As a young fellow, Jamie McGahey’s dad used to take him for a drive out to Mulligans Flat, back in the days when Gundaroo Road wasn’t much more than a bush track.
They’d wander through the bush together, collect firewood and ended up rearing poddy lambs for a farmer out there.
“It was such a beautiful place back then,” he said.
Today, Jamie’s life has turned full circle. He’s back at Mulligans, enjoying the nature sanctuary’s beauty, right in the middle of Canberra’s newest suburbs. But now, as chef for its new cafe.
Opened recently, Wildbark Kitchen is the centrepiece of a new learning centre, designed to bring people together with nature. It’s on the edge of the Mulligans Flat wildlife sanctuary, the largest single box gum grassy-woodland area under conservation in the country, boasting 1300 hectares of predator-free bushland.
Although starting with a limited menu, Jamie has big plans.
“It’s early days now, but I really want to show how we can connect the beautiful environment with what we can cook for visitors and guests,” he said.
“That’s why I’m working hard to source as much food as possible locally.
“I want to ensure the food doesn’t come from outside a 300km radius of here. There are so many wonderful producers in this region, so I can’t wait to use what they’re producing. I’d go as far as Merimbula to get oysters, but it also makes sense to see what’s in season at the time, and use that in what you make.”
He has already lined up many of his potential producers, including eggs from Bungendore, meat from near Bredbo, mushrooms from Murrumbateman and honey from near Bungendore.
“My wife Kim works in the wine industry so she’s been a great help with sourcing local wine.
“We’ll also be using Three Mills bread which is amazing.”
Down the track, Jamie’s keen to smoke his own meat and fish for the restaurant, using his home-made spice rub. He also plans to open a retail outlet where visitors can buy what he makes to take home.
“I did a lot of market research before I took this on,” he said. “I wanted to bring a bit of Sydney cafe style here. I wanted to get away from deep fried food – I have a deep fryer here, but it doesn’t work,” he joked.
“I want to cook the best for people from local ingredients. I want to focus on lifestyle, on wellness – and show the definite connection to the land.
“I’m happy when I can make good food,” he said. “But it’s always been important to me to know where it comes from.”
Jamie’s first menu for the cafe ranges from a Wildbark Rueben, featuring pastrami, sauerkraut, tasty cheese, house pickles and radish salad to an antipasto board for two with cheeses, cured meats, marinated vegetables and olives. There’s also Goober’s pizza slice selection (Goober is the Wildbark mascot – a central bearded dragon and pizza aficionado).
Jamie said he started in the hospitality industry when he was just 13. His father worked as a police officer in Canberra and the family would often go into Civic to join their dad for dinner after his night shift.
“There was a cafe near Gus’s which had pizza and coffee. I was being a bit of a smart alec one night and Dad told me I’d have to pay for dinner. I didn’t have any money so I ended up doing the dishes. The owner gave me $50 and said I could come back and work for him. So I did.”
Jamie has since worked in a wide range of restaurants and food remains a passion. One of his most memorable jobs was overseeing the huge Canberra Centenary event where he catered for more than 5000 meals across a 4km-long table. “That menu, too,” he said, “was sourced from local suppliers. There are so many wonderful producers here, you’d be crazy not to.”
Wildbark at the Mulligans Flat sanctuary, 25 Rosenberg Street, Throsby is open 9 am to 2 pm daily. Check the website for Christmas hours.