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Michelin-starred French chef Bruno Loubet is back in Australia, after nine years in London – and he and his wife, Catherine, are on a mission to share their passion for the sustainable, plant based cooking style that he pioneered at his celebrated London restaurant, Grain Store.
Loubet is perhaps best known for his pioneering London restaurant, Grain Store, where he turned fine dining norms upside down and made vegetables the stars of the show, putting meat and fish in a supporting role. Today, however, he can be found on the sunny Gold Coast in Queensland. Loubet is no stranger to the Sunshine State – locals will remember him from Bruno’s Tables, an award-winning classic French restaurant that he founded in Toowong, Brisbane, in 2002, or from his stint at Noosa fine dining establishment, Berardo’s. Now, he and Catherine have opened Willow Vale Cooking School, where they teach workshops inspired by Loubet’s decades in a restaurant kitchen that celebrate a sustainable approach to cooking.
While Loubet grew up in the famed French wine region of Bordeaux, and cut his teeth as a chef in London in the 1980s, he has considered Queensland, Australia, home since spending time here in the early 2000s. “Australia is called the lucky country for many reasons,” says Loubet. “We experience beautiful landscapes, wildlife, and climate – it’s a very laid-back approach to life. Australians are also extremely welcoming people and we’ve made wonderful friends here.”
“It was always on the cards to return to Queensland,” agrees Catherine. “We had kept our home here and we always wanted to open a small cooking school on a hobby farm. The event of Brexit precipitated the move.”
Rather than open another restaurant on the Gold Coast – which is home to numerous award-winning eateries already – the Loubets wanted to set up a different kind of business, one that was smaller and could operate in synchronicity with their lifestyle. So, they decided to establish a cooking school, with Bruno as chef and teacher and Catherine managing admin, marketing and front of house during the workshops. “We really enjoy working together,” says Catherine, who was also involved in Grain Store. “Because we have very defined roles we don’t step on each other’s toes!”
The school, which opened in 2019, is situated on a hill in Willow Vale, a rural suburb 45 minutes from Brisbane and 25 minutes from the beaches of Southport and Surfers Paradise. The couple’s home – in which the cooking school is located – is a traditional, 130-year-old Queenslander style home, which was moved to its current site from Ascot, a suburb of Brisbane, 30 years ago. On their lush farm, the Loubets keep horses, sheep, ducks and chickens, as well as growing vegetables for the school and their own use.
Willow Vale Cooking School offers a variety of casual workshops, ranging from French pastry and fresh pasta making to Provençale cooking, Moroccan cuisine and preserving and fermenting. If there is a large group booking, the class can be tailored, or there’s the option of Chef at Home, where the couple will make a home visit and cook for a dinner party.
“Our most popular class is the Flexitarian workshop,” says Loubet. “The recipes we teach encourage people to eat less meat and fish and put vegetables as the star, like we did at Grain Store.” The class is so popular with repeat bookings that there are now four different versions.
In the Flexitarian class students learn to prepare and cook a multi-course meal, with dishes like chickpea bread, eggplant, mushroom and celeriac kebab, cauliflower rice and quinoa spicy bake and salmon tartar poke bowl on the menu.
Other classes focus on techniques. The preserving and fermenting workshop, for example, covers curing, fermenting, smoking and pickling – and participants will leave knowing exactly how to make their own kombucha, cure salmon and pickle vegetables.
Willow Vale Cooking School is about more than learning to cook, however. It’s about embracing a sustainable approach to food. “We grow mostly everything,” says Loubet. “We have planted Australian bush trees, such as Lemon Myrtle, Davidson Plum and various bush lemons, as well as fruit trees, including mango, avocado, finger lime, yuzu lemon and pomegranate. These newly-planted trees will take a while to produce fruits, but we had already established a Jaboticaba, a mandarin tree, lots of passionfruit, dragon fruits and prickly pears on the property.”
The couple subscribe to the concept of Hugelkultur, a type of no-dig, raised bed permaculture in which each garden bed is made of layers of wood, wood chips, straw, soil and then more straw. This technique helps to recreate a ground similar to the forest, and encourages worms. It’s a particularly successful approach in warm countries, like Australia, as it keeps the moisture in the ground and requires less watering.
“We want to encourage sustainability, so we base our whole ethos around it,” says Loubet. “We live on a property that is reliant on rainwater and has a large solar power system. We also teach people how to source ingredients carefully and how to avoid waste.” One of his favourite tips for being resourceful, for example, is to keep prawn heads to make bisque.
Class sizes at Willow Vale Cooking School are small, with a maximum of six guests in each workshop, ensuring there is plenty of one-on-one instruction. On arrival, students are served fresh coffee with homemade pastries before a tour of the property, during which the group picks vegetables from the garden for the class.
Loubet leads the class from a large kitchen island and guests can choose to sit back and watch the show, or take part in prep and cooking. During the workshop, the star chef shares the tricks of the trade learned in his decades in restaurant kitchens that can make life easier when cooking at home. “It’s very informal and people can ask as many questions as they want or just watch the demonstration,” he says. “We don’t want anyone to feel pressure, so it’s up to each person how much they get involved.”
The demonstration is then followed by a long lunch, where the group can enjoy the delicious three-course meal prepared during the class. “We run the school entirely on our own, so we offer a very personal experience,” says Catherine. “When our guests come to the school, they get an entire experience. It’s a bit like we are opening our home to them and each workshop really feels like we are entertaining friends. We have met incredible people.”