August 25, 2023

The extraordinary challenges faced by five-star chefs in the outback

By Nina Karnikowski
August 26, 2023 — 8.38am
, register or subscribe to save articles for later.

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

It’s challenging enough to create world-class cuisine when you’re a chef in a major city. But try doing it in the outback or on a remote island, where food might only be delivered weekly or fortnightly and skilled staff are hard to find and keep. Satiating the discerning palates of international guests calls for a whole new level of resourcefulness and creativity.

There are few places in the world beyond Australia where chefs cook at five-star-plus luxury resorts and lodges – and, yes, with tariffs to match – so far from major centres and somehow still manage to do an incredible job, yet they remain relatively unsung.

Chefs source fresh, native ingredients to some of the most remote parts of the country. Pictured: Tali Wiru

We will attempt to remedy that by spotlighting seven head chefs creating extraordinary meals despite logistical challenges and secluded workplaces at some of Australia’s most renowned remote properties.

They reveal the ingredients they use and how they manage and source them and showcase their essential in-depth understanding of their regions’ local and Indigenous produce.

Importantly, they share the ingenuity, sustainability and environmental connection their work fosters.

Despite recent huge shifts in kitchen culture away from a tough, male-dominated history, remote Australian kitchens continue to attract mostly men. Is the isolation and all-consuming nature of kitchens in faraway places putting women off? We can’t be certain.

Some of our featured chefs have specifically sought out remote places throughout their careers, viewing the challenges presented by their environments as a drawcard, rather than a setback. And it’s that attitude, as much as what they’re putting on our plates, that can surely inspire us all.

Marcellus Ah Kit, Tali Wiru, Ayers Rock Resort, Northern Territory

Tali Wiru chef Marcellus Ah Kit works with the native flavours and ingredients he grew up with.


The backstory Since graduating from the Voyages National Indigenous Training Academy six years ago, Marcellus Ah Kit has worked at Ayers Rock Resort’s Desert Gardens hotel as a kitchen steward, and is now a chef at Tali Wiru, the resort’s four-course dune-top dining experience for 20 guests. Ah Kit proudly works with the native ingredients he hunted and foraged for as a kid growing up in Tennant Creek, but always ensures they are sustainably harvested. There are quandong growing around Uluru, for example, but as Ah Kit says, “the Anangu [traditional owners] are eating that so we don’t touch it, we leave it for them”. Since Ah Kit and his colleagues can’t source all the native ingredients they want locally, they use specialist suppliers – from community businesses working in the bush, to emu farmers and kangaroo hunters – to create dishes such as gin-infused cucumber with green ants and celery salt, and smoked emu with a saltbush chilli crust. Indigenous drinks are also highlighted, Beachtree Distilling Company and Jarrah Boy beer among them.

The dish The Tooth Fish Dish. “Glacier 51? Toothfish is sourced from the Australian part of Antarctica from a Marine Stewardship Council certified sustainable fishery. ?I love that we’re serving it on a sand dune in the middle of Australia, with native samphire and karkalla succulents,” says Ah Kit.

The experience Ayers Rock Resort has five hotels, three with onsite restaurants, but it’s their outdoor dining experiences that really bring the Uluru magic. Aside from Tali Wiru there’s the Sounds of Silence outdoor dinner for larger groups; the Field of Light dinner that incorporates Bruce Munro’s art installation, and the recently launched Wintjiri Wiru sound, light and drone show.

A three-night stay at Desert Gardens Hotel from $315 a night. Tali Wiru, nightly from April to October, is $420. See

Dennis Tierney, Capella Lodge, Lord Howe Island, NSW

Capella’s Dennis Tierney knows the challenges of sourcing fresh produce on a remote island.

The backstory As the author of the aptly-named 2023 cookbook The Stranded Chef, Dennis Tierney is most at home in remote places, having lived and worked on Lord Howe Island for more than 15 years. He first joined Capella as chef de partie early in his career, then worked on super yachts in the Mediterranean, some of Sydney’s top restaurants including Aria and Bilsons, and Arajilla restaurant and Pine Trees Lodge on Lord Howe, before returning to Capella in late 2022. “We fly in fresh meat, seafood and vegetables weekly, but it’s limited because the plane is so expensive. Heavy items are delivered fortnightly on a produce ship,” he says. Tierney and his team source most herbs and lettuce from independent growers on the island or Capella’s own gardens and most fish is caught daily by local fishermen. Menus need to be constantly adjusted. “You might have no lettuce one day, or bad weather for one week and you can’t get fresh fish because the boats can’t get out,” he says. Staffing is another issue. Living on a remote island with just 350 residents sounds dreamy but, as Tierney says: “The reality is you won’t see the mainland for nine months. Some people come for a day and say, ‘I can’t do this.’ Luckily, I love the remoteness.”

The dish Green papaya salad with nam jim dressing, toasted rice and fried eschalots. Chillies are from Capella’s garden, while herbs and papaya are either also from the garden or sourced locally.

The experience Following drinks and canapes on the deck, meals are served in Capella’s glass-sided dining room overlooking the lagoon and the sheer peaks of Mount Lidgbird and Gower. Menus revolve around different regions of the world to keep guests (and Tierney) entertained. Weekly highlights include an eight-course degustation, and a Thai-style share evening including chargrilled king prawns with black bean dressing, and a coconut sorbet with lotus flower biscuit, lime leaf and tapioca.

Capella Lodge has nine suites from $1900 a night (minimum two-night stay). See

Calvin Von Niebel, Arkaba Station and Walk, South Australia

Calvin Von Niebel combines Ottolenghi’s Israeli flavours with native Ikara-Flinders Ranges ingredients.

The backstory Before starting at Arkaba in 2022, South African chef Calvin Von Niebel spent 10 years working as executive chef for Yotam Ottolenghi’s seven delis and restaurants in London. While curating Ottolenghi’s menus and overseeing 100 chefs across the group was a far cry from cooking on a 24,000-hectare former sheep station, Von Niebel is enjoying the shift. “Arkaba appealed because I love the bush, where I spent a lot of time as a kid in South Africa. [But] you can’t trial chefs here because we’re so remote, you usually have to employ them based on their CV and attitude, and it can be hard to find anyone willing to stay for a long period due to the remoteness,” he says. Since Arkaba takes chefs much further than the confines of the kitchen, anyone he does hire needs to be able appreciate the conservation element of Arkaba, too. “We can be out tending the kitchen garden, or equally getting involved in some of the conservation work, whether it’s helping take down fencing, or reporting feral animals.”

The dish Sticky pork with quandong. This is pork belly from the Murraylands roasted until it’s tender with crackling, chopped up and tossed in a punchy, sticky, sweet and sour quandong chilli sauce, served simply with some citrus-dressed raw fennel.

The experience Von Niebel combines Ottolenghi’s distinctive Israeli flavours with the native ingredients the Ikara-Flinders Ranges offers, including saltbush, lemon myrtle and native lemongrass. Whether eaten during the Arkaba Walk – a four-day hike traversing the 24,000-hectare Arkaba Nature Conservancy – or on the Homestead’s back patio, Von Niebel’s dining table could be laden with platters of zesty pumpkin and lentil salad scattered with pomegranate and coriander, tender lamb chops fried with saltbush and brown butter, or beetroot tzatziki.

Stays at Arkaba Homestead from $1995 a night (minimum two-night stay). See

Matthias Beer, Bamurru Plains, Kakadu, Northern Territory

Chef Matthias Beer has worked at some of the country’s top luxury wilderness resorts.

The backstory German-born Beer (no relation to Maggie) has cooked in hotels and resorts around the world, from Europe to South-East Asia and the South Pacific. But it was his work in some of Australia’s top wilderness resorts – including Longitude 131 in Uluru and El Questro – that helped him cope with the operational challenges he faced when he started at Bamurru Plains, on the edge of the floodplains in the Top End, in March 2023. “We have 62 kilometres of dirt road to cross to come here, so no one wants to deliver because they don’t want to damage their trucks,” he says. Every week, his staff must therefore drive a trailer three hours to Darwin, pick everything (including wine) up from suppliers in eskies, and drive it all back again. And while Beer would love to have a vegetable garden, that also proves challenging. “The moment you plant something, the wallabies and birds get it. And because we’re on a buffalo station with so many buffaloes roaming around, there’s no way any sprout would survive.”

The dish Barramundi with pumpkin puree, black turtle bean and chickpea salad and saltbush, smoked in a ceramic cup and served on a plate with paperbark. “Barramundi is the region’s most caught fish,” says Beer, “and the smokiness and paperbark depicts the back burning of the land.”

The experience Despite the challenges, the food at Bamurru is exceptional, with Beer writing the menu for each three-course evening meal that morning, depending on the produce available. A high point of the Bamurru experience are sundowner canapes, where guests are driven to a picturesque spot like The Nursery, a haven for young animals, and served drinks and bush-inspired canapes.

From $2425 a night (minimum two-night stay). See

Gareth Newburn, El Questro Homestead, Kimberley, Western Australia

El Questro Homestead chef Gareth Newburn minimises waste by using every part of the ingredient.

The backstory With a passion for travelling to unique places and “living and working where people usually spend a lot of money to visit”, Gareth Newburn has cooked on Hayman Island, a six-star cruise line based out of South America, luxury yachts in Australia, and at two high-end wilderness lodges in his home country of New Zealand. At El Questro Homestead, where he started this season, Newburn gets ideas about sourcing and using bush foods including green ants, kapok and rosella flowers and quandongs from the Indigenous guides who run El Questro’s bush culture tours. “They really know their stuff and share ingredients I’ve never even heard of, like boab nuts, which I grind up and make sherbets from.” Set on more than 400,000 hectares, the nearest town to El Questro is a 90-minute drive away, and in the wet season the Fitzroy Crossing that connects the property to Perth floods, shutting off their supply chain. Stressful, yes, but Newburn says this has also opened him up to a whole different group of suppliers, and to using all aspects of an ingredient to minimise waste. “An example is our marron tortellini,” he says. “We break the marron down, pull the meat out to make the tortellini, then cook the shells as well and turn them into a bisque.”

The dish Green ant citrus tart. Green ants are caught at El Questro, then cooked down into a stock to form the curd for the tart. The tart is served with miso and salted caramel ice-cream, garnished with Rosella flower powder, and green ants coated with a light dusting of gold.

The experience As part of their stay in the Homestead’s 10 suites, guests can either share meals – including five-course degustation dinners – at the long table on the verandah, or opt for a private cliffside dining option overlooking Chamberlain Gorge.

From $2575 a night. See

Josh Childs, Orpheus Island Lodge, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Orpheus Island Lodge’s Josh Childs consults the weather before planning menus.

The backstory After working in the Michelin star restaurant L’Ortolan in Reading, England, Australian chef Josh Childs returned home, eventually landing at Orpheus Island Lodge in 2020. This lodge for 28 guests is set on a 1300-hectare tropical island 80 kilometres north of Townsville. The menu at the lodge’s restaurant changes daily, giving Childs the freedom to work with whatever produce is available, including line-caught fish supplied by well-known local fisherman and sustainability advocate Chris Bolton. Childs and his team plan menus a week in advance, taking the weather into consideration.

The dish Coral trout with beef XO prawn emulsion, using Bolton’s coral trout. This dish is started a few days in advance, to allow time to dry out the beef and roast the tomatoes. In line with Orpheus’ efforts to minimise food waste, the prawn shells and heads are roasted and blended into a powder that’s added to the emulsion.

Orpheus Island Lodge’s ‘Reef & Beef’ coral trout with beef XO prawn emulsion.

The experience While views over the Coral Sea are at their best during breakfast and lunch, the island’s signature Dining with the Tides six-course degustation dinner for two, matched with wines from the lodge’s cellar and served on the pier while eagle rays, reef sharks and spangled emperor swim below, steals the show.

From $1925 a night for two, including all food and drinks and a daily Orpheus experience. See

Jacob Sadd, Seven Spirit Bay, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory

Jacob Sadd’s menus at Seven Spirit Bay centre on fresh fish and native ingredients.

The backstory No stranger to remote cooking, New Zealander Jacob Sadd has worked in several remote locations including Lady Elliot Island off the coast of Hervey Bay and Carnarvon Gorge in Central Queensland. When the opportunity to work at Seven Spirit Bay, accessible only via boat or aircraft on the Cobourg Peninsula, came up earlier this year, he jumped at it. “It’s a big time-management game,” says Sadd of organising the produce, which arrives by barge every second week. The day after it arrives, the next meat and seafood order must be submitted, then three days later, the order for dry goods, fruit and vegetables. Guests also get to play a role in the resort’s food chain. “We rely heavily on [them] catching fish, which can be quite weather dependent,” adds Sadd. If guests are unsuccessful, staff head out to bulk up the catch for the kitchen.

The dish White fish crudo. Seven Spirit also holds a canape night that includes a fish crudo incorporating the daily catch, native lime, kaffir lime emulsion, micro herbs and mandarin gazpacho.

The experience Catering for up to 48 guests at a time, menus at Seven Spirit Bay revolve around freshly caught fish and, you guessed it, native ingredients. The latter also features on their cocktail list, with the Green Ant Gin being a favourite at the bar. The six-course degustation night, which includes duck breast with roasted vegetables, parsnip puree, confit duck leg and Kakadu plum gel, is a high point.

Villas $2595 a night, from May to September, including all meals and activities including fishing adventures and wildlife safaris. See

Five more unforgettable remote dining experiences

Desert dining at Longitude 131.

Longitude 131, Uluru, Northern Territory

After a day spent hiking to gorges and waterholes or visiting Indigenous art communities, guests eat elevated bush tucker in the glass-walled Dune House restaurant, or treat themselves to Table 131, a four-course degustation under the stars. See Island Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Take in 180-degree Coral Sea views from their Salt Water restaurant, plan a seven-course private degustation dinner on the beach, or take a dinghy to picnic on a private beach. See Oaks Lodge, Queensland

Executive chef Mark Godbeer oversees the pavilion-style Treehouse Restaurant overlooking the Mossman River, offering expertly balanced three-course menus that aim to be as low-footprint and low-wastage as possible. See baillielodges.comSal Salis, Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

In between gorge hikes and boat trips out to swim alongside six-metre whale sharks, ros? and canapes are served on the private beach, and three-course dinners to be savoured in the dining pavilion tucked in between the dunes. See

Southern Ocean Lodge, Kangaroo Island, South Australia

Once the hotly anticipated new-look lodge reopens on December 6, following a complete reconstruction post the 2020 bushfires, seasonal and locally focused three-course and degustation meals will be served in the restaurant or on the terrace overlooking the Southern Ocean. See

Sign up for the Traveller Deals newsletter

Get exclusive travel deals delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up now.

, register or subscribe to save articles for later.
Nina Karnikowski is a travel writer focused on sustainability, and the author of two books including Go Lightly: How to Travel Without Hurting the Planet.Connect via Twitter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.