You don’t have to dig too deep to uncover the rich, rustic and raw culinary influences in the life of acclaimed Adelaide chef Natalie Homan.
Homan, head chef at The Apothecary 1878, recounts memories of her robust Croatian grandmother Marija, whose sleeves-up attitude and culinary feats had a major impact on the young Homan.
“She would go out to Virginia (15 Kilometres north of Adelaide), go to a farm and choose the actual pig, then bring it back home and break it down in the garage that was spotlessly clean,” says Homan. “I remember standing on the edges and just watching all that blood and bone and being mesmerised. Once she’d finished we were allowed to help and I remember the first thing we would make was black pudding.”
Homan, 38, says it was her grandmother who first inspired her love of cooking.
“She was a housewife but just meticulous,” she says. “She would also make strudel every Sunday, cabbage rolls on Christmas and they always were the same and she was so conscious of that consistency.”
“In a day where everyone wants to experiment with food, there is something comforting about the sameness of it all. She would never change a recipe. It’s the passing down of those traditions that I love. “
Those traditions were further strengthened through Homan’s parents Branko and Ljerka Soda who ran a French restaurant in Adelaide’s inner-northern suburbs in the ‘80s called Chez Jeanine.
“With mum cooking is all about her expression of being nurturing and loving,” Homan explains. “Even when they had the restaurant, we always had a home-cooked meal on the table – there were four kids. I don’t know how she did it.”
After starting a science degree, Holman realised she was spending her spare time cooking and reading old cookbooks. She enrolled in the commercial cooking course at TAFE and got a part-time job as a waitress at the Blue Banana lounge in Prospect where she met now-husband, Brendan, who was chef. Homan says she came into cheffing “late in the game” at 24.
The couple travelled around the country and ended up in Healesville, Victoria where Homan scored her first job as a chef. It was here she learnt about seasonality and freshness. Back in Adelaide she went on to work at reputable restaurants including Citrus, Botanic and Auge before literally stumbling up on The Apothecary.
“I’d heard about this new wine bar and I remember walking in and it was one of those ‘wow’ moments and I turned to Brendan and said, ‘I really want to work here’,” she says.
That was 10 years ago and Homan has been head chef since then, with Brendan joining her there seven years ago.
The interiors of the Apothecary provide that instant wow factor – before you’ve even sampled one of the 500 wines on offer or tasted the modern European cuisine. Towering, mahogany pharmacy cabinets, originally from London, found unloved in a local antique shop, have been restored and line the walls of the ground floor level. Thonet chairs, solid marble tables, chaise lounges and warm velvets and chandeliers complete the European bar experience. There are three dining areas, including the downstairs cellar, which has been transformed into a cosy dining hideaway.
“When I started it was predominantly a wine bar, doing a few bar plates and my brief was to develop the menu,” says Homan. “It was a slow evolution which was perfect for me. I was really inspired by the whole aspect of sharing food which was quite a new concept then and I remember being really excited about replicating the style of food that I grew up with.
The elegant bar and restaurant is owned by South Australian cafe king Roberto Cardone, of Cibo coffee fame, George Kambitsis and Paola Coro, who crafts the award-winning wine list and works closely with Homan to marry the food and wine experience. And this is where The Apothecary differs from other restaurants – the food is matched to the wine, not the other way around.
“The focus here is the wine and it always has been and I was conscious of my food being complimentary to the wine,” Homan explains. “I’m conscious of people coming here and not having their experience overshadowed by the food. I think the fact that the food is what I call modern European lends itself perfectly to being complimented by the wine.”
Paola Coro says what stands out the most about working with Homan is her calm and composed temperament.
“Unlike other chefs that I've worked with, you won't hear any profanities in this kitchen,” she says. “Natalie and I have great conversations about our similar food and wine philosophy. We both come from European backgrounds and shared dining is commonplace at our family tables. We endeavour to bring this style into the restaurant.”
Homan says the food and wine at The Apothecary 1878 work together in “perfect synergy”, where diners are encouraged to explore and travel through the classical French and Italian-inspired menu rather than following the traditional format of entree, main and dessert. There is a selection of banquets that range in price from $38 to $58 per person. While the wine list is French and Italians-inspired, it is showcased through Australian boutique labels.
“We like to encourage people to go on the shared plate journey so they can experience a range of the menu, such as local flathead wrapped in vine leaves with a lovely fresh zucchini flower and fregola salad,” she explains.
“As a recent special we did a Cape Grim Chateaubriand with all the trimmings like little Yorkshire puddings and celeriac puree and roasted baby veg. The food is not overpowering in any spices.
“We also did a Billecart dinner and they showcased six champagnes and I was asked to do a degustation complimenting each of the champagnes. So I did an SA king prawn and saffron terrine and quail filled with sweetbread and mushroom duxelle, wrapped in lardo.
“Brendan and I create the menu together and it’s flavour driven but aesthetically we take pride in making things look elegant and beautiful.”
And it is easy to see why being a female in a mostly male-dominated industry has never bothered the down-to-earth, humble Homan: “I’ve often been the only female in the kitchen, but I don’t think I gave it a second thought. It comes down to do you want to be a good chef or not?” she says.
Homan admits the best part of her day is when she tries something new, be it an ingredient or a technique that is a success, while the most stressful part is ensuring she’s planned well ahead.
“Beyond just on a daily basis but having the big picture, that’s taken time to understand,” she says. “Whereas in the early days service was stressful and it still always is, it’s with experience that you learn to enjoy the controlled chaos.
Accepting negative feedback is another challenge for the talented chef, who says she is still learning not to take it to heart.
“Unfortunately it’s all too easy to forget that there’s a customer at the end of the process, and so if there is a disgruntled customer, I have learnt to take it on board and if it’s constructive, it’s fine,” she says. “I’ve learnt to look at each dish and really, at the end of the day, just think about is it delicious, is someone going to enjoy it? That’s the attitude you need.”
The Apothecary sits snuggly alongside some of the less salubrious establishments of Hindley Street in Adelaide’s West End, including adult shops, convenience stores and dull government offices. Little wonder many of the passing traffic see the sophisticated, inviting interiors and feel they’ve discovered a hidden gem.
“We have a lot of people just walking in off the street and say it’s like a haven, like a little discovery,” says Homan.
Having not only survived but thrived in the past 10 years (Homan says business is “amazing”) The Apothecary has quietly forged a path when it comes to Adelaide’s vibrant and emerging small-bar scene in the city.
“I’ve seen that emerge in the last 18 months thanks to the licensing changes, which makes it more accessible for people who have a passion for fine wines,” Homan says. “If anything it is just bringing more people into the city. We’re very supportive of the small-bar movement in Adelaide and in particular the additional interest that it has sparked in the West End precinct.”
While quietly spoken and not looking for praise, Homan is secure in the reputation she’s established in Adelaide’s competitive food scene. However, she does admit to having a “fear of desserts and pastries”, so last year she completed a short course in bread making and pastries. She says she enjoys the constant learning and challenge of the profession.
As for the future, Homan says she’d love to travel to Croatia and explore “the cuisine that I love to cook” and she doesn’t discount the possibility of starting a new venture with Brendan.
For now thought The Apothecary 1878 remains the centre of her culinary creativity. The restaurant and bar expanded its trading hours from five to seven days a week a year ago, a move that has exceeded expectations according to Homan, and she believes the key to keeping the winers and diners coming is consistency of quality.
“So, even though we change the menu seasonally, I hope we’re at a stage where people know what they get when they come here in terms of the quality of the food. I like to think by now I have a consistency and style to my food,” she says.
Reliability, sameness and consistency of quality – a recipe for success direct from Grandma Marija.
First published in Restaurant & Catering magazine, June 2014.