Aaron Pearce, Head Chef at The Old Victoria, is passionate about providing a great dining experience at realistic prices using local produce wherever possible. Maitland born and bred, the Hunter Valley is in Aaron’s bones. After leaving school Aaron went on to complete his chef’s apprenticeship in two fine-dining Hunter Valley restaurants which set his career in motion.
During his apprenticeship Aaron worked under two head chefs that became not only his mentors but long-term friends. Under his first mentor, Jean Marc Pollet, he focussed on French-style cuisine. This gave him, among other things, “a solid grounding in the basic techniques.” Aaron says, “It’s the foundation for any good chef. You can’t cook without it”. Under his second mentor he continued to nurture his desire for perfecting a dish. “I really starting to grasp plating up techniques and working at the molecular level using the science of food. Like turning something into a puree and then back into another shape or texture.”
By his third year, Aaron was running a restaurant with complete control over every aspect of the kitchen. This expanded his understanding of what a restaurant was – “not only was it a place of fine-dining but it was also a business”. Aaron says that with complete control of a restaurant “I really came to understand how many hours it takes outside the kitchen doing things like ordering, doing rosters and even developing a menu. I learnt about running a business as well as running a kitchen, which led to an additional six months of study to gain my Certificate IV (Commercial Cookery).”
In all his work Aaron looks to establish a paddock to plate philosophy. One of Aaron’s mentors used to say, “Even if it’s just the garnishes, it’s a step in the right direction.”
“I took over the kitchen at The Old Victoria and we’ve been on a journey ever since” says Aaron. “The kitchen has evolved to suit my needs. My aim is to provide a dining experience in Maitland where the food matches any fine-dining experience you can get in the vineyards and it won’t cost an arm or a leg.”
Despite his relatively young age, Aaron is incredibly grounded in his approach to work. His philosophy is to provide guests with a great dining experience at a fair price with “as much of Maitland on a plate as you can get”.
Aaron is currently building up relationships with local growers so he can develop menus based on produce that is in the pipeline. He’d like to make the kitchen at The Old Victoria an iconic part of the Maitland dining scene. “It’s not only the building that I want people to see as iconic, I want the dining experience at The Old Victoria to be a ‘must do’ for locals and visitors alike.” Aaron thinks that while Maitland is full of places to eat – restaurants, pubs and cafes – there is still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to local chegs “using fresh, unprocessed, local, seasonal produce and making their meals from scratch”.
“I want to serve the type of unprocessed, warm, hearty, meals made from local produce that would have been served at The Old Victoria nearly two centuries ago when the place was first established”, says Aaron.
“I am on a journey and I want to take my customers on that journey. I am still discovering who is growing what produce around the area and one of the things that has helped me is the local Earth Market. I can meet local growers in The Levee and I can hit them all at once. People don’t understand the time and effort that goes into locating local producers, developing relationships, finding out what they are planting, making calls, and visiting them. With the Earth Market it’s like having all this on tap. They are all there and they have already been vetted by Slow Food Hunter Valley.”
Aaron is now creating seasonal menus that change with the what our local growers are producing. “It is so much fun to go to the Earth Market and build a list of items that are – or will be – available. I want to be able to say the majority of the food that goes into our menu comes from Maitland.”
For Aaron it is an ever evolving process. It takes time, commitment, hard work and a he tries to have some fun along the way (like riding around on Austin Breiner’s tractor). Eventually he would like to get to a point where he asks farmers to grow things for his menu.
He also says that his “team is really important. I can’t do the numbers (guests) without having an apprentice that I trust to plate every dish the way I want it. Getting an apprentice up to scratch also takes time but I have had two great apprentices in the time I have been at The Old Victoria. My current apprentice, Nathan, has the skills to plate the dishes and take on some of the workload“.
Seasonal menus, sourcing produce, developing relationships, training a team … it all takes time but Aaron is young, enthusiastic and energetic and there is no doubt that he will get there. He says “I am really proud of the work we are doing and I want to make my mark on Maitland. Getting to the end goal can take years and you have to make sure you don’t run out of puff along the way.”
Aaron says that regardless of what he wants to achieve, “at the end of the day it is all about the customer. We have great customers, a lot of repeat business and are seeing a younger clientele in the restaurant. I really want them to understand how wonderful the produce is in the local area is, and how lucky we are to be sitting on top of a food bowl.