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Chef’s Corner: Alan Groom

For this edition of Chef’s Corner – a feature that spotlights members of Delaware North’s culinary team – we caught up with Alan Groom, executive chef at Australia’s El Questro Homestead and Wilderness Park.
Groom has been a part of the El Questro Wilderness Park and Homestead team for 12 years, including since 2009 with Delaware North at the location.
Words that describe you
I usually leave that to other people; I don’t think of adjectives for myself too much. But maybe what David olympus-digital-camera-2Letterman used to say, “The hardest working man in show business.” The job here is seasonal, so you go intensely day and night for almost eight months, but have four months off in the Australian summer – a perfect life really.
Words that describe your food
“Success is the sum of many small things done correctly.” I cook many styles of food to reflect our international guests, but it is the attention to perfecting the little things that adds an element that people can’t quite put their finger on. It is the same for every aspect of the Homestead: It is luxurious, but not in a gold-taps-and-marble-bathroom kind of way. It is luxurious because of the attention to detail and the personalized service provided.
Your favorite moment at Delaware North
Just after Delaware North bought El Quetsro and we opened for the first season, we had back to back weddings at The Homestead for 85 and 50 people. One was literally “my big fat Greek wedding” and they had ordered an absolute Greek feast. The kitchen at the time was usually cooking for only 12 guests, so a sit-down wedding for 85 was quite a jump up in numbers. The night was awesome, but it started to rain after the appetizers, and we had to move everyone into a much smaller bar area for the rest of the night. They still loved it and had a great night. Four days later was the second wedding, which was much smaller by comparison but still quite demanding due to the high profile of the guests. It was all so rewarding in the end though as the groom had hired a famous Australian band, Hunters and Collectors, to play after dinner, and we enjoyed the rest of the night watching them. They even played my favorite Neil Young song, “Helpless,” which is about a town in North Ontario, close to where I first lived when I immigrated to Canada.
The challenges of being a chef at El Questro Wilderness Park and Homestead
The Homestead is only nine rooms and has a set menu for lunch and dinner each day. Because of this, I need to put ego aside and think first of our guests. I can’t be experimental or try and be the star chef as I have to please the tastes of 18 people every day. Many may not appreciate being part of an experiment, especially if they are only here for two nights. This can be a challenge sometimes as you would like to go out on the edge like you would in a city restaurant, where people can choose what they are eating. I don’t mind so much, but the young chefs that work for me just want to be out there, trying new things and I have to hold them back.
The other challenge is being 4,000 kilometers (2,400 miles) away from our suppliers. All the food takes four days to get here by road train. If you forget something, it is not easy to just run out and grab it elsewhere. We do have local organic farms that supply some fantastic produce for about four months of our season. But even with them, you might get a note in the delivery box that says: “Sorry, no lettuce this week. Kangaroos ate it all.”
Your favorite food(s)
I love all fish, but the Coral Trout from northern Australia is a prized fish. We are very lucky being an Island country; we have incredible seafood all around us.
Your least favorite food(s)
Milk – milky drinks, milky desserts, too much milk in my coffee…it makes me nauseous! When I was a boy at school in England, they would force us to drink milk at lunch every day, and it was always warm. A school in those days would not have a refrigerator. They assumed England was cold enough, it would just stay chilled keeping it out. They were very wrong.
The hardest cooking lesson you ever received
I was chef of a French restaurant in Toronto and thought it was a good idea to buy 3,000 live snails from France. I left them in the cool room overnight and unfortunately one of the young chef’s got a bit curious and opened the box. When I got to work in the morning there were snails all over the kitchen, crawling up the walls, on the benches, on my phone. Thank goodness snails live up to their reputation as being really slow and we managed to catch most of them. They were delicious in the end and worth the mayhem. Never leave living things unattended.
Heroes (cooking or otherwise)
Fernand Point, the French chef who operated La Pyramid in Lyon. He has many published philosophies – one was, “A good apprentice cook must be as polite with the dishwasher as he is with the head chef,” which I fully believe in. Charlie Trotter said if he could only keep one cookbook, it would be Fernand’s “Ma Gastronomie.” I was fortunate enough to receive both an English version as well as a French copy, signed by Madame Point. Thomas Keller of the French Laundry believes he was one of the last true gourmands of the 20th century. Fernand was an extremely large man and is quoted as saying: “When I stop at a restaurant I don’t know, I always ask to shake hands with the cuisiner before the meal. I know if he is thin, I’ll probably eat poorly. And if he is both thin and sad, the only hope is flight.”