Penfolds Magill Estate is scaling new heights thanks to Head Chefs Scott Huggins and Emma McCaskill, who left two of Asia’s best restaurants to take the reins of Adelaide’s most prestigious kitchen 18 months ago.
Gourmet Traveller recognised these heights, listing Magill Estate as the best Adelaide restaurant in its 2015 Restaurant Guide, coming in at number 10 in its list of the 100 best Australian restaurants. On top of this, McCaskill and Huggins were named Best New Talent by the national magazine.
The couple’s road to Magill Estate includes stints at Iggy’s in Singapore, Micolau Hotel and Restaurant in Spain and Sat Bains in Nottingham. Magill Estate marks the first time either Huggins or McCaskill have been in charge of a restaurant in careers that have seen the couple (who are engaged) work in an array of Michelin-starred premises.
McCaskill is an Adelaidean who ventured interstate when she was 18 to chef at places such as Sydney’s Tetsuya’s and Melbourne’s Ezard, while Huggins worked at the acclaimed Royal Mail in regional Victoria before they both travelled overseas to hone their craft.
Their international culinary adventures concluded in Japan, where Huggins was at Tokyo’s Ryugin (number 33 in S.Pellegrino’s World’s Best Restaurant list and number five in Asia) while McCaskill was also in Tokyo at Narisawa (number 14 in World’s Best 50 and number two in Asia).
Starting to feel claustrophobic in Japan, a return to Adelaide was a welcome move for McCaskill.
“Adelaide is an incredible city,” she says. “Everything is so accessible, from the beach to beautiful produce. We’re in the foothills, but five minutes later you’re in the Hills where you can go and pick cherries. That’s the one thing that blew me away when we came back here, realising what there was in comparison to a place like Japan.”
McCaskill says that the couple was ready to move back to Australia when Magill Estate called.
“We were planning on opening something up back in Australia but then this popped up and things rolled from there,” she says.
“It’s worked out perfectly,” says Huggins. “It’s obviously a good time for Adelaide, it’s really exciting. I’m not from Adelaide, so it is very hard to predict what it was to what it has become.”
From the outside it appeared to be a tough initiation for the couple when they landed at Magill Estate, an Adelaide institution since it opened in 1995 and one of the jewels of Penfolds’ crown. The restaurant had been closed for almost two years, due to remodeling, and some months before it was due to reopen, Executive Chef Jock Zonfrillo left. Huggins was later announced as Executive Chef, with McCaskill the Development Chef. Then, a little over a month later, five of the staff decided to follow Zonfrillo to Orana and McCaskill became co-Head Chef with Huggins.
“Our industry is really transient,” says McCaskill. “The nature of the beast is that people move around. Scott’s been to Singapore, Japan and Melbourne. I’ve been to Sydney, England and Japan – it’s just what happens, it’s just the nature of the industry. They’re [Orana] doing great things.”
“It just broadened Adelaide’s dining scene, which is fantastic for the city,” says Huggins. “We just moved on. You just keep working.
“The most important thing for us is to keep this restaurant at the standard it is,” he continues. “People are coming and going all the time at all restaurants. We just keep focusing on what we need to focus on.”
The couple moved here just as Adelaide’s dining scene reclaimed its groove with exciting fine-dining and mid-price eateries, new bar districts as well as the emergence of quality regional destinations. But after an extended layaway, Adelaide needed Magill Estate to return. And, given its pedigree, price tag and association with the Penfolds brand, it couldn’t just be good – it had to excel. Magill Estate should be the Grange of Adelaide’s restaurant scene.
Luckily, Magill Estate excels under Huggins and McCaskill. Their seven-course tasting menu, with matching wines from Penfolds, features stunningly uncomplicated dishes where the high quality seasonal ingredients star. The seemingly simple creations are influenced by their time in Japan.
“For me, the ethos on the seasons [in Japan] were down to weeks,” says McCaskill. “For example, a tomato would only be at its ripest for a period of three weeks then it’s off the menu. That’s kind of the approach we are trying to take here, as well as the general respect for food – the handling, the cleanliness.”
“What we both found in Japan, and we take this in our restaurant quite seriously, is to not try to over-complicate things, just to have the best technique for the right ingredient. Nothing else is really involved,” says Huggins.
“A lot of our food, if you look at it on the plate, there’s nothing for it to hide behind,” he continues. “There might be two ingredients on the plate and that’s it. But those two ingredients might have taken us five hours to get it to that stage. There are no bubbles or smoke for the ingredients to hide behind – there it is. The best ingredient treated the best way is the style we try to do.”
Some of their famed dishes include the Barossa Heritage Pork’s pork belly and Mayura Station Wagyu, which is matched with Penfolds Grange as part of the Tasting Menu with Icon & Luxury wine matching. The garnishes to these dishes evolve and change with Huggins saying it is “too early for them to have a signature dish”.
“I agree with that,” says McCaskill. “If anything, I think people do love the Wagyu and the Grange match. It is the only Wagyu – that cut – that you can get in Australia. It’s not a signature dish but...”
“It’s a signature ingredient,” continues Huggins, “that we will always have on the menu, but the garnish will change. The technique behind that is quite technical and the beef is of the highest quality, so that particular ingredient is on the menu and people come back for that particular ingredient.”
When it comes to produce, they try to source as local as possible (this includes their kitchen garden on the Magill Estate property) but occasionally they look outside of South Australia, for produce such as live Japanese tiger prawns and crabs.
“We get live crabs flown down from the Northern Territory,” says Huggins. “We have a fish tank at the back where we hold the crabs in. We catch them 20 minutes before service, cut the legs off and cook them individually. Every part is cooked at a different time and temperature.”
The reason they source live crabs and prawns is due to the sweetness, which starts to wane half-an-hour after the shellfish is killed.
“All the prawns at the moment are getting frozen at sea, so how could we get this prawn fresh on the plate? It took us about six months to find a farm that would send them down live,” says Huggins. “When we catch them, 20 minutes before you eat, you’ve got the optimal sweetness and crunch of a fresh prawn.”
When they moved here, a lot of their time was spent trying to find the best produce as well as ingredients that are off the beaten track from artisan farmers. The lamb they source is from a small family business, Laura Hills Lamb, who won two gold medals at last year’s Australia’s Best Lamb Competition. Magill Estate was the first restaurant to use their lamb.
“We had it on the menu for the first time on Saturday and the next step is getting the produce directly from the farmers. So the pork’s directly from a farmer, the lamb now is directly from a farmer, the venison and the Wagyu,” says Huggins. “We can talk to the farmer and know the food they’re giving the animals, we know the conditions, and we can go there and have a look.”
Scott Huggins and Emma McCaskill at Magill Estate
Something that makes Magill Estate differ from other elite restaurants is the fact they have to match the food to Penfolds wine. This could be seen as either a blessing or a curse, as the wine could be viewed as the star over the food, or the seemingly limiting factor of matching food to the wares of only one winery.
McCaskill says the Magill Estate experience will not work if the wine outshines the food or vice versa: “they have to complement each other”.
“We want people to sit there for two-and-a-half or three hours and enjoy a progression of phenomenal food with phenomenal wine on a tier that just keeps getting better,” says Huggins.
“That’s what we believe. It’s a dining experience, it’s not just a meal, it’s an experience to come and try amazing wine with amazing food. We do a non-alcoholic matching now, for people that don’t drink alcohol, just to heighten the experience of the different flavours.”
Huggins says he is frequently asked if it’s difficult to match their food with a solitary winery.
“I think Emma and myself are probably the luckiest chefs when it comes to diversity of wines in Australia, if not the world,” he says.
“There is no other restaurant that could match food with the quantity of different wines and vintages that we have. Okay, it’s all produced by Penfolds, but who could go into a cellar and pull out a 1961 or 62, 63, 64 or 65 – all the way up to 2010 – of the different wines they make? You look at a 707, you’re looking at 30 or 40 years of different vintages, they’re all different wines in a sense, they all taste different, they’ve all got different characteristics. We can find wine to match our food with such a great cellar that we have. I think we’re very lucky to have such a diverse back vintage cellar compared to any other restaurant.”
Soon after Huggins was announced as the Head Chef he said that one of his aims was to get Magill Estate into the World’s Best Restaurant list. Is this still a goal for the couple?
“We’re more focused on the restaurant and our customers,” answers McCaskill. “It is a lot of chefs’ ambitions for that to happen but it’s not our first ambition. Our first focus is on our customers, because they’re the people keeping this restaurant going, and our staff.”
“The most important thing for us is keeping our staff happy and trained, and the customers leaving wanting to come back,” says Huggins. “Everything else can follow.”
Then again, winning Gourmet Traveller’s Best New Talent award, with the added bonus of being a Top 10 Australian restaurant, must have been a satisfying achievement for the couple who had only been in the hot seat for a year when the accolades were announced.
Aside from this achievement, Huggins and McCaskill also welcomed a baby last year. Co- Head Chefs at an elite restaurant with a baby, sounds like a tough gig?
“It’s probably more beneficial than not, working together,” says McCaskill, “because we do bounce off each other a lot – sometimes too much. It is nice to bounce ideas off each other because you can start something, be stuck on it, and then Scott will come in with another idea and that’s what completes it. Or we could just fight about it and not do it,” she laughs.
“And then that gets put in a drawer, ‘We’ll have a look at that in six months’,” Huggins laughs. “It is hard but restaurants are hard. It is
hard to balance a family and a restaurant – 80 hours of work plus a young baby.”
“It’s like bang! How are you going to survive that?” laughs McCaskill.
“It’s the things we love – family and food – so it’s not a bad thing,” says Huggins.