Arimia is one of those places (there aren't many) that is so self-evidently good, it doesn't even really hit you until you're half way home - or half way through your next meal. On this occasion, I had lunch with owner Ann Spencer and chef Evan Hayter for the below feature in Fabric Quarterly Issue 5, but no visit down south is complete without dropping in.
There are many wonderful things one might expect to find down a dirt road in the Margaret River region, but a serving of some of the state’s smartest food might not readily be among them. Yet so it is at Arimia, a biodynamic winery and off-grid restaurant situated down Quinninup Road in Wilyabrup. What started as an intention to provide simple food for visitors to Arimia’s cellar door has grown into something much bigger: a totally regenerative, biodynamic and soon-to-be certified organic property on which chef Evan Hayter raises his own pigs, breeds his own trout and rears a vegetable garden laden with seasonal produce. The result? A unique dining experience that challenges and may even change the way you think about food.
“There she goes!” Hayter exclaims over a morning bowl of Nutrigrain, as one of his restaurant staff fires up a piece of machinery in the garden on an uncharacteristically hot March day. “Front of House, on the rotary hoe!” He laughs, but herein lies the virtue of Arimia: leadership with an intimate knowledge and understanding of the property, and a deep respect for it among the team.
“It is difficult to get across how hard it is to produce what we produce,” says Ann Spencer, who has owned the property since 1997.
“But it's about properly, truly, honestly caring about looking after this property and using it in a respectful manner.”
If the key to getting that message across is irresistibly good food, then Hayter – with a Michelin starred background cooking in Holland and a kitchen career spanning Europe, the US and Canada – is certainly on the right track. Bound by his commitment to biodynamic principles, the use of (only) seasonal ingredients and the limitations of an off-grid kitchen (Hayter’s leading cause of sleepless nights? Fears the fridge will cut out.), Hayter is creating some seriously innovative food.
“To be honest, I wonder how any chef doesn’t want to work seasonally,” Hayter muses. “It makes my job so much easier when I have a list of vegetables to work with and that's it. It’s like: ‘This is all I've got. These are my boundaries, this is what I'm working with’.”
Whether it’s an entrée of house-cured meats, garden-grown pickles and tempura oysters delicately arranged and delivered in a timber tray made from local Marri by Hayter’s father, or a lip-licking good cut of home-reared pork, these boundaries make it that no two meals at Arimia are the same. In fact, your meal might even differ to that of the person sitting across from you, who’s ordered the same thing.
“You work out ways of using certain vegetables, or with meat, using the whole animal and changing dishes when you maybe run out of things,” he says. “People have to realise, if we’re being real about sourcing ingredients correctly, there’s only so much of everything.”
But both Hayter and Spencer concur that awareness of their self-sustainable approach to dining and hospitality is still building among their clientele.
“There is a growing number of people who come here because they’ve read about us being ‘organic’, and they know about what we do,” says Spencer. “But there’s a bigger portion of people who just eat, and compare us to other places down here and maybe sometimes say we’re better, which is really nice, but they don’t think about why we’re better. There’s only a small number of people who go: ‘Oh, this is why it’s better’.”
From pressing his own olive oil and raising his own sourdough, to crafting entire menus out of only what can be grown on the property or sourced locally from likeminded producers, Hayter’s culinary arrival has definitely made a statement.
“I think I can be quite a negative person,” Hayter says, “but I always see the positive in external things. When I started here I got to know the property – I got to see that you can actually grow things, and I had an interest for gardening. There were all these Arum Lillies [a type of weed] around and I found out from a friend of mine that pigs dig up the bulbs and eat the green part. So I thought, ‘let’s get some pigs and try to help Margaret River. Let's do something to actually regenerate this land.’ That was the starting point. I like the hard work and the challenge and I think it creates that point of difference in our work, and in our food.”
An ideal world for Hayter? One where diners understand that he buys his carrot per piece, rather than per kilo. Where they understand what it’s taken to put their food on the plate. And he wants a dining experience at Arimia to be the very tasty seed that grows into more conscious dining, no matter where you're eating.