tropical heat laced with aromatic herbs and jasmine never smelt so good. It’s mid-afternoon and the gentle sea breeze takes the edge off the sultry high-Spring temperatures, stirring the banana trees and heliconia leaves that fringe the outdoor kitchen as I arrive in Oak Beach, a short 15 minute drive south of Port Douglas.
Part farm, part residence, part innovative enterprise, Oaks Kitchen & Garden Cooking School is located smack bang in amongst a thriving tropical produce plantation bordered by an abundance of coconut palms. It’s this spot here where Melbourne escapees Ben Wallace and his partner Rachael Boon have set up a South East Asian cooking school, naturally supplied with home grown tropical fruit, vegetables and aromatic herbs and spices grown on their four-acre property.
“We love the creative freedom we have with our chef's table dining and cooking classes, we’re able to do whatever want with the menu, and change it based on what’s in the garden - having that freedom is simply unparalleled.”
Meandering up the driveway, I’m warmly greeted by Ben, Rachael and Sparkles. “She’s a rescue chicken,” Rachael tells me, as Sparkles fusses around my feet, leading us towards the converted outdoor kitchen. Sparkles is all fluff and cluck, quite obviously much happier here than her previous battery farm residence. And it’s easy to understand why – the property exudes a comforting and nurturing energy, the various crops providing an abundance of produce, almost as if they were willing for their leaves, fruit and roots to be picked and harvested as sacrificial offerings to their tenderers.
Oaks Kitchen & Garden offers South East Asian cooking classes several times a week, with the regional focus changing throughout the year based on produce available from their lovingly tended garden. Today’s class covers Vietnamese, Northern Thailand and Myanmar recipes, all which tend to be simple, flavoursome and solely driven by fresh produce. The Oaks Kitchen is stocked with vital supplies, including plentiful bunches of kefir lime leaves, bush lemons, multiple varieties of chillies, coriander and bunches of seasonal fruit. The shelves hold Oaks Kitchen and Garden olive oil, chilli paste, vinegar, home-made spice mixes and a thousand jars filled with dried tea leaves, all harvested from the garden. Our class is a small group of four - myself and my good-food-loving friend along with a surgeon and interior design couple from Melbourne, here in the tropics for a holiday and who are both familiar with and excited by Ben’s restaurant background. We have varying degrees of culinary expertise but we’re all here to learn.
He was a sous-chef at Longrain in Melbourne; she managed Melbourne favourite diner Lee Ho Fook. Over cups of locally-sourced Herberton honey and tamarind leaf tea, Ben and Rachael describe their tree change and their aim to showcase regional abundance through cooking classes and catering for private dinners and functions. Anything that isn’t grown on property is sourced from Rusty’s Markets in Cairns or direct from farmers on the Atherton Tablelands.
“We only use produce that's local and local fish that are line-caught. It's an approach that happens all the time down south, but up here we're still seen as kind of niche,” says Ben. The property produces mangoes, kaffir limes, an abundance of galangal, purple basil and betel leaves. Organic beef is sourced from John Bull Farming at Malanda on the Atherton Tablelands, chicken is sourced from Bellasato Farm just south of Cairns, and Carnivore – also on the Atherton Tablelands – supply interesting cuts of wild boar, venison and kangaroo.